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Phnom Penh’s taste-makers on next year’s biggest trends

Rap stars, fusion food, Khmer Wikipedians and the attention of New York, all in store for 2013 according to 11 established and rising stars in arts, food, music and media. By Stephanie Ip, Soo jin Kim, Poppy McPherson, Rosa Ellen




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VUTH LYNO, photographer

Next year will be a big one for artist and Sa Sa Arts Project director Vuth Lyno, 30. He is one of ten artists representing Cambodia at the large-scale Season of Cambodia art exhibition in New York and will also start a Fullbright Scholarship in art history, in the US.

What are the biggest events to look forward to?

Season of Cambodia: A living arts festival in New York is one of the biggest programs to look forward to. I’ll be one of the ten artists going. It’s a residency – there will also be some public exhibitions but the program largely ties around the stay for two months, which involves learning in the residency. That’s quite exciting because what is different is that visiting artists don’t just show their work and come back but stay there, live there and learn new things, meet new people.

I really hope it will have a significant effect (on Cambodia). If you look at other experiences, cases of artists who have been doing residencies abroad, they come back and really strengthen their practices.

People to look out for in 2013?

I have been working with some young artists including those in between the emerging and the internationally recognised. I think they’ll continue to make work and that’s exciting.

I see that many young photographers are emerging every year, especially through the Phnom Penh Photo Festival. The festival contributes to a new generation and next year it will continue to foster new photographers.

What trends might emerge next year?

When I worked with artists for the Cambodian Youth Arts Festival there was a lot of exploring of Cambodian issues. For example, Neak Sophal went back to her village and photographed housewives and it was very engaging – but the issue is still Cambodian, while questioning the gender role.

There is a focus on their own community.

We’ve also seen throughout the last year and this year more video works and sound art. I hope these continue to grow  there are currently artists expanding their practice to include this. Collaboration has been one part of (the reason): to make the artists engage. It’s also up to the artists to make sure the medium is suitable to adapt to video or sound art.

What excites you about the coming year?

Sa Sa Arts Project are starting a new  residency project in the iconic White Building. Most artists will be Cambodian as well as one or two international artists. They’ll stay in the White Building for six weeks and the idea is to offer another channel for them to learn and advance their practice and their experimentation – to take risks. There will be no exhibition at the end. It’s solely focusing on learning –  so they can go completely mad!


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A recent graphic design graduate from Phnom Penh’s Royal University of Fine Arts, talented 23-year-old Neak Sophal is forging her own career in photography, with images exploring gender and Cambodian society. The Takeo native, whose work around women from her home village shone in the biannual Cambodian Youth Arts Festival this year, is throwing herself into photography  courses while also working in the graphic design industry. This year she is turning her attention back to her home village and the issues affecting teenagers.


What excites you about the coming year?

It’s my first solo exhibition in January (at Java Café). It’s kind of art photography – I’ve been taking photos of the backs of people who have been moved from where they live. The government sometimes doesn’t allow people  to live on the street and one day I just saw them all, walking along the road. They don’t have houses or anywhere to live and I photograph the backs of them because they’re afraid to show their identity. I choose to capture them because they’re a part of society. For me, in my artwork, I focus on problems in society – as well as women. Growing up in my village, I saw a lot of inequality between men and women.

Next year I’ll be looking at new projects. I’m very interested in teenagers in the countryside. In my village teenagers don’t care about society or about their country. They stop studying, they fight and they dye their hair crazy colours – but they don’t go to school. In my village for instance, there’s 10 teenagers and only two continued studying – it’s bad. So I hope to keep photographing my own village.



KEO KOUNILA, blogger

Blogger Kounila is young enough to be a rising star – if not for the fact she has already risen. As well as writing regularly for her blog Blue Lady and other publications, the intelligent 24-year-old has her finger in many media pies, with projects ranging from Khmer film, to Wikipedia and gender rights.

What excites you about the coming year?

