The inaugural Kampot Writers and Readers Festival is taking place in the riverside town of Kampot on Cambodia’s south coast on 5-8 November 2015. We’ll be there. Will you?

Soon after we touch down in Siem Reap from Sydney we’ll be making our way down to the coast for the first Kampot Writers and Readers Festival.

The four-day festival will host more than 40 events, including four book launches and a magazine launch – all in celebration of the word.

We interviewed the festival co-founders — Robert Starkweather (RS), Wayne McCallum (WM) and Julien Poulson (JP) — to find out more about the festival, what to expect, and why you should go.

Q. How did the festival come about?

A. RS: The idea of a Kampot Writers and Readers Festival had been kicking around for some time. Wayne has been based in Kampot for several years. Julien moved in around the corner about 18 months ago, so the two are neighbours and long-time friends.

Julien has been involved with the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival for several years now, and the idea of a writers’ festival resonated with both of them. Wayne is a prolific writer and has just finished his second book, a memoir. Julien is the founder of the Kampot Arts and Music Association (KAMA). So the idea of an annual gathering of like-minded people sounded like a good one on many fronts.


p class=”question”>Q. 
What’s the connection to the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival?

A. RS: We are an official sister festival to the Writers and Readers Festival in Ubud on Bali, and they have given us tremendous support getting the first Kampot festival off the ground.

JP: The idea of a sister festival with UWRF grew out of a relationship between myself and UWRF as a speaker, performer and volunteer. In 2012, at a Paul Kelly concert for UWRF, I spoke with festival director Janet de Neefe about the idea of having something ‘similar’ in Cambodia, so this is how the relationship began.

The great support they’ve offered us, acknowledging KWRF as an official sister festival, as well as the opportunity to share communications, overlap on invitations, and benefit from the same audience, is greatly appreciated.

Q. Cambodia has a rich heritage of crafts, music, dance, architecture, rock’n’roll and art, but is there a tradition of literature?

A. RS: The Khmer written word is often under-appreciated in terms of local art forms, and for understandable reasons. Over the last decade or so, however, Cambodian arts have really begun to re-root. Dance and art have probably found the widest audiences beyond Cambodian borders, but film, music and literature, too, have also blossomed.

The Nou Hach Journal is the keeper of the Cambodian literary flame, and their annual literature awards have flourished over the last few years. The annual Cambodian Book Fair now offers tens of thousands of titles. Yet all of this flies below the radar of most non-Khmer speakers.

The idea with the Kampot Writers and Readers Festival, with the emphasis on writers, is to make an easily accessible entry point – a bridge, if you will – that will facilitate exchanges between local writers and publishers and their counterparts further afield, and to expose non-Khmer speakers to Cambodian literary arts and vice versa.

The Cambodian spoken word is beautiful, as is the written script. Khmer poetry, which is almost always sung, is a mesmerising, often hypnotic, performance. The idea is to celebrate all that in grand fashion.

Q. Is this Festival important for Cambodians?

JP: Arn Chorn Pond, who is a great supporter of Cambodian artists, because he believes art is “their culture, their soul, their ancestors’ culture”, said: “We need to engage young people in the arts, and give them an opportunity to make a living while keeping their culture alive – this festival is about coming together to support artists to do just that.”

Q. Why Kampot?

A. RS: A festival like Kampot Writers and Readers Festival would get lost in Phnom Penh. There’s simply too much good stuff going on there throughout the year. Kampot is a 2.5-hour car ride away from Phnom Penh. So it’s easy to get to.

Kampot is a bucolic Cambodian river town with wide streets and French architecture set against the Elephant Mountains. The area has long attracted bohemian types: musicians, artists, writers, poets, and other wayward souls.

Q. Is there a long history of travellers seeking inspiration in Kampot?

JP: The French civil servant, explorer and diplomat Auguste Pavie wrote in a letter to his sister in 1871: “I am leaving Long Xuyen and going to Kampot. I am very happy; it is a post where savings can be made. I will be the only European in the area, which is 50 kilometres from the border with Cochinchina and inside Cambodia. I will tell you about my new home when I am there. It is an important post, a great favour that has been extended to me, and I am very content.”

