Thursday, May 17, 2018

War, women and a way of life

(Published in ‘The Hindu’ dated 17 May 2018)

War, women and a way of life
(A N Suryanarayanan)

Three of the 52 museums in Vietnam give a moving account of a nation marked by conflict

Vietnam with its 54 ethnic groups, many languages, and physio-graphical differences has 52 museums chartering its history. As a veteran, I choose three that best describe its history of war and society.

War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City (open all days from 7.30 am to 5 pm) The museum, formerly known as Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, has themed rooms and houses equipment from their wars. There are grisly reminders of the atrocities by the US on Vietnam. One learns of the 40 million litres of Agent Orange and napalm sprayed over forests in South Vietnam in 1962-1971 to expose and enfeeble the militia and agricultural lands. This caused disabilities, cancer, birth defects and more to a million people over three generations. There is a picture of the sewer where a man hid his three grandchildren who were discovered and butchered by a US Navy Seal. The iconic photograph of nine-year-old Kim Phuc running naked after an aerial napalm attack on June 8, 1972, is also displayed there. There has been criticism about the museum depicting only a Vietnamese interpretation of the conflict.

Museum of Ethnology, Hanoi (open 8.30 am to 5.30 pm, closed on Monday). This museum depicts the diversity of the country through a display of clothes, jewellery and other ritualistic items. A striking display is a street vendor’s bicycle, loaded with 800 wooden and bamboo items. A new building is under construction and will house a Southeast Asian handicraft collection. The outdoor displays include tribal art and everyday objects, besides full-scale models of traditional village homes that have high roofs and nail-less bamboo floors. There is water puppetry that originated in the 11th Century as symbolic entertainment of the harvest for the villagers during flooding. A waist-deep square pool is the performance arena. Eight puppeteers behind a split-bamboo screen resembling a temple façade control the puppets. A traditional Vietnamese orchestra provides background music with vocals of chèo (a satirical musical with dance) and instruments.

Vietnamese Women’s Museum, Hanoi , (open all days 8 am to 5 pm) showcases the role of women in Vietnamese society and culture. Outstanding Vietnamese women who have contributed to culture are also mentioned. Displays are in three sections: Women in Familyhas a profusion of cultural dresses, textiles and jewellery relating to births, marriages and other rituals. One learnt that a bride carries 13 items in three, five or seven boxes to the mother-in-law and that the betel nut is mandatory on all auspicious occasions. Women in History covers harrowing accounts of heroic mothers during wartime. A room full of photographs is dedicated to women who lost their family in the wars. Women’s Fashion has earrings, bracelets and jewellery of various types and skilfully crafted clothing, including batik and woven garments.

Kim Phuc running naked after a Napalm attack on 08 Jun 1972

The Sewer in Thong Phong Village, where Mr Vat's 3 grandchildren were butchered

Stage for an Indoor Water Puppet Show

Water puppets and Musical Instruments

Thursday, May 10, 2018

She's a free citizen of India, sir

(Published in Deccan Herald on 10 May 2018)
She's a free citizen of India, sir

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Revenge of the chipkali

(Published in Deccan Heral, dated 06 Dec 2017)
Revenge of the chipkali

By Brig A N Suryanarayanan

During a hot summer afternoon in 1976, the Commanding Officer's wife, all decked up as the chief guest of the Inter-Company Kabaddi match, was seated next to him. She was to distribute the prizes. But soon, there was shaking and lifting of the sari followed first by a small 'ooie' and ending with long 'oooooies', leading to raised eyebrows and an admonition: "Keep quiet! What is wrong with you?"

Her screams distracted the teams that were playing quite close by, prompting the referee to stop the game. The lady hitched up her sari and shouting more 'ooies' ran to the tented ladies toilet. It fell on the gallant second-in-command to find out what was wrong. Saying "excuse me," he entered the tent and beheld the first lady, with half her sari lying on the ground and half still at waist. The culprit was a lizard (chipkali) between her petticoat and the sari. It was slowly moving upwards but she managed to brush it off. The brave 2IC then stamped it with his foot, came out and smartly reported to the CO, all in three minutes. The net result was a new sari for the lady!

Forty years later and after a recent back surgery, one Sunday morning, the paratrooper-colonel (now long retired) was picking up the newspapers from his doorstep, when he noticed a little black creature creeping into the house. He bent down to swat it with the newspapers and chase it away silently (as the wife was sleeping). But he fell down thrice and missed his target, too. No longer able to keep his balance on one foot, he was on the floor now, crawling to find the creature that had moved near the kitchen.

