Writers and performers from across the globe are gearing up to descend on Cambodia this month for the inaugural Kampot Readers and Writers Festival. Editor Marissa Carruthers takes a sneak peek at what’s in store.

Anyone with a passion for the written or spoken word will have heard of Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF). As the cultural heart of the Indonesian island of Bali, beautiful Ubud has become synonymous with one of Asia’s most-esteemed literature festivals, which this year celebrated its 12th installment.

Annually, thousands of creatives head to the island to enjoy the more than 200 events that take in panel discussions, workshops, lunches, parties, poetry slams and more, with renowned authors from across the region and beyond clamouring to take part.

This month, following on from Bali’s business, the creative juices will be flowing in Cambodia, thanks to the launch of Kampot Readers and Writers Festival (KRWF). As an official sister festival to Ubud, organisers have high hopes for its success, with a string of international authors already signed up for its premier.

“We think Cambodia is an extraordinary place that’s full of stories,” says Julien Poulson, festival co-founder, UWRF stalwart of eight years and member of Cambodian Space Project. “It is beautiful but at the same time debased, brutal and primitive. That is why this is the perfect place to hold a festival.”

The guest of honour comes in the form of legendary musician, songwriter and master in the art of storytelling, Paul Kelly. Described as Australia’s poet laureate of music in a career that spans more than 40 years, Kelly has penned more than 350 songs that tackle the experiences, aspirations and struggles of everyday Australians.

“The main thing I’ll be doing is listening,” says Kelly, who will be making his Cambodian debut to check out the talent as well as put on a special performance of his own. “Events like this are great for meeting like-minded people; other creatives. They offer an opportunity to talk to other people about their creativity or their struggles; people who are just starting out or people who have been in the game for a long time.”

In 2010, Kelly proved he could put pen to paper to create prose when he released his memoirs – How to Make Gravy – a process he claims came more naturally than songwriting. “Writing prose is more joyful and easier than writing songs. Songs can be elusive; you can sit down all day to write and be left with nothing,” he says. “With prose, you can set yourself a target and by the end of the day be left with, say, 500 words. Most of the time with songwriting, nothing happens.”

Expected to attract more than 1,000 people to the usually sleepy town, KRWF spans four days and presents a jam-packed bill spread across several venues. Taking in everything from discussions, poetry readings, music concerts and book launches, to children’s events, book swaps, workshops and cooking classes, the free event aims to promote anything to do with words. “Whether it’s written, spoken or sung, it can be found here,” says co-organiser Wayne McCallum.

“It is beautiful but at the same time debased, brutal and primitive”

Headlining the bill alongside Kelly is founder of Cambodian Living Arts and author, Arn Chorn-Pond. After becoming separated from his family during the 1975 Khmer Rouge take-over, Chorn-Pond was sent to a child labour camp where, in five days, he was taught to play the flute to entertain soldiers. He escaped death by playing propaganda music for generals during executions.

After escaping to a refugee camp on the Thai border when Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia in 1979, Chorn-Pond was educated in America before returning to his homeland in the 1990s. Since then he has worked tirelessly to rebuild Cambodia’s artistic and musical history, and bring it into the modern world.

Other highlights include workshops on publishing material, e-publishing and the noir movement, debates on journalism and its future in the Kingdom, a Khmer poetry session, as well as evening entertainment from Kampot Playboys, Bokor Mountain Magic Band and a series of DJs that should keep you in the party spirit.

And for those performers out there who are grappling with their nerves, Kelly has some top tips.

“I wouldn’t call it stage fright but I still get nervous,” the veteran performer admits. “The best advice I ever had for nerves was from my grandmother who said, first remember to breath, and then concentrate on taking slow breathes.”

As momentum gathers ahead of the event, and the bill continues to bulge, KRWF looks set to be a success. Co-founder Robert Starkweather adds, “At the end of the day, you get to hang out in a nice town with people who share the same interests. What’s not to like?”

KRWF runs from Nov. 5 to 8. For more information and for a full schedule, visit kampotwritersfestival.com.