Cambodia has long wooed visitors with its ancient temples and Phnom Penh’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 Bali’s literary festival, held in Ubud each October, the five-day event, now in its third year, was set up to nurture Cambodia’s storytelling culture. It’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 year’s highlights include talks by Man Booker Prize-short-listed writer Madeleine Thien, and Chinese-British author Jung Chang (known for 1992’s Wild Swans). Khmer ballet choreographer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro will talk about Cambodia’s 10th-century oral stories, based on the epic poem the Ramayana.
There’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 Kampot’s multiculturalism – it’s home to Chinese, Cham Muslim, Vietnamese, Cambodian and other expat communities – 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 – including the home of Atelier, an artisanal Kampot pepper shop, wine bar and restaurant – 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.
“Kampot has this vibe of a far-flung port town, but it’s emerging as a funky little arts enclave,” says Poulson. “It’s also the kind of place that attracts readers – the idea of stringing a hammock along the river and chilling out with a book is pretty appealing.”
The theme of this year’s event is “courage”. Keynote speaker Mu Sochua, Cambodia’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 year’s general election, closing down stridently independent newspaper Cambodia Daily – the festival’s main media partner – and several radio stations. Still, the organisers are hopeful that the annual event will continue to thrive.
“We have not faced any censorship ourselves, but behind the scenes it’s becoming difficult,” says Poulson. “The very nature of a storytelling festival is about stimulating a conversation, and there’s a whole new generation of young Cambodians who see that, so it’s what we will continue to do.”