At this point, he hollered for the wife to come quick, who grumbled, "Even on a Sunday you won't let me sleep!" When the lady came out, the soldier, lying flat on his stomach on the mosaic floor, asked her to grab the papers which were in a mess by now, and swat that disobedient little crawly before it went behind the gas range. "You do it," she said, but how could he from the floor? She agreed reluctantly and, luckily, swatted it soon.

The colonel, still on the floor, told her to slide it onto the paper and throw it out. Once the task was complete, she attempted to pick him up from the floor, but failed. He then tried to stand up with the support of the legs of the dining chair, to no avail. So, he crawled to the drawing room and finally managed to pull himself onto the double sofa and lay down.

Meanwhile, the water purifier, which he had turned on before the newspaper errand, was still running. When he dared mention it to the wife a few minutes later, she threw him a dirty look. After resting for a few minutes on the sofa, the colonel stood up and walked to the bedroom.

All's well that ends well. It was the wife's turn to get him something this time. But no such luck, for she was on her way to upgrade her mobile soon. The chipkali had had its revenge after 40 years!

Monday, September 18, 2017


Published in Deccan herald on 17 Sep 2017, Sunday

It was 9 am on December 26 when I left my hotel in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). The young English-speaking guide, Lam, was taking me towards the boat point at Ben Tau near My Tho, capital of the Tien Giang Province in southern Vietnam, for a day over River Mekong.

My Tho was founded in the 1680s by Chinese refugees fleeing Taiwan after the fall of the Southern Ming dynasty. Its economy is based on tourism, fishing and cultivation of rice, coconuts and many tropical fruits (bananas, mangoes, pineapple, papaya, dragon, passion, longan (lychee) and citrus fruits). Astride the entire route lies the Mekong Delta.

In Vietnamese, the river is called ‘Cuu Long’, meaning ‘nine dragons’, as nine is their auspicious and lucky number, and the river, flowing 220 km through Vietnam, has nine branches in South Vietnam like dragon’s limbs, though two are silted. Mekong also means Mother River.

Here to stay

Our first halt was at the beautiful Buddhist Vinh Tràng Temple, a few kilometres short of the boat ferry. An amalgam of Asian and European styles, and constructed in 1849, it has been renovated four times and reconstructed once. The main triple gate (a central steel gate and two side-gates made from concrete and styled like a fortress); statues of various Buddhas including Amitabha Buddha, Gautama Buddha (in bronze); various arahants (in wood) and bodhisattvas; the garden with potted plants; and a sitting (laughing) Buddha are worth seeing.

We reached the boat ferry within a few minutes. Being entitled to a separate motor boat for the 2-½ hour ride, we had to wait for one. The weather, extremely pleasant all along, became sunny. Luckily, boats had roofs. Lam got me an ice cream and briefed me here, so that I could spend my time photographing views from the boat. Most boats are rowed/driven by women, and they don’t even ask us to wear life jackets, the fearless Nadias!

River Mekong lies between My Tho and Ben Tre Province.

Floating trade

There are four islands short of the far bank: Dragon, Unicorn, Phoenix and Tortoise, all names sacred to the Vietnamese. The boat arrives and Lam playfully asks me to request the boatwoman to take off her face mask (protection against the sun), and she obliges with a smile; well, isn’t she pretty!

I see floating homes (which stay at least six months afloat) and fishing boats. During March and April, the saltwater season, red snappers weighing at least 500 gm each arrive in plenty. The fisherfolk stay for two weeks at a stretch to catch, sort out the fish and send them across to the market near the ferry. They spend over $ 35,000 annually for fishing.

I wondered if they get just dividends for all their risks and investments; Lam assured me they do. I saw net traps for freshwater fish and learnt that basa (a type of catfish) is exported to Australia and the US. Yellow and black sand-dredging by ships/boats was going on. In 30 minutes, we skirted the Tortoise Island and entered the Xep Channel.

We then took a row boat across the channel creek, with mangroves on either side, full of waterpalms, and a major river route once used by the Viet Cong. Getting off near Quoi An Village, we took a walk through a jungle track via an orchard full of fruits, watching a crocodile farm en route. On reaching the road, a horse cart arrived and we went for a kilometre ride.

