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Naga Rises out of River's Rubbish

By: Dan Poynton The Mekong Times Posted: February-15-2008 in
Dan Poynton The Mekong Times

"The whole project is a load of rubbish!" some concerned citizens are saying, and the organizers of The Rubbish Project (TRP) would totally agree. TRP is holding a host of environmentally friendly and whacky festivities on World Water Day, March 22, to bring awareness to the public about the pollution of the Kingdom's waterways.

TRP will install a gigantic 200-meter naga (mythical serpent) in Siem Reap River, right in the middle of Siem Reap city. Her name is Queen Naga, and she will be constructed entirely out of rattan and plastic refuse that has been littering the river and environs - causing an eyesore and environmental havoc.

"Nagas only appear when there are problems," said Leang Seckon, designer of Queen Naga, cofounder of TRP and a leading avant-garde artist in Cambodia. "Many ancient stories about the origin of the country involve nagas, especially when water is concerned. But now the naga cannot breathe because there's so much rubbish in the river".

Last year in May, TRP was the talk of the town when it put on the innovative Recycled Fashion Show in Phnom Penh. On World Water Day TRP will repeat the show - with new costumes made out of rubbish - in the Siem Reap FCC, which was formerly the Department of the Environment.

Leang Seckon has been concerned about the pollution in Cambodia's river since 2005 when he took a boat ride up the Steung Sanger in Battambang. The river was immortalized in a song by the beloved '60s crooner Sin Sisamouth. Leang Seckon - also a singer of Cambodia's "Golden Era" songs - was devastated to see the river so polluted. He was determined to do something artistic to combat environmental problems.

Enter art and craft advisor Fleur Smith, who told Leang Seckon about the annual recycled costume-fashion show that is now legendary in her native New Zealand. The idea took off.

"We asked for volunteers and famous people like actress Dy Saveth ['the Bridget Bardot' of '60s Cambodia], Zono [famous modern pop singer], and 12 Freshie boys and girls from the TV show all came on board," said Smith. "We did the whole show with only US$300-400".

Smith and Leang Seckon both receive no salary from TRP. "The FAO [the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization] are giving us some money - and a church in [my home town] Petone, but that's it. We're still looking for sponsors!" said Smith.

And what of the reaction to these "rubbish" clothes from Cambodians, famous for their immaculate "Khmer-chic" dress sense.

"Someone asked us: 'Why are you making Cambodia so low?'," said Smith. "But a lot of people are aware that there's a big problem with the environment."

Leang Seckon said the government and NGOs are now doing a lot of environmental work, but there is not enough being done by the Cambodian people.

"I see some villages which are so beautiful, but all the people use plastic, which is not easy to break down," he said. "Before, they used banana or lotus leaves to wrap things at the market, but now they use plastic bags. The old wrapping was biodegradable and became fertilizer, when it was thrown away.

TRP wants to bring awareness of the sacredness of the Siem Reap River in Cambodian history. Leang Seckon said the river flows from Phnom Kulen [mountain], a site revered by the Kings of Angkor. "The Kings gained power from the place and talked about the freshness of the water," he said, lamenting the present state of the river in comparison.

A more recent member of the star-studded TRP cast is singer Neak Monieng [Princess] Sieng Dy, also a famous icon from the 60s era.

"I've seen countries which are so clean - but not Cambodia," she said. "[On Water Day] I'll sing a song about rubbish, using an old melody with words by Leang Seckon."

To raise money for the Siem Reap events an auction of artworks made from recycled materials will be held 7pm, Friday Feb 15 at the Café Living Room in Phnom Penh. The works have been donated by expatriates and some of Cambodia's leading living artists, including Leang Seckon, Pich Sopheap, Vandy Rattana and Svay Ken.

Dan Poynton is a reporter for The Mekong Times

This article first appeared in The Mekong Times
The Mekong Times is a daily newspaper distributed in Cambodia.
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