Inaugural Kampot Writers’ Festival Runs Through Sunday

In the past three months, the inaugural Kampot Writers and Readers Festival, which begins today, has gone from a nebulous idea to a hotly anticipated cultural event featuring international and local artists.

The growth of the festival has even surprised its trio of organizers, writer Wayne McCallum and musician Julien Poulson, who live in Kampot, and designer Robert Starkweather, who lives in Phnom Penh.

Australian musician Paul Kelly, who is headlining this weekend's Kampot Writers and Readers Festival (Kampot Writers and Readers Festival)
Australian musician Paul Kelly, who is headlining this weekend’s Kampot Writers and Readers Festival (Kampot Writers and Readers Festival)

“Originally it started off with me and Julien having a beer in Kampot and we said, ‘Yeah let’s do it,’” said Mr. McCallum, who is from New Zealand. “It came together very quickly…. That’s the great thing about Cambodia, you can just kind of go for it.”

The event garnered increased publicity after the announcement of the headliner, Australian singer and songwriter Paul Kelly. Mr. Poulson, an Australian who has collaborated with Mr. Kelly in the past in recordings with his band Cambodian Space Project, said Mr. Kelly’s reputation as a legendary lyricist made him the perfect fit for a festival celebrating the power of the word.

“He is a great writer and storyteller and great celebrity to have at the first edition,” he said.

More than 50 events will take place over the four-day festival at about 20 venues, ranging from intimate cafes and bookstores to larger spaces like the Kampot Arts and Music Association auditorium.

The diverse program will feature the launch of literary magazine the Mekong Review, a cooking demonstration from award-winning cookbook authors Morrison Polkinghorne and Robert Carmack, and a discussion from prominent writers of Southeast Asian noir such as John Gartland.

Aside from Mr. Kelly, the musicians who will be performing at the festival are predominantly Khmer, including multi-instrumentalist Arn Chorn-Pond, founder of the NGO Cambodian Living Arts, popular rockers the Kampot Playboys and a group of  former garment workers called The Messengers.

“I’ve been very conscious of trying to shape and steer away from [an expat festival] but of course that is really what happens with a lot of arts events,” Mr. Poulson said. “The literate and engaged audience are mostly foreigners, but there is a huge amount of goodwill from the Cambodian community.”

Award-winning poet Chheangly Yeng, who will perform a reading on Friday afternoon accompanied by emerging Khmer poet Yorn Young, said the event provided a unique opportunity for artists to share ideas.

“I want to listen to different poets and writers, see what they are writing about. I hope I will get some inspiration from them,” he said.

The theme of this year’s festival is “bridges,” and Mr. McCallum said he hoped the connections forged between the Cambodian artists and foreigners would lead to a larger Cambodian contingent at future festivals.

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