Fruity treats

After a short walk later, we reached Ben Truc Orchard where we tasted five to six types of sliced and decorated fresh tropical fruits: pomeloes, jackfruit, dragon fruit, pineapple & watermelon, besides green tea with honey and lime, and local music. We arrived at the Mekong Riverside Restaurant: a huge thatched-roof dining hall seating over 300-350 tourists at a time. Word had been sent that I was a vegetarian. Still, it took a long time for my food to arrive. After lunch and more briefing, we took a row-boat to the exit point of the creek and got into the same motor boat, where the woman smilingly welcomed us. She took us to the Coconut Candy factory on the island, where they explained candy and cookie making, besides various uses of coconut to me, a South Indian.

On the way to the hotel, Lam taught me four-five Vietnamese phrases, which I tried both on her and the hotel staff and the driver for the next two days... Among them was ‘chúc may man’ (good luck or wish you well)!

The caption of the photo above as published says: Woman driving a boat in the Mekong delta. But you can’t see a woman! 

 I had sent many snaps but only one was used; here are more for you 

The last snap is of Ms Lam, my guide.

There were a few tidbits which were NOT published due to lack of space; do read them if you feel inclined.

-Vietnamese are friendly and Indians are liked.
-The guide whose name and mobile No are given to you in advance receive you outside the Baggage carousal, but NOT for getting a visa on arrival but stay with you till departure at the airport.
-Getting a Visa (EVEN with pre-approval) is a major chaos & delaying (an hour) factor.
- Vehicles are mostly left hand drive and driven on the right of the road, like the Americans whom they dislike.
-‘1 US’ ‘5 US’ etc are phrases used for prices of items in $, which is used widely.
-Tips are expected. Indians usually give $10 to a guide, 5 to a driver per day but at the end of tour, at the airport where they see you off. 5 $ for a motorboat woman, 2 for a rowboat woman and 1 to a concierge. Many foreigners give double. But I noticed some rich Asians being miserly.
-Most places are not disabled-friendly; India seems far better.
-Loo is called ‘Happy Room’ and usually very clean, as one is supposed to feel happy, after its use!
-For a personalised/customised tour for a single person, hotel-room, guide, car with driver and boats are all exclusive.
-A small cubicle pulled by a 120cc two-wheeler accommodates 2-3 perons & is called tuk—tuk.
-Traffic moves very slow; there is no honking and mostly, no overtaking even on highways.
-Most cars are registered in Phnom Penh, as those registered in other places are looked upon as of ‘doubtful’ ownerhip.


      It is 40,150 sqkm ‘rice bowl’ of Vietnam swathed in various shades of green and landscapes, with a few hills in the north and west. To the south lie the flat flood-plains. Till Vietnam’s Independence in 1965, a part of Cambodia called Southern/Lower Cambodia, the Delta is a major rice-growing area and was the scene of heavy fighting during the Vietnam War.

     7th longest in Asia and with its headwaters in the Three Rivers Area of Tibetan Plateau (China), the river flows approximately 4,220 kilometers,before emptying into the South China Sea (locally called defiantly as the Eastern Sea), after flowing through 5 more countries: Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam (the Deltaic region). Upstream water usage and development of 11 dams is posing a threat to the delta. 16 of total 94 million in Vietnam depend on the river for their livelihood. Its tributaries provide a comprehensive network of 5,000 KM of natural and artificial canals to carry water to the fields. I was surprised to learn that there are no monkeys and elephants in the deltaic region but rats and cobras are plenty! Like it’s said in Tamilnadu that they have only three seasons: Hot, Hotter and Hottest, in South Vietnam they have only two: Wet/Rainy (May to Oct) and Dry (the rest of the year) and the river flows in one direction in the wet season and the opposite direction in dry. In the dry season, the water level goes down and people in rural areas have really rich soil to plant high-yielding riverside gardens

2.6 (out of 4) million ha in the Mekong Delta are used for agriculture, which is one fourth of Vietnam's total. Just 3 provinces produce11 million tonne rice together; it is also Vietnam's most important fishing region. As rice doesn’t fetch much money, farmers are shifting to a single crop with lot of fertilzers and the rest of the time to shrimp and fishing. Reeds, though not high paying, grow the year around and give a steady income; so many have turned to it too. Some grow tropical fruits, such as Dragon fruit.

While the towns hum with commercial activity, the countryside gives a lazy-sleepy look, with buffaloes wallowing in rice paddies, coconut- and fruit-laden boats floating slowly along the mud-brown waters. Floating Markets are a way of life here. There are mangrove forests teeming with birds and the remains of Viet Cong bunkers, and beautiful Khmer and Buddhist pagodas.

