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Sunday, June 24, 2007

Cambodia supports Pakistan as full dialogue partner for ASEAN

The Cambodian government fully supports Pakistan as full dialogue partner for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), local media reported Saturday.

Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Nam Hong has told newly appointed Pakistan Ambassador Mohammad Younis Khan that Cambodia supported Pakistan which was proposed to be full dialogue partner with ASEAN, Sin Bun Thoeurn, head of press department of the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, was quoted by the Raksmey Kampuchea Daily as saying.

Meanwhile, Cambodia and Pakistan will improve bilateral ties and cooperation through the embassy in Phnom Penh, which was opened in 2005, Sin Bun Thoeurn said.

Hor Nam Hong also urged the Pakistan side to help implement the project with 10 million U.S. dollars of loan for an irrigation system in Kampong Speu province, which was pledged by Pakistan while its premier Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali visited Cambodia in 2004, Sin Bun Thoeurn added.

Source: Xinhua
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Holidays with a conscience

By LIM CHEE WAH

Don’t just travel. Travel responsibly. Here are a couple of hotels that offer the tourist with a conscience the opportunity to help the disadvantaged in Cambodia while enjoying a holiday there.

I GUESS I was like most people who hadn’t been to Cambodia: I had this image in my head fabricated from postcards and media visuals of beautiful, surreal Angkor Wat ruins.

Last year, in search of validation of that image, I finally went to Cambodia; specifically, to Siem Reap, the town closest to the temple complex – and I was taken completely by surprise.

Siem Reap – the whole of Cambodia, for that matter – is a place of uneasy contrasts. On the one hand, because of Angkor Wat, Siem Reap has an active tourist industry, which means pricey restaurants (like the Blue Pumpkin, which “wouldn’t look out of place in London or Paris,” says lonelyplanet.com) and luxury hotels (even one of the very exclusive Amanresorts places). On the other hand, you have very obvious, grinding poverty.

You might have heard friends who have visited describe this country’s poverty or seen TV documentaries about it but you can’t really grasp just how hard life is there until you’ve been there and seen it for yourself.

Pol Pot’s horrifying regime might have ended in the 1970s, but the country is still struggling to come back from the Khmer Rouge leader’s attempt to send it back into the dark ages by killing teachers, artists and intellectuals, thousands of people that didn’t conform to his twisted idea of what was “politically correct”. His bloody rule left a sense of chaos that still lingers and stripped Cambodia of its ability to progress and become self-sufficient.

You see children hawking postcards, bamboo flutes, books and other trinkets within the temple compounds when they ought to be in school. Or children who are obviously too young to look after themselves, carrying a baby sibling, begging for change on the streets.

Everywhere you turn, you will be confronted by the disheartening difficulties of this land’s people. If you are a traveller with a conscience, it would be hard to leave the children out on the street and enter your nice hotel to tuck into a hearty meal....

This is where the growing area of socially responsible tourism can help. This is tourism that is “good for you and good for me”, as one website put it; the “me” in this case being the country (usually a Third World one) the tourist is visiting. The idea is to enjoy the country while contributing to its development rather simply exploiting its heritage, environment and people.

Tourism that touches lives

In Siem Reap, two sister hotels are championing this cause wholeheartedly: Hotel de la Paix and Shinta Mani. They both sit firmly in the higher end of the market, yet they refuse to sugar-coat the place and its troubles with the gloss of luxury. Rather, they encourage travellers to connect with the locals and the land in all their bare honesty.

Earlier this year, I went back to Siem Reap but this time I made a point of visiting these two hotels.

One drizzly morning, over breakfast coffee, Chitra Vincent, general manager of boutique hotel Shinta Mani, tells me an inspiring story of how a simple connection had changed a local family’s life for the better:

Eight-year-old Kim Lay was no different from any other child vendor in Angkor – except for her ear for foreign languages. Her command of English so impressed a Californian couple that were guests at Shinta Mani that they took her back to the hotel, determined to help her attend school and stop peddling postcards to tourists.

With the hotel’s help, the couple channel US$100 (RM340) a month to Kim and her brother to support their schooling. Kim happily walks into Shinta Mani every day now to pick up her boxed lunch before going on to school. She writes to the couple, which she refers to as her godparents, every month.

That is what you get when you stay at Shinta Mani: the opportunity to contribute to the local community.

In fact, just by staying there, even without making any direct donations, a guest would already be helping young people in Siem Reap because Shinta Mani was actually created to fund its highly acclaimed Institute of Hospitality. The institute provides underprivileged Khmer youth with free, full-time training in restaurant and hotel work. These students, once they graduate, are highly sought after by employers in Cambodia’s burgeoning hospitality industry.