The second Cambodian Film Camp. My friends are going to organise a film camp in March this year. The idea was born when two or three of our members of Kon Khmer Koun Khmer (a film group which Kounila is a member of) attended a similar film camp in Laos. This year the theme will be about women. We will have a contest and we have sponsorship and we’ll invite speakers – good speakers like renowned actress Dy Saveth. We’ll also invite film stars and it’s a free event.

What trends might emerge next year?

Some young people still view personal blogs as a sensitive thing to do – this will change. I’m seeing  a trend in young people who are using blogs as an online diary. Very few choose to write about politics though, some blog about society – but more often, it’s about their lives.

I think themes on women will be more prominent in different events. Film Camp and Khmer Talks (based on Ted Talks but in Khmer) will invite women to talk about their roles, their work and achievements.

What are the biggest events to look forward to in blogging?

Cambodia Blog Festival 2013 will hopefully be in Phnom Penh, in collaboration with a university. We want to make it more exciting for young Cambodians. Some young Khmer said they couldn’t understand so much this year because it was quite sophisticated… but it was still good exposure and we thought it was awesome. This year we’re not going to have as many topics as before and cover: self publishing online, using social media for public outreach for profit an non-profit and key media – we want to engage people.

In 2013, what will be the most important issue in the world of blogging?

Khmer Wikipedians (those who contribute to Wikipedia). Khmer language Wikipedia has about 3,407 articles – I hope there will be a lot more online content. I have two categories that I contribute to: Khmer scholars and Places in Cambodia. We have to identify the most important things to focus on. The first thing I want Khmer Wikipedians to write about is Cambodian scholars. I was really upset when I couldn’t find anything about Keng Vannsak (inventor of the Khmer typewriter keyboard), so I started writing for them myself.

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With a radiant smile and a prolific amount of Khmer online content to his name, rising blogger Suon Sopheaktra makes the scale of his mission look easy. The 23-year-old is a committed Wikipedian, submitting Cambodia-related articles, but equally devoted to the preservation of the printed word. In 2013 he hopes to digitise another 10 pre-Khmer Rouge Khmer-language novels, to add to the 10 he collected this year, available as e-books for free on his blog.

What do you plan for 2013?

In 2013 I’m going to still keep doing what I’ve been doing on my blog for the last two years – re-writing books. My blog is in Khmer and mainly focuses on tourism and culture and history. If I go to historical sites, I take photos and post them on my articles. I also document old French colonial buildings.

What trends might emerge next year?

I think there’s a trend in people blogging, but they’re less committed. I’ve seen people start and stop. I myself only get about 100 daily page views and I hope that will increase.

What excites you about the coming year?

My main point of interest in the internet is our history - books from before the civil war. I get them through book shops – they are scanned and I take them and re-type - but it takes time.



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Anyone who has taken an interest in Khmer cuisine is no stranger to Chef Luu Meng, Cambodia’s most famous international chef. Not only does he own several different chain restaurants around Phnom Penh, including the award-winning Malis, but he places an emphasis on local cooking by using fresh local Cambodian products in his cooking.

The year has been an important one for the culinary scene in Phnom Penh, he said. His favorite event this year was the gala dinner to launch a book he co-authored with Clive Graham-Ranger, titled, Cambodia’s Top Tables. The book celebrated the culinary efforts of Cambodia and featured 52 recipes by some of Cambodia’s top chefs. The gala itself was a culinary affair with top chefs from InterContinental Hotel, Raffles Hotel le Royal, Sokha Beach Resort, Hotel Cambodiana, Topaz, and Almond Hotel, creating a course each for a feast.

“We need more events like the dinner gala. Professional chefs need to come together to share ideas and create events to help young up-and-coming chefs continue their [culinary] pursuit. Local chefs have good cooking skills, but they don’t have overall management skills,” he said, adding that chefs needed to come together and mentor younger chefs in managing time, manpower, discipline, and kitchen hygiene, to mold them to become master chefs.

As for his next move, Luu Meng has been experimenting with local food. “It’s exciting when our customers step up [in their culinary curiosity] and look for new flavours, new dishes, and new recipes, for new excitement,” he said.