‘Lonely Planet’ rightly calls Mekong "A World Afloat”: a water world that moves to the rhythms of the mighty Mekong, where boats, houses and markets float upon the innumerable rivers, canals and streams that criss-cross the landscape like arteries. It hosts over 1,000 animal species (including species of hitherto unknown plants, fish, lizards, and mammals and more recently, the Laotian rock rat. It is rightly called, "biological treasure trove".

Friday, August 11, 2017

Fault In Our Stars

Published in Deccan Herald dated 11 Aug 2017

Fault in our stars
Brig A N Suryanarayanan
He predicted a profession of artillery and a four-figure salary in 10 years.

Astrologers and palmists in peril”: Such were the headlines in
newspapers recently, alluding to the Anti-superstition Bill. That took my mind back over the years, to many encounters.

In the late fifties, a palmist in a safari suit (!) used to stand outside Teppakkulam, Trichy, from 6 pm to 7 pm. His paraphernalia: one-foot-square table, foldable stand with a till and a tiny bulb and a huge magnifying glass hanging from his neck. The rates were four annas (25 paise) for a quick palm-reading and a rupee for five written answers.

          Even four annas was a king’s ransom when coffee or masala dosa cost just 2 annas (wrongly shown as Rs 2 in DH print)! While examining the palm and rattling off names of ‘mounds and lines’ in English, he would ask for “approx age.” A brief gist in Tamil of your future would follow: studies, employment, salary, illnesses and life-span, usually ending with “No danger to life in the near future.”

In 1958, a collegemate insisted we try it for fun. Out went two four
anna coins, which he deftly moved to the line of coins. One had to follow the sequence, when he would move it into his till. He predicted a profession of artillery (I had not even finished my degree then nor planned a career) and a four-figure salary in 10 years (while graduates were only earning Rs 140 to Rs 200 in 1959). Both proved amazingly true and my friend narrates it even today.

Another encounter was with a 90-year-old blind retired Physics professor, who offered free consultation for matching horoscopes. If you read out the chart, he would calculate mentally and offer his views. There was a hitch when he compared mine (my exact time of my birth wasn’t recorded) with the prospect and told dad so.

My love-life was in danger! After a year, at my
insistence, my sister and her husband went to him again. The moment he read it, the professor said: “I had asked you to avoid it when your father had brought the same set. But, if they insist, let them (the couple) be happy for 15 years.” The time limit wasn’t revealed to me then.

It was my brother-in-law who finally broke it to me when I lost my wife after 15 years and 2 months of marriage. Two years later, when I was facing a rough patch in my career, my father-in-law took me to an astrolger in Vyalikaval, who extrapolated my time of birth as 12.10 pm. He rightly predicted that I would be rid of my troubles in three years, and I was.

As a Brigadier, I met the younger of the two famous
astrologer-brothers near Jammu where I had been the Station Commander earlier. This man predicted that my elder daughter would pass CA before the age of 23 with flying colours, join investment banking at a seaside location and later go abroad.

The same year, a colleague in Belagavi insisted I meet a ‘rice- reader’ at 5 am just to know my future. I did. He, too, predicted almost the same but insisted on seeing the girl once. While most of it came true, she passed away a few months later in Bombay. This made me lose faith in astrologers, who hadn’t warned me of the impending doom. It’s been 23 years; I have not consulted anyone since.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Speed breaker Dive Biryani

Published in Deccan Herald on  20 May 20 2017
Speed breaker Dive Biryani
Brig A N Suryanarayanan

My friend, Colonel M, a humorous paratrooper, recently underwent surgery for his back, which has only exacerbated his problem. Despite that, he narrated two hilarious incidents about himself: BS (Before Surgery) and AS (After Surgery).

I would have liked to use his humorous words, but the fear of rejection for number of words forces me to use my own. This is the BS, named by him as above.

A foodie, like Bumstead in Blondie comics, driving by a newly opened restaurant on a Saturday, he enquired if biryani would be available the next day, it being ‘no-cooking-at-home’ day. An affirmative reply gave him a sleep full of dreams with an inviting and aromatic hot biryani and accompaniments. An hour before lunchtime, he left on his errand by car.

