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Saturday, April 21, 2007

Mighty Mekong meanders through Indo-China real life portraits

Thomas Gross



THE mighty Mekong river runs nearly 5,000 kilometres through Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam and while it may not be the longest river in Asia, it is certainly the most beautiful.

The river flows into the South China Sea just south of Saigon, known today as Ho Chi Minh City, and its delta is the starting point for many cruises.

It is not possible to navigate the entire length of the Mekong since the Sambor rapids prevent further passage.

Luckily, the confluence with the Tonle Sap, the river's main tributary, is just above Phnom Penh and ships can use it to reach the celebrated temple complex of Angkor Wat.

Gliding along the lower reaches of the Mekong offers the visitor a broad tableaux of local everyday life.

Only two cruise vessels ply this section, the "Tonle Pandaw" and the "Mekong Pandaw" which can carry 66 or 64 passengers respectively. Those who have booked a trip upriver board their ship in My Tho in Vietnam, some 60km south of Saigon.

The journey unfolds past mangrove forests and green rice paddies, offering glimpses of many villages and cottage industries along the way.

Now and again the ships pass a bathing spot where children enjoy a dip while their mothers wash clothes and crockery in the water.

There are hardly any roads hereabouts the river is the main transport artery and that explains why it is so busy.

Motorboats dart past canoes being paddled from bank to bank while the traditional sampan wooden cargo boat is a common sight.

When it runs close to larger towns and cities the Mekong becomes even more lively.

Take the bustling town of Cai Be, where the big river cruisers tie up at the dockside. A maze of canals, it boasts many gardens, some temples and a church but no streets to speak of. The floating market is the main attraction here and it lures farmers from the outlying districts who trade their wares straight from the deck of a sampan.

Chau Doc is another hive of activity. The town on the border with Cambodia is dominated by a huge dockside market selling local produce and commodities. The fresh food booths offer anything from dried fish to peeled grapefruit or even frog's legs for the gourmet.

Seen from the water the crossing into Cambodia on the Mekong is not spectacular. Beyond the border there are fewer settlements and houses alongside the river compared with the stretch inside Vietnam.

The Cambodian riverside is altogether less busy until shortly before Phnom Penh. This energetic city is the largest settlement along the river. The waterside is dominated by relics of the past, pagodas and palaces attract the eye alongside handsome villas built in the French colonial style.

The best place to muse over artefacts of the Khmer culture is the National Museum, whose riches were fortunately not plundered during the murderous reign of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979.

It is best to set aside a whole day to admire the many statues and bas-reliefs. The huge central market erected in the Art-deco style is also well worth a visit along with the Royal Palace.

The horrors of Cambodia's recent past can be seen at the Tuol- Sleng Genocide museum. After a tour of the former Pol Pot torture chambers, the proverbial gentleness and friendliness of the Cambodians seem all the more astonishing.

Beyond Phnom Penh the cruise ship leaves the Mekong to chug up the Tonle Sap. This river is unique since for half of the year, starting from the rainy season in June, it reverses its flow. From November onward the normal flow to the river mouth is resumed.

On the northern shore of Tonle Sap lake lies the booming provincial town of Siem Reap. The most compelling reason to come here is to visit Angkor Wat, one of the world's most spectacular ancient temples. The complex has been on Unesco's list of world cultural monuments since 1992. Around 1,000 relics lie strewn across this vast site stretching across some 200 sq km.

Those with only a few days to spare should concentrate on Angkor Wat, the world's largest religious structure, and plan trips to the overgrown city of Angkor Thom and the Ta Phrom temple district.

Both world culture and subculture are catered for in Siem Reap which offers a wide range of bars and clubs in the centre, one street is even called "Bar Street". One of the establishments is the "Red Piano Bar" where actress Angelina Jolie was a guest when she filmed the movie Tomb Raider in Angkor Wat in 2001. It comes as no surprise that the most popular drink here is "Tomb Raider Cocktail". DPA
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Cambodian civil rights activist comes to L.B.