“Last month, we did specials on Cambodian spinach, creating new flavors and new dishes,” he said. He and his team created four to five dishes, like a starter created with Cambodian spinach infused with scallops, ginger, and pepper, and a young bamboo shoot soup with Cambodian spinach and fish. “We created different recipes and new dishes based on just the

Cambodian spinach,” he said, “[the mission] pushed us to find new creative ways.”

Now, Meng is experimenting with Cambodian tamarind. “We try to use every part of the tamarind, from the fruit, to the tree, the leaves, and even the seeds,” he said. He has used tamarind in into five different dishes, from starters to desserts.

But his biggest new idea? Food that can heal the mind and body.

“We have a lot of local herbs here, and herbs from China, Japan, and even France,” he said. “We [need to become] detail-oriented to see how these herbs can help our bodies.”

“Food is at the same time, partly medical as it helps relax [us],” he said. He gave an example of “A soup [that is] delicious, but can also help heal your cold.” Next year, it’s not just about the quality of the food and its effects on our taste buds anymore – it’s about using food to pleasure and bring balance to the mind, the body, and the soul.

When asked to nominate an up-and-coming chef to watch out for in 2013, he named three chefs: Chef Sopheak, the head chef in Topaz; Chef Vanthuon, the pastry chef in Topaz; and Chef Van Sarean, the sous chef in Raffles.

“These three chefs have different styles and characteristics of cooking,” he said. “I saw these chefs and their potential [this year] … I’m confident in all three of them, and cannot choose one out of the other two.”


VAN SAREAN, Executive Sous Chef at Raffles Hotel le Royal

As a philosophy student at Phnom Penh Univeristy, Sarean was not initially interested in cooking, much less being a chef.

But then he started to work at the Cambodiana Hotel’s kitchens – while he studied philosophy during the day, he studied cooking at night. Since then, it has been a whirlwind ride of culinary endeavors for Van Sarean, who now has more than 20 years of culinary experience under his belt. So far, he has trained in Cambodia, Singapore, Vietnam, and Thailand. Next year, he will work as an ambassador for Khmer food at Swiss Hotel, a 5-star luxury hotel located in Singapore. As the Executive Sous Chef, he ranks no. 2 in the kitchen, just underneath Executive Chef Steve Van Remoortel. Van Sarean describes his cooking as being “French-Vietnam-Thai-inspired.”

How would you describe the cuisine trend in 2012?

There has been a rise in demand for French and Khmer cuisine fusion. We created French cuisine using local Cambodian products, creating a mix between the two. But guests at Raffles also love Asian food, particularly Khmer food. Our baked sea bass with salt crust and Khmer beef salad starter was very popular this year.

What do you predict will get popular next year?

Next year, we will see a rise in Khmer cuisine. When people travel to Cambodia, they want to see what’s new, they want to see Khmer food, and the way the flavors mix together. I think our Mekong lobster curry will be very popular next year. This is because guests are interested in local seafood from the river, and the lobsters from the river here are sweet.



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SOM VANNITA, Architect

Som Vannita is a fulltime  lecturer  at the department of built environment and architecture at Limkokwing University of Creative Technology in Phnom Penh. In response to the city’s congestion problems, she and designer Lorenzo Martini designed bus shelters for the 2012 Our City festival.

What are the biggest events to look forward to in architecture next year?

In Phnom Penh it will be the Vattanak high-rise. We’re looking forward to that, it came up pretty good. The shape is interesting and I will expect the functions to be very organized, high-tech and modern. As well as what is going to go on inside there – we can only see the exterior at the moment.

What trends might emerge next year?

Skyscrapers. Phnom Penh is getting bigger but people still want the sense of living centrally. As Vattanak demonstrates, they’re trying to build the skyscraper right in town. I think investors and developers will continue looking for skyscrapers to build – high-tech, modern ones.

