The never-ending adventures of a travel writer in Vietnam, Cambodia, New Zealand and throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Google, Facebook and Vietnam’s War on Free Speech: The Latest Today

As previously reported, Vietnam has announced a new draft decree aimed to force foreign internet companies (particularly Google and Facebook, according to government officials) to open local offices in Vietnam, pay state tax, censor user content and provide private user information to the government. The decree will be voted on in June.

Yesterday I spoke to a rep from Google’s Singapore office who wished to alleviate growing concerns over the decree. She said that Google reps had indeed flown to Vietnam a year ago to discuss issues of concern. However, she said that Google only just learned about the new Decree two weeks ago (along with the rest of us), so obviously the Decree was not a point of discussion at their previous meeting. Thus, she said, statements in Vietnam state media about Google agreeing to the demands in the decree were merely speculations of local Vietnamese company owners, and were unfounded.

The Google rep went on to say that Google’s impression is that the Vietnam government has not reached a consensus on the issues outlined in the decree (as described by the Vietnamese media), and that these details are still under discussion within the government. At this time, she told me, Google is taking a ‘wait and see’ approach. She assured me that whatever Google might do in the future—it would do so with complete transparency to the public.

So where does this leave us? 

In the meantime, events of the last week have continued to devolve.

On April 12, in the National Assembly Standing Committee Meeting, officials resolved to tighten restriction on unlicensed print publishing, stating that “Many cases of illegal printing have had a negative impact on the country's political and social development.”

On April 18, Hanoi placed new restrictions on event organizers and stage performers, clamping down on all unlicensed performances and departures from government-approved scripts. Already the law requires prior government approval of all schedules, speeches, song lists and lyrics, etc. for public events.

In addition to this the Vietnam government continues to arrest bloggers and journalists. On Monday, the Vietnam government charged three bloggers; Nguyen Van Hai, Phan Thanh Hai and Ta Phong Tan with “propaganda against the state,” a charge that caries up to 20 years in prison. The bloggers belong to the “Free Journalists Club,” a rare, independent media organization outlawed by the government. Nguyen Hoang Hai (also known as Dieu Cay), is also a member of the group and has been in prison since 2008. His precise location and condition is currently unknown. The imprisoned journalists are just the latest of dozens of cases where bloggers have been sent to prison and re-education camps, some without even a mock trial.

So what will happen in June?

The Ministry of Information’s new ‘Anti-Google & Facebook Decree” will be passed into law in June. The Vietnam government has nothing to lose by passing the law. Once signed, then it will be left to the Ministry of Information to figure out the implementation later.

The Facebook ban will become official. The government began blocking Facebook in late 2009 after issuing a secret memo to ISPs, which was leaked to the public just prior to its implementation. However, there was never an ‘official,’ public Facebook ban. Now there will be, and if the government possesses a more effective mechanism to block Facebook, it will use it.

Vietnam will not block Google Search. Both the government and commercial interests depend on Google Search as much as the rest of us. They won’t go this far, yet.

Vietnam will block secondary Google services. As much as some of us may like YouTube, Google+, Blogger or other Google services, these are neither important to the function of the government, nor to the Vietnam economy. Some or all of these services will be blocked, particularly due to content hosted which is objectionable to the communist government. This will not be the first time either. The government has blocked Google News Search in the past, and selectively blocks Google Blogger accounts already.

After this happens, the next question is, what will Google and Facebook do about it, if anything at all?

Monday, April 16, 2012

Photos from Khmer New Year 2012 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Below are photos from this weekend's long Khmer New Year holiday in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. New Year's eve is April 13. The festival is actively celebrated the 13-16. The days are fixed (unlike Vietnamese Tet or the Cham New Year), though originally based on a lunar calendar.

You can really almost never go wrong with a photo of Wat Ounalom on the riverside in Phnom Penh. Attractive, iconic and it always seems to be backed by blue sky. Too bad I missed the festivities at the Wat, whether by arriving late, or cancelation due to heavy rain the night before.

No banana boats here. We're inland. Just banana bikes.

Bananas are a spirit altar favorite in Southeast Asia, whether because they are dirt cheap, the bunches look nice when intact, or some symbolic meaning I know not.

The Royal Palace lit up at night.

The tourist gate to the palace (closed at night).

Games at Wat Phnom.

The pots are full of money (small riel bills donated by the audience) and talcum powder, which makes a great little explosion when broken.

Wat Phnom's new holiday Naga guardian. 

Family spirit altar for the new year.