Kem Sokha says he is returning to the political fold.
By Greg Mellen, Staff writer

LONG BEACH - Cambodian human rights activist Kem Sokha is back in the political game.
After spending five years as the ultimate political outsider, watch dog and critic of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People's Party in his role as president of the Cambodia Center for Human Rights, Kem announced he is stepping down from the nongovernmental organization to launch a new political party.

The Human Rights Party has applied for status from the Cambodian Ministry of the Interior and could be officially recognized by next week.

In an effort to drum up international support, Kem has been touring the North American continent, with recent stops in Canada, Seattle and Northern California.

On Sunday, he will speak in Long Beach at the Holiday Inn, 1133 Atlantic Ave., at 3 p.m. Admission is free. With the largest concentration of Cambodians in the United States, Long Beach is a vital stop for native Cambodians seeking U.S. support. This is Kem's second visit to Long Beach in just over a year.

With national elections slated in 2008, Kem hopes to provide a legitimate opposition party to the ruling CPP, which has been consolidating power in Cambodia.

After walking away from the often unseemly world of Cambodian politics in 2002, Kem earned tremendous popularity in his country, particularly in rural areas, as an advocate for human rights.

Across the countryside, Kem's group organized forums in which residents aired grievances and discussed the issues of the day. The forums, which were often highly critical of the government, were broadcast on the "Voice of Democracy" radio program.

"For almost five years, I educated people about human rights and democracy," Kem said. "Now the people ask me to go into politics."

Asked to run

According to Kem, more than 200,000 Cambodians signed petitions recruiting him to create a party.

"I tell them, I don't want to establish a party. I want them to establish a party, and I will help them," Kem says.

Kem is no stranger to Cambodian politics. He was a member of the parliament established after the United Nations sanctioned elections in 1993 and served until 2002 as a representative and senator. He was also chairman of the National Assembly Human Rights Commission.

However, throughout his career, he has been a lightning rod, in part because of his liberal views about democracy.

In January 2006, he was jailed for 17 days on criminal defamation charges, which were later dropped. When news of Kem's jailing was released, there was immediate condemnation from the international community, which likely hastened his release.

Kem also fled the country in 1997 after a government coup, and in 1998, he sought protection in the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh.

Critics of Kem have questioned his motives since he created his human rights group, claiming it barely disguised his true goals of returning to politics.

A year ago, when Kem was declaring he was uninterested in politics, the Sam Rainsy Party said Kem had "aims at conquering the SRP electorate for his future political party."

Other critics say, at best, Kem will dilute the power of opposition parties and help Hun Sen and the CCP further consolidate their power.

"(Those) people don't understand what I do," Kem said. "My objective is real democracy in Cambodia. There are many parties in Cambodia, but no real democracy."

To underscore his claim that he is not seeking personal power, Kem says one of the main platforms in his party is a two-term term limit.

The effect

Michael Hayes, publisher and editor in chief of the English-language Phnom Penh Post, says it's too early to gauge Kem's electoral clout.

"It depends on how much money he can raise for his campaign. Obviously, the more `opposition parties' there are, the less likely the chance any one of them will gain a significant number of seats in Parliament. So this will be a problem for the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), which is currently the strongest opposition party," Hayes said in an e-mailed response to questions.

The relationship between Kem and Sam Rainsy has been prickly in the past, which may make for rough going in attempts at coalition.

For now, the Sam Rainsy Party is taking a neutral stance.

"For SRP, we welcome all political parties which abide by democratic principles like us," Chrea Sochenda of Sam Rainsy Party told Radio Free Asia, "but in general, SRP has no concern about anybody forming a political party, or about any personality forming his party."

Hayes sees a wrinkle in the upcoming vote.

"The elections will be interesting, mostly because around 1 million Cambodians will have turned 18 since the 2003 elections and will thus be eligible to vote," Hayes wrote in an e-mail. "These young people have different aspirations and world views than their parents and no memories of the Khmer Rouge years. The opposition is hoping they will vote for change; the CPP is working on ways to get them to support the ruling party."

Kem says the recent commune-level elections in his country showed a lot of disaffection and apathy among voters. He is after the estimated 2.5 million voters who didn't exercise their rights to vote.

"I want to integrate those 2.5 million," Kem said. "If you give people hope and choice, that's real democracy."
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