Far from the temples, four Singaporeans touch the lives of Cambodians and others in Siem Reap. Through their work they demonstrate to others the diversity and benevolence of Singaporeans, and offer those at home much to think about.
“My events are like that. You show up, you better be prepared to carry shit.” This warm Singaporean welcome greeted me on my first day in Siem Reap, Cambodia. My trip coincided with the 18th edition of the annual Angkor Photo Festival, a 10-day event that combines photography workshops and public exhibitions. Since 2018, it has been helmed by 39-year-old Jessica Lim, an old friend whose lady boss incarnation I was just getting to know.
She had just gathered a random assortment of six men to move a thick wooden table. Two days later, I would be part of a different group of 12 men tasked to shift a 20-by-20-ft white screen that had been built on metal pipes. Jessica shepherded us. “How, my eye power not bad ah?” she said, once we were done, drawing laughs from non-Singaporeans being schooled in Singlish. And, perhaps feeling an immediate pang of guilt, “Guys, one beer each on me!”
The Festival was in the Chocolate Gardens, a park cum events space. At its centre is a café that does a yummy flat white and stocks both light and black Hanuman beer. Along its edges are traditional Khmer wooden houses, whose modernised interiors are used for a library, office and work spaces. Dwarfing these brown cubes are the towering trees reminiscent of the fabled Cambodian countryside.
Middle-class locals frequent the Chocolate Gardens—in a district some call Siem Reap’s Tiong Bahru—especially for its weekend market. But during the Festival this space throbs with the energy of a multicultural mash: the 15 workshop participants are from Cambodia, India, Myanmar, Nepal, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam; Jessica’s co-curator is a Bangladeshi; and a guest curator is Indonesian.
For many years Asian photojournalists have been telling some of the region’s most urgent, critical stories. The themes that emerged during the Festival—including on gender, sexual orientation and identity; deforestation and other ills of development; autocracies, borders and conflict, including the coup in Myanmar—offered a potent base for a melange of conversations and ideas, with local struggles finding resonance across cultures and time. Whenever I stepped into the Chocolate Gardens it felt like I was being transported to some mythical Asian commune of art, journalism, activism and passion, like a Bandung Conference for artists. How and why has this Festival emerged in Siem Reap?
In 2011, on my first and only other trip to Siem Reap, I played the robotic tourist. We stayed for a few nights. We bought temple passes. We found cute, hidden spots for photos, our perceptions still uncoloured by the gravitational forces on Instagram. We visited a floating village. We tried Cambodian food and then compared it to Thai. We had a massage. We flew home.
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