Most people head for the countryside to their own villages to celebrate Khmer New Year. This means a lot of shops and services close down for several day or even a week or more. Unfortunately this means trash pick-up too, and trash accumulates fast during family holidays. There ends up being a pile like this every few meters in some neighborhoods. The rats & roaches are doing conga lines...

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Hobbit Photos from the Hobbiton Movie Set in New Zealand

13.11.12 Update: View my story and photos for The SyFy Channel's Blastr.

The Shire. The Lake at Hobbiton Movie Set. Bag end sits at the top of the hill in the middle, overlooking the lake. Hobbit holes below.

In January I visited the Hobbiton Movie Set in Matamata, New Zealand, while staying in Rotorua. The cast and crew had stopped filming just a few weeks earlier, and were now on their Christmas holidays. It was an amazing experience. I couldn't believe I was allowed to just walk through Hobbiton, recreated as it appeared, in the very same spot in Lord of the Rings, and will appear on screen again in December 2012. I was just informed that my confidentiality agreement has been lifted, so I'm happy to give you a little iPhone preview of my adventure.

THE Bag End.
 Just think, Bilbo and Gandalf could have stood in this very same pile of sheep poop.

 Hobbit homes built by Guillermo del Toro, which won't actually appear in the finished film.

A giant sneaks into the shire. 

I'm not sure if I'll fit. 

Gandalf, Bilbo, Frodo, the whole lot of dwarves... 
they all passed along these very same lanes. 

The view from Bag End, what Gandalf and Bilbo really saw as they blew smoke rings. 

The set is located on a working sheep farm. Be sure to have a browse through the gift shop with quality replicas and souvenirs made by the same folks at Weta Workshop who made the movie props.

Seems like every tour in New Zealand ends with a sheep shearing!

You too can now visit the Hobbiton Movie Set. Book your tour at:

Hobbiton Movie Set & Farm Tours
The Shires Rest Cafe
501 Buckland Rd
Matamata 3472
New Zealand
Ph: +64 (7) 888 1505

Visit Tourism New Zealand’s website for more information too:

Book a Rotorua hotel with my trusted parter, Agoda:

As always, photos here are copyright Adam Bray 2012 and may not be republished without permission. Photos are published here with authorization.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Rjja Nukan: Cham New Year in Vietnam

A video I took of a Cham Holy Man dancing in very special ceremonial attire which has been worn by select Cham elders for centuries.

The Kate Festival is often mistakenly called the Cham New Year. It is referred to as such in numerous guidebooks and websites, despite falling in the 7th month of the Cham lunar calendar. Perhaps this is because many Vietnamese, and even many Cham who are ignorant of their own cultural heritage, observe that Kate has the biggest celebrations of any Cham holiday, much like Tet among Vietnamese festivals, and so they wrongly assume that it must be a Cham equivalent of the Chinese New Year.

It is however, the little-known holiday of Rija Nukan, that marks the new year for the Cham people. Given that Rija Nukan falls within several weeks of the Khmer New Year, it is possible that they share a common origin, although the manner and ritual in which the two cultures now celebrate their respective  festivals, are entirely different.

Unlike the better-known Kate Festival, Rija Nukan is celebrated in Cham villages, and not in their ancient red-brick temples. The chief observance, which includes food offerings, worship, music and dancing, is held at smaller religious meeting halls in each community. This makes it difficult for outsiders—even Vietnamese—to ever observe them, because one must know the precise time (although the Cham people share their own unique calendar, each village observes at a different appointed time during the festival), the location of any given Cham villages, and the exact place of the meeting hall.

This year, Rija Nukan falls on April 20. Below are photos from previous Cham New Year celebrations, as celebrated by the Cham Balamon of South-Central Vietnam.

Cooking soup

Incantations and offerings by Cham holy men

Dressing the deity

Offerings made by Cham matriarchs on behalf of their families

Matriarch Devotees in worship

Cham Holy man or High Priest in a trance-like dance

Cham musicians and Holy men at the alter

Cham priests prepare at the altar

Eggs and Chicken are common offerings, particularly when incantations and religious rites are involved

A big spread of fruit and desert offerings

Stay tuned for my next post: Rija Nukan, Cham Bani Style.

As always, these photo, video and stories are original and copyrighted. They may not be re-published without permission from the author.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Who are the Cham People: An Unauthorized History of Champa

"In Khanh Hoa are the Fierce Tigers
But in Binh Thuan there are Ghosts"
-an old Vietnamese saying

I’ll be sharing some photos from the Cham New Year in my next post but before I do I think it would be beneficial to write a little bit about who the Cham people are. I have lived a number of years in their homeland, and so both their history and culture have been a particular interest of mine. Having written more than a few chapters on both the history of Vietnam and Champa, I’ve done a lot of research myself. I’ve never come across a very accurate introduction to the Cham (written by other sources), so this may be a ground-breaker.

