Vong Socheata, 33, is a development professional from Banteay Meanchey. She is also one of the loudest voices for youth activism and political engagement in Cambodia. Socheata sat down with Harriet Fitch Little to share her favourite things in the capital – and a bit further afield.
It’s a long way from Phnom Penh, but I strongly recommend the Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary. It’s near a floating village in Battambang. You can also get there from Siem Reap, but you need to take three boats – a big one, a medium one and then a wooden one with no motor so as not to scare the birds. The sanctuary is in a swamp, so it’s best to go in November and December. In the rainy season it’s flooded, and in the dry season there’s nothing to see. I like nature in general, but particularly this place because it’s just so quiet. I’ve only seen foreigners there, not Cambodians. I think Cambodian people don’t like to travel for a long time, deep into nature – they like to stay where they can bring their vehicles because they have families with them.
There aren’t any new bands I like, only old ones. My favourite is Drakkar – a band from the 1960s and 1970s. If you watch the documentary Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten, which is about the history of old music in Cambodia, you’ll see them. They call the type of music they play “Cambodian hard rock”. I think it would be called psychedelic rock in English. It’s a very difficult type of music to play, and I haven’t heard it from any other bands. When you listen to a piece, you need to really concentrate because the music is very deep and melancholic, but you kind of enjoy the sadness while you’re listening to it. That’s what I like about it. Pop singers today, you feel no attachment – it’s like karaoke what they do. Drakkar have reunited and performed at Chaktomuk Theatre a couple of times over the last year, and they’ve got a show in New York in April. The singer in the band, Touch Seang Tana, survived the Khmer Rouge by singing songs by Santana for the regime. Now he’s a scientist. All the members of the band who survived have all got jobs and wives – they’ve grown up now.
The only artist I like is again from the 1960s and 1970s, but sadly he’s no longer alive. His name was Nhek Dim, and he was one of the very first people to make paintings of the Cambodian countryside. Now I see a lot of paintings that are similar, with palm trees, rice fields and moons, but I don’t see any unique ones like his. He also used to paint the stars of the time. He painted a picture of the “golden voices” Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Serey Sothea together, because they were the best male and female singers at the time. He did many other paintings but, like everything, they got lost during the Khmer Rouge.
There aren’t many places that I like to go to hang out in Phnom Penh – I’d rather just read at home. But I do like going over the river to the Mekong View Restaurant. It’s a tower block that has 17 floors’ worth of condos, but on the roof there’s a big terrace. On one side you can see the Mekong River, and on the other you can see the city. In the evenings, there is fresh air and you’re far away from town. They have an orchestra band playing inside. The food isn’t the best and it’s not fancy like the Phnom Penh Tower, but I like the view.
I really like reading the blogs [sopheapfocus.com] of Chak Sopheap. She’s only 30 – the youngest female director of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights. She went to the US last year and President Obama mentioned her specifically by name in a speech, along with Chut Wutty, the forest environmentalist who was shot. Sopheap is very active as part of the younger generation of Cambodian people, because she blogs in English about human rights violations in Cambodia. I actually prefer writing in Khmer – whenever I see good articles written in English, I want them to be translated into Khmer, but so far English remains the foundation here.