When he did not return even after an hour, concern, worry, and near-panic, in that order, hit the Lady of the House (LoH). When he did come belated, all those feelings changed to shock, utter disbelief and horror, in that order, for the LoH at his ghastly sight. Bloodied from nose downwards, still dripping blood and in a red-stained shirt and pant, he entered and calmly said like a good paratrooper: ‘Hi. The biryani is safe. Let’s eat first; I’m OK.

Now, let us rewind. After buying the items, neatly wrapped and tightly guarded in his left hand, he was cautiously crossing the road to his car. Though there was heavy traffic both ways, a speed-breaker to his immediate left gave him confidence. One half crossed, he observed an auto-rickshaw approaching threateningly! Typical Bengaluru scene, you say? Assuming it had to slow down at the speed-breaker, he moved ahead.

Everything then happened in a blur: auto-rickshaw didn’t slow down but zoomed ahead, bumping into the paratrooper. Used to such unexpected situations, he reacted instantly with a swimmer’s dive, landing nose first on the speed-breaker, flat on the road. But, the goodies in his hand were held up, not once touching the ground. That was the one-handed speed breaker dive! It soon turned into a typical Indian spectacle with a huge crowd gathering to watch but none to note the auto’s number.

Though bleeding profusely, he wanted to get home with the packets still held aloft and intact in his left hand. ‘How can you delay and eat a cold biryani?’ A passerby who recognised him from the previous evening, drove him home. When he reached, shock, sympathy, and clean-up followed and then they gobbled up the Speed breaker Dive Biryani.

The Biryani eaten, mandatory tetanus, clean up, X-ray and Band-aid (hairline nose fracture, no stitches) and bandage on the face followed. Net result, he became unrecognisable to his own grandson who ran to his mom in sheer fright at the sight of Dadaji! To avoid painfully answering the very first question, ‘What happened to your face,’ M mailed to close friends the gory details, giving me this story!


Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Great Boat Ride on Tonlé Sap (Great Lake)

Travel Diaries: The Great Boat Ride on Tonlé Sap Lake 

(Published in Silver Talkies , e-magazine for spirited seniors on 22 Mar 2017) 


A boat ride along the Tonlé Sap lake in Cambodia is a chance to see the floating life. And that’s not all, there are several more attractions awaiting the tourist from then onwards, says Brigadier Suryanarayanan. 

The grand finale of my two-week personalised tour to Vietnam and Cambodia was on 30 Dec 2016 with a day- trip to Tonlé Sap or ‘Great Lake,’ Artisans d’Anglor Silk Factory, Western Baray (Reservoir), War Museum, Killing Field (Wat Thmey), War Monument Memorial and at night, the piece-de-resistance: Apsara Dance Show with dinner at a restaurant. 

Life On Tonle Sap Lake 

Leaving at 9 am from my hotel in Siem Reap in a Toyota Etios with my young personal guide Mr Moeurn, I reached the Boat Ferry 12 km away to the south in 30 minutes and got into a wooden motor boat for a 90 minute round trip towards the floating village, Chong Khneas. While briefing me, the guide also helped me with taking photographs, alternately with my Lumix camera/cellphone. As the boat moved on, it was a great sight to behold floating villages with two distinct ethnicities: Khmer and Vietnamese — separated from each other. Chong Khneas, with approximate 6,000 residents in a group of seven villages, has a hospital, a basket ball court, three gas-stations, five schools, seven fish wholesalers, and four karaoke bars (which, along with free WiFi, is a must in every single restaurant in Vietnam and Cambodia), Police Station, Provision Stores, Church and a fresh water crocodile farm among other things… in fact, every single need ‘floating’! To have everything floating was a novelty to me, a city-dweller and so we visited some. Seeing clothes drying on hangars in floating homes guarded by dogs in the mighty lake, I wondered how the dogs could stay in such confined spaces! Such is their way of life. I saw a lone tall Buddhist Monastery on stilts standing like a beacon, as if guiding everyone safely over the vast lake.

Buddhist Monastery on stilts like a beacon

 Recently a private firm has taken over the village, making it commercial and pricey. 

Boatride-Tonle Sap: The author enjoys his boat ride on the lake 

Returning to the ferry, we moved by car to Pouk District, 15 km west of Siem Reap to see silk production in Artisans d’Angkor, where a briefing –cum-demonstration on the life cycle of a silkworm (47 days) followed, complete with mulberry leaves (their food), breeding, extraction, bleaching, refinement, weaving; and ending, as usual, in their souvenir store with finished products: scarves, stoles, hankies and more. Expensive, but one had to bring back a souvenir for the granddaughter! 