Po Klong Garai Temple near Phan Rang, Vietnam during the Kate Festival

The Cham people, or rather the kingdom of Champa, was an ancient matriarchal Hindu culture which once occupied approximately two-thirds of Vietnam, and portions of eastern Cambodia and Laos. Evidence of their habitation has been found as far north as Hanoi (pre-dating presence of the Vietnamese), the southern reaches of the Mekong Delta, and west to the banks of the Mekong River.

If we consider the ‘Sa Huynh People’ (a culture that flourished roughly 1000BC to 500AD and is known primarily for their jar burials) to be the ancestors of the Cham, then their oceanic trade routes and cultural influence extended at least as far east as Taiwan and the Philippines, and west to India. While China and Vietnam may fight over the South China Sea in modern times, it is only the Cham people who would have truly made continuous historical use of these islands—over thousands of years.

The Champa kingdom was a contemporary rival of the Kingdom of Angkor in Cambodia and the Vietnamese, who migrated as one or more hill tribes from Southern China. Military conflict and cultural exchange with the Cham did as much to shape the history of Vietnam and Cambodia as did China and Thailand, respectively. While Hanoi just celebrated its 1000 years, many Cham cities, such as Phan Rang, Phan Ri, Qui Nhon, Quang Ngai, and even the Nguyen Dynasty capital of Hue, have been inhabited by the Cham for several centuries longer than the Vietnamese occupied Hanoi.

The Cham were driven from their vast homelands over centuries of war with the Vietnamese and Cambodians. The Vietnamese drove the Cham south, and Angkor drove them east. By the 1800s the Cham were reduced to a small vassal state in what is now Ninh Thuan and Binh Thuan Provinces (known as the southern kingdom of Panduranga to the Cham).

In 1832, Vietnamese Emperor Minh Mang of the Nguyen Dynasty perpetrated a brutal holocaust of the Cham and finally stripped them of all autonomy. This gave rise to legends of terrifying ghosts seeking vengeance in the lost kingdom of Panduranga (Binh Thuan Province). Some may argue the Vietnamese have delivered them a new spiteful blow by planning to build their first two nuclear reactors in the heart of the Cham homeland, straddling the ancient Cham city of Phan Rang.

A Cham Holy Man Dancing at the Cham New Year

As a result of successive lost battles, there were several exodus of Cham from their homelands. The Cham were a multi-ethnic kingdom, and each exodus resulted in isolated and lost tribes of Champa dispersed across Southeast Asia. The Historical Cham now have distinct tribes in Hainan Island (China); an assortment of tribes in Central Vietnam, including the Hre, Jarai, Ede, Rai, Raglai, Churu Cham Ro, and their various allies; the Cham Balamon (Hindu) and Cham Bani (Quasi-Muslim) of Binh Thuan and Ninh Thuan Provinces; and the Cham Islam of the Mekong Delta, Cambodia and Malaysia. Other isolated communities also exist.

Unfortunately, little is written about the Cham in Vietnam history books or travel media (domestic or international), due to both a rather profound ignorance of the history of Vietnam and a prevailing racist attitude among both the Vietnamese and perhaps some of the very scholars who have studied them.

Georges Maspero, who wrote the original 1928 definitive (though now perhaps discredited) history of Champa, titled “The Champa Kingdom: The History of an Extinct Vietnamese Culture implied that the modern Cham people were irrelevant and illegitimate heirs of Champa. French colonialists and explorers often recounted how the Cham were ‘even more lazy than the Vietnamese’ and lamented that the Cham seemingly had no desire to attain the glories of the ancient kingdom. Even contemporary scholarship, which focuses on temple ruins, statuary, ancient steles and the antiquated writings of neighbouring civilizations, rarely, if ever consults the holy men and intellectuals of the living Cham community, which possesses a wealth of ignored written documents and oral histories. Sadly this has perhaps led to a needlessly fragmented and misunderstood concept of Cham history and identity. The fact that the communist government has deliberately destroyed or contributed to the destruction of so many Cham temples since 're-unification' (I know of 7 such recently-destroyed ancient temple complexes in my own province of Binh Thuan alone) only compounds the problem. Certainly Hanoi’s efforts to shield minorities from interaction with foreigners has also greatly inhibited a holistic study of the Cham people.

Next Post: Cham New Year, a Photo Gallery. The Cham new year, which is NOT the Kate Festival, is later this month (April). For now, read my other posts on the Cham.

(As always, photos and text here are original and copyrighted. Neither text nor photos may be re-printed without permission.)