WM: Kampot has a legacy of arts, across the range of genres, from writing to dance and performance. For a long time its been popular as a creative hideaway for people writing novels and others wanting the space to think and develop new outlets for their crafts. Although I think the visibility has increased over the last three or so years. But then again perhaps the writers and so on were always here, just keeping quiet and getting on with their art.

Q. What’s the appeal of Kampot for writers and other creatives now?

A. RS: Kampot is quiet and laid back. Unhurried. The lazy pace of life is conducive to creative endeavours. And it’s crazy cheap in terms of value, with good food and drink widely available for a few bucks or even less. Accommodation is inexpensive as well, which makes it a cost-effective place to hang out.

JP: I like this quote from the author of Holiday in Cambodia, Laura Jean McKay: “There’s something about Kampot: it’s filled with the magic that stories are made of. Whether it’s the swollen river snaking through the town, the smell of pepper in the air, the art being revived in the yellowed buildings – the place always made me want to write.”

Q. The Kampot Arts and Music Association (KAMA) appears to be playing a significant role in the development of an arts scene in Kampot.

A. RS: KAMA is an initiative of the members of the Cambodian Space Project, and Julien, a Cambodia Space Project founding member and the band’s lead guitar player, has long-term ambitions to make Kampot a creative hub.

The idea behind KAMA is to not only promote Kampot arts and music, but to promote Kampot as a place for artists and musicians to come and create. KAMA is also a bar, record store, art gallery and gathering place. More details about KAMA here.

Q. So what can people expect from the Kampot Writers and Readers Festival?

A. RS: Standout sessions include everything from do-it-yourself cookbook kitchens to comic book workshops, e-publishing and travel writing seminars, and a Bloody Mary-fuelled ‘journalists’ breakfast promising the stories behind the headlines. There are noir hours to explore the dark side of Southeast Asia, a session on sign language, and introductions to Khmer poetry.

WM: Many people are talking about the appearance of the well-known Australian performer Paul Kelly, however, the ensemble of Cambodian artists is just as exciting. I’m looking forward to hearing the young Khmer poets and Cambodian journalist Bopha Phorn, and seeing performances by the likes of Arn Chorn Pond and the near legendary Khmer Magic Music Bus Show and the performers from Epic Arts. It really is a diverse and exciting festival.

Q. And there is a legacy project?

A. WM: Our plan is to have a legacy project for each KWRF. This year’s project is the establishment of a mobile library, which will go out to the local schools. We’re looking for donations of books – especially children’s books, and in any language – to get our library up and running. Look out for the book ‘drop-box’ outside the KAMA coffee corner.

Q. Sounds like the three of you have been busy.

A. RS: Yes, we are all volunteers, so we all wear many hats. I have been helping with the website, media relations and communications.

Wayne is the de facto programme manager and he has been responsible for creating the programme as it pertains to non-music events. He is the one responsible for mapping out all our workshops etc. Wayne is also guiding our community initiatives and outreach programmes, such as the mobile library.

Julien, through his global network, has really been the spark that has allowed the flame to grow so brightly. He has put together our incredible music programme and done a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of getting people from around the world involved.

Q. So, who should go?

A. WM: I think the question should be “why wouldn’t you want to go?” Anyone with a passion for the ‘word’, a love of entertainment, and an appreciation of the richness of Cambodian provincial life should strike out for Kampot. Just make sure you book your accommodation first!

Q. What does it cost?

A. WM: Basically, everything, with a couple of exceptions, is free. There are no tickets. Instead, it is very much a first seated, best placed scenario. So come early and enjoy the show. Details of partners, accommodation and transport can all be found on our wonderful festival website.

Kampot Writers and Readers Festival

Do let us know if you’re heading down to Kampot for the festival. We’d love to meet you. I’ll be participating on two festival panels: Wired for Travel, where I’ll be talking about the role of storytelling, writers and readers in today’s travel and publishing climate, where travellers are increasingly mobile and connected and so much content is user-generated; and E-Publishing 101, where I’ll cover blogging and storytelling, challenges and issues, and consider the role of the writer and reader in the blogosphere.  

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