For architects, (the 2015 Asean  economic community) will mean we need to sign up as Asean architects – for those who sign up, you need to have certain experience. If you get the title, you can go anywhere and work in the region. The question is, how should we prepare for that?

What events concern you?

The (rumours of the demolition of) Van Mollyvan’s Olympic Stadium would be very sad if they came about. Not only architecturally, but for all Cambodians. Our stadium is incredible – the whole design. I really can’t imagine it if it was demolished, it’s really meaningful to all Cambodians.

Recently there’s been some potential (repair) work going on – maybe they’ll start fixing the floor. We will protect our stadium. I don’t think that there is any other project comparable.

In 2013, what will be the most important issue in the world of architecture and planning?

I’m interested in infrastructure. My concern is where people build in Phnom Penh. People will build a lot of offices and sky rise. How will people travel around the city? The roads have been the same since the 1960s but the transportation – cars, motos – are increasing every year. I don’t know how Phnom Penh can deal with that. Public transport would really work, but how would we make it work?


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CHHAY BORA, filmmaker

Director of the Best Foreign Language Oscar-listed Lost Loves, Chhay Bora has a lot on his plate this year with the production of his second feature and a round of film festivals to attend, including Cambodia’s newest short film festival.

What excites you about the coming year?

We’ll finish my new film, called3.5, in March and before that we’ll do the editing in Singapore. In January, I’m going to participate in the Palm Springs International Film Festival in California, with Lost Loves.

In 2013 I’m also going to finish the new script for My Dear Son, my third feature. I’ve been talking to my partner and they like the script.

In 2013, what will be the most important issue for Cambodian film?

I can see a few films being successful, but they also face some problems. The value-added tax (that Cabodian filmmakers pay) is too much. We just finished a workshop at the Ministry of Culture and some filmmakers said it was too much.  While the film industry is still small, we’re paying a government tax. Filmmakers also want the government to set up a foundation… which they could collect a tax for - this is the proposal during the workshop to Ministry. We have to wait until it goes for approval. I hope it will happen next year.

What trends might emerge next year?

Cambodia has to look at the Asian market…I work with Singapore. We can screen these films in Singapore, we can screen in Cambodia and this can help with film investment. We can also script the films outside Cambodia (but make them here.)
Another trend is audience demographics. The market (filmmakers) look at is aged 15-25 years – they like to watch horror and comedy without any message to it. I told a workshop recently that we have to look a bit further by teaching the young through drama. Lost Loves screened at Cineplex for 42 days. The audience was aged 18-80: this is a real trend and filmmakers have to think about that.

What are the biggest events to look forward to?

Next year there will be a Cambodian short film festival and I’ll be the lead judge, it’s for young filmmakers. I think short film festivals are better than big feature festivals. This year they have $500 prizes per film and they are attracting other investors.

I hope the Ministry of Culture and Cambodian Film Commission will organise another international film festival.



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Next year the hip-hop scene will be talking about “real sh*t”, says Khmerican producer and DJ B-Boy Peanut.

 “The hip-hop scene is more of an expat type of thing here, locals are not big fans. They are more into K-pop,” said music producer and DJ B-Boy Peanut. “The scene is still underground.”

“We are doing things differently, now sampling Cambodian tracks from the 60s and 70s to create hip hop fusion,” Peanut said. “We can easily become mainstream, we just haven’t put ourselves out there yet.”

Peanut hopes that the hip-hop scene will reach out to a bigger crowd using a blend of old Cambodian songs and strong hip-hop beats, as well as addressing issues that are at the heart of society.

A range of international DJs is lined up to bring life to the hip-hop scene. Diplo and MC Akil from Jurassic 5 are set to grace Phnom Penh with their presence. Bboy will tour Australia, and bring Cambodian hip-hop to audiences overseas.

Peanut thinks MC Dolla Billz’s upcoming album will be promising. With its Khmer rap about local issues, he hopes that the album will appeal to Cambodian audiences.