Silk Weaving Work in progress 

Our next halt was West ‘Baray’ (‘Reservoir’, in Khmer) just west of Angor Thom (one of the temples visited the previous day). Approximately 8×2 KM, King Suryavarman had begun construction in 11th Century, with a temple on an artificial island, in its middle. It was later completed by King Udayatityavarman-II in the same century. One school of thought holds it as an imaginative re-creation of the ‘Churning of the Ocean’ from Hindu Mythology, a favourite theme everywhere in Cambodia. 

Moving on, we came to the War Museum. It seemed to be a half-hearted effort with no caption-boards; guides who couldn’t speak English well; and rusted weapons and equipment. Within 20 minutes, we moved on to pay my homage at Wat Thmey, (called Killing Fields), a Buddhist Pagoda with a glass memorial stupa containing the skulls and bones of some victims of the Khmer Rouge: a reminder of their atrocities. Just a short distance on the way back was the War Memorial Monument. Inaugurated in January 2005, it honors the Vietnamese soldiers who died while freeing Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge in 1979. Full of replicas of Angkor Wat, it has Devas and Asuras on either side of the main entrance, ‘churning the ocean.’ It was disappointing to see the place full of rubbish with people (visitors to a nearby hospital?) stretched out. 

After an hour’s rest, I was driven to Crystal Angkor Restaurant, where I was the only vegetarian for dinner, as I had insisted on seeing the Apsara Dance even if I missed many items of food. I had earlier seen similar dance in Thailand but the desire was overpowering. It was well worth it. I didn’t miss the food either, as they produced ‘amok’ vegetarian meal. 


Tonlé Sap or ‘Great Lake’ a freshwater lake in Cambodia, is the largest such lake in Asia. Located in the Lower Mekong basin that gets sedimented due to alluvial deposits, it is a two way lake which changes drastically in size throughout the year: getting its inflow during the rainy season (May-Oct), reaching to its maximum in November (with a depth up to 14 meters) and flowing into the Mekong River for the remainder of the year. One of the world’s biggest inland fisheries, it produces 400,000 tons, i,e, 75 % of Cambodia’s national fish production. The lake feeds over 3 million people, who live around it in the five Cambodian provinces. Of these, 80,000 people live on the water permanently, spread out over 170 floating villages. Fishermen sometimes travel two days to reach the middle of the lake and spend up to a week, out fishing; some may never return. Huge waves, limited food (both because of poverty and optimum load) and risky conditions make fishermen’s average lifespan only 54 years. Orphanages exist for children of deceased fishermen. With the annual income of a household around $500, about 12% children die due to poverty, tough life, lack of medical care and mal-nourishment. 

There are over 220 different species of fish in the lake. But unbridled development is slowly leading it towards loss of marine life. Just 20 years ago, the UNESCO declared it an ecological hotspot. The government takes on the responsibility to conserve, develop and provide logistic support to such ecological projects. 

The captivating Apsara dance; The Final Bow


A visit to Cambodia is incomplete without watching the ancient art of Apsara dance, as depicted on the walls of Angkor’s temples. Special to Khmer culture, they consider Apsaras (born during ‘Churning the Ocean’) as their Mother. There were 3000 dancers in King’s Court many centuries ago exclusive to his watching, but many had been taken away to Thailand in 15th Century. It was revived only in 1995, 16 years after the fall of Khmer Rouge. Mainly some hotels organise these every evening, along with a paid non-vegetarian dinner. 

Girls are selected at age 7 and undergo 6 years training to learn 1500 intricate positions; and 5-6 more years to perfect them. Every position requires great deftness and deliberation: knees bent, heels touching the floor first at each step, coy smiles on their faces each having its own particular symbolism – a finger pointing to the sky indicates “today”, and standing sideways to the audience with the sole of the foot facing upwards represents flying. Before each performance, they are sewn into glittering silk tunics and sequinned tops for a tight fit. I watched the Blessing Dance, Coconut Shell Dance, Peacock Dance, Masked Dance and Apsara Dance. 

Brigadier Suryanarayanan 

Brig AN Suryanarayanan (Retd) is 75 years young and contributes his writing regularly to several newspapers. His first book 'Straight Trees Are Cut First' (ARMY: Process vs Practice) was published in 2009. He has recently self-published his second book, Many Laughs & a Few Tears, with proceeds going to an educational foundation for poor kids. He can be contacted on

All photographs courtesy: Author