Cambodia has long wooed visitors with its ancient temples and Phnom Penhâ€™s chaotic charms, but next week the southern coastal town of Kampot will be in the spotlight as it hosts the Kampot Readers and Writers Festival (running from 1-5 November).
A sister event to Baliâ€™s literary festival, held in Ubud each October, the five-day event, now in its third year, was set up to nurture Cambodiaâ€™s storytelling culture. Itâ€™s estimated that more than 90% of all artists died under the Khmer Rouge, and while fine arts, dance and music seem to have blossomed again, the Cambodian literature scene has been struggling.
This yearâ€™s highlights include talks by Man Booker Prize-short-listed writer Madeleine Thien, and Chinese-British author Jung Chang (known for 1992â€™s Wild Swans). Khmer ballet choreographer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro will talk about Cambodiaâ€™s 10th-century oral stories, based on the epic poem the Ramayana.
Thereâ€™s a musical side to the festival, too: one of the key organisers is Julien Poulson, the Australian-born guitarist of Phnom Penh-based psychedelic rock band the Cambodian Space Project. He believes Kampotâ€™s multiculturalism â€“ itâ€™s home to Chinese, Cham Muslim, Vietnamese, Cambodian and other expat communities â€“ has contributed to a creative resurgence in the town.
Set on the banks of the Preaek Tuek Chhu river, with a mix of Chinese and French colonial architecture, Kampot makes an idyllic setting for a festival. Many old buildings have been restored â€“ including the home of Atelier, an artisanal Kampot pepper shop, wine bar and restaurant â€“ and the town is seeking Unesco world heritage status. A weekend train service from the capital to the southern provinces, launched last year, adds to the appeal.
â€œKampot has this vibe of a far-flung port town, but itâ€™s emerging as a funky little arts enclave,â€ says Poulson. â€œItâ€™s also the kind of place that attracts readers â€“ the idea of stringing a hammock along the river and chilling out with a book is pretty appealing.â€
The theme of this yearâ€™s event is â€œcourageâ€. Keynote speaker Mu Sochua, Cambodiaâ€™s widely respected deputy opposition leader, was forced to flee the country earlier this month after being threatened with arrest. Her constituency is Kampot. The long-ruling prime minister, Hun Sen, has recently intensified his crackdown on the opposition and the media in the lead-up to next yearâ€™s general election, closing down stridently independent newspaper Cambodia Daily â€“ the festivalâ€™s main media partner â€“ and several radio stations. Still, the organisers are hopeful that the annual event will continue to thrive.
â€œWe have not faced any censorship ourselves, but behind the scenes itâ€™s becoming difficult,â€ says Poulson. â€œThe very nature of a storytelling festival is about stimulating a conversation, and thereâ€™s a whole new generation of young Cambodians who see that, so itâ€™s what we will continue to do.â€