Born in a refugee camp in Thailand to Cambodian parents and raised in America, Sokha Chhim, or more widely known as MC Dolla Billz, immersed himself into a culture of hip-hop, drugs and gangs before a prison sentence found him deported back to Cambodia, a “home” that he had never set foot on. Frustration with immigration policies and social issues drove him to take to the microphone, and with his album coming out next year, this up-and-coming hip hop artist has big hopes not only for himself, but for the voices of other Cambodian people to be heard.  

On his inspiration
“I didn’t get into music until I was in prison. I wrote songs about my mom who passed away. Writing was an inspiration. Whatever was going through my head, I just put it on paper.

“Hip-hop is based on expression, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you came from, you have the right to say what you want to say, whether people like it or not. Sometimes you want to touch on certain topics that you don’t really talk to your family or friends about, but you put out there so other people could listen.”

On his music
“Right now I’ve just been writing. I’m trying to stick to what I’m good at. I’ve been writing lyrics, incorporating more Khmer rap and people, and touching topics that people will understand. I want to make my album the best album I could possibly make.

“There is going to be a lot more stories, my life, and other Cambodian artists’ lives too. I want to shine a light on other people’s lives, talk about break dancing, stereotyping, and problems with the immigration process.



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KOSAL KHIEV, performer

At the beginning of this year spoken word artist Kosal Khiev, who served 16 years in jail in the US for attempted murder and was deported to Cambodia in 2011, quit his job as a film projectionist and decided to pursue the creative arts full-time. In June he flew to London to represent Cambodia in Poetry Parnassus, a cultural offshoot of the London Olympics, but was detained by immigration officials moments after landing at Heathrow Airport. Next year, he says, will hold more collaboration between spoken word poets and musicians, and local people.

How important has 2012 been to you?

It’s been a massive year right from the very beginning when I quit my job. I came across a fork road you know: either continue or pursue spoken word creativity. One offers stability and the other offers the unknown.

Was it an easy decision?

No I don’t think so. I thought when making the decision I was going to affect not just me but the people who care for me. It was rough though, the first two months I had no place to stay. I would crash at my friends’: couches, floors. Sometimes I would just ride my bike until the break of daylight. At one point in time I was thinking about going back to the job, it was still open. But then I got a call from Studio Revolt. They showed me an email: it was a letter invitation from London and then that’s when things bloomed.

Did you have any idea you would get detained in London?

I had no idea that would happen. I was invited. The irony of it all. They detained me in the same detention centre that I was supposed to do a workshop in. I was more disappointed than sad. I was told that the truth didn’t matter. You had the power: truth or justice or anything that mattered has no place. I still haven’t really spoken or written about that but I will. Next year I’m going to focus on our human rights and liberties – here and all over the world.

So far, spoken word hasn’t really grown anywhere outside Phnom Penh. Do you think that will change?

Definitely. Coming up next year is Rise up 2: a concert series being thrown by Klap Ya Handz. They’re going to go with local artists and international artists to all the provinces to bring out music there. I will be on the tour with the spoken word aspect. Maybe do a couple of songs with the guys to collaborate. We want to expose to a kid out in the provinces who have never seen or heard that his people can do this. For them to see someone of their own kind ethnicity-wise do something like that will spark imagination. They’re already doing it at the Doors: mini concert series with local bands and artists.

You’ve done several collaborations with bands this year. Do you think those kinds of collaborations are something you’ll do more of in the future?

I think there’s always been a missing element in my spoken word: it’s sound. Some pieces I would love to have sound with it. Hopefully I can bridge the artists in Phnom Penh because I have this idea of an urban opera, in Phnom Penh. Something that everyday people can do, mixing in with spoken word poetry, music, dance, painting. I’ve been pitching it to people, planting the seed.

What kinds of problems do you think the spoken word scene has to overcome here?

As far as spoken word is concerned here, everyone is so conscious of each other, the community is so small - a lot of people feel they wanna hold their privacy to themselves. I wanna hold creative writing workshops to help people let it go. There’s all types of events going on but I would love to see people sharing more of themselves, engaging more with each other. I know there’s poets here.



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