As with most hospitality schools, students here get to choose what field they want to specialise in, be it the culinary field, housekeeping, front office operations, maintenance or even spa management (Hotel de la Paix has the well-known Spa Indochine and Shinta Mani also has a spa).

But this is Cambodia, so this is not your ordinary school; to get students into the school, you have to take care of the whole family. So, students are given rice to take back home with them, together with a monthly allowance of US$10 (RM34) to make up for the family’s loss of income now that they are no longer working.

Vincent confesses that picking candidates for the institute has been among the most difficult moments in her working life “because everybody’s story is so sad”. The school can accommodate only 28 students; for this year’s intake, 225 eager young people turned up for the interviews. It’s heartbreaking to turn students away when you know this school could be their one chance to lift not only themselves but also their whole family out of poverty.

Menu of good deeds

Noelene Henderson, sales and marketing director of Hotel de la Paix, is confident that Shinta Mani’s community service model has the potential to grow. There are plans to make Shinta Mani into a brand and take it into other provinces within Cambodia, as well as Luang Prabang in Laos and also into Vietnam.

Shinta Mani’s luxurious sister property, Hotel de la Paix, however, has a different set of community outreach programmes. Things like visits to orphanages and rural villages can be arranged for interested guests, for instance.

Guests can also choose how they want to contribute through the hotel’s Connections “menu”. For as little as US$25 (RM85), you can support a family for a month with a food package that includes 50kg of rice, five cans of dried fish, five bottles of soy sauce and oil and salt.

You can also donate a pair of piglets for a family to raise, which they can resell six months later to generate income. This “Piggy Bank” option costs US$70 (RM238).

There are many more “menu” items to choose from, from donating school supplies and sponsoring rice to building a house for a family.

But the best part of the Connections menu is not the comfort you can purchase for people. It’s giving them hope and presenting them with the opportunity to change their lives for the better, a contribution that is far more precious than any material sustenance.

In Cambodia, less than 11% of the population have access to fresh water. A mere US$90 (RM306) is enough to provide a family with a much needed well. This doesn’t just mean a clean water supply but also the opportunity for the family to take up agriculture and generate an income for themselves. It is, ultimately, so much more than just a well: it is a way out of poverty.

Currently, Hotel de la Paix and Shinta Mani have put in 360 wells in Siem Reap and the surrounding region. They have also helped improve the lives of over 2,000 villagers by teaching them farming and providing material assistance. Families who make outstanding progress are rewarded with a brick house complete with toilet and septic tank. To date, the hotels have built 17 such houses.

Hotel de la Paix’s philosophy is explained eloquently by its executive chef, Joannes Riviere: “Supporting the local community is also about putting money into the system, which I think is far more important that the one-time donation sort of ‘community service’ that we are so accustomed to.”

Sewing up the future

The hotel’s latest joint venture with a Cambodian NGO, Life and Hope Association (LHA), is a fine example of how tourist dollars are being invested in supporting the local community.

The community sewing school caters to disadvantaged women, especially the “brick-laying girls” who work long hours in brick-making factories for less than a dollar a day.

LHA director Hoeurn Somnieng, who also oversees the school, explains that, “the school provides the girls with life skills so that they and those under their care won’t remain victims of poverty or domestic violence for the rest of their lives”.

Students, who range in age from 14 to 34, are also taught English language skills and, at the end of their training, will each take home a sewing machine to start their own business.

Sustainability is a major driving force of Hotel de la Paix and Shinta Mani’s community projects. The sewing school is currently making school uniforms requested by the guests of Hotel de la Paix for donation to villages and orphanages. There are also plans to produce commissioned items for other hotels.

However, the most remarkable thing about these two hotel’s community projects is the ripple effect of positive changes that has ensued. It’s like they have put into motion a system of “pay it forward” that might just be the catalyst of change in Siem Reap.

Srey Mom’s story is a good example. After graduating from Shinta Mani’s Institute of Hospitality two years back, she is now working in Hotel de la Piax’s bakery, earning a respectable wage that is more than double the income that her entire family put together earns.

What’s even more vital is the fact that her training at the institute has made her realise the importance of education and she is now putting her brothers and sisters through school. This is what it means to break the cycle of poverty. As that proverb says, “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach him how to fish and he will eat for a lifetime”.

There’s another aspect to these two hotels’ tourism-based community programmes that sets them apart from your usual aid efforts: accountability.

Remember the rash of relief organisations that seemed to pop up after the Asian tsunami in 2004 and how we all scrambled to donate to them? Do you know what, exactly, has happened to your money? With Hotel de la Paix and Shinta Mani’s programmes, you can see just how your money is used – you can go and meet the orphans who got the books bought with your money. You could meet Srey in the bakery.

This is why even the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (www.world-tourism.org) has recognised that tourism has great potential to alleviate poverty. So the next time you plan a trip, consider socially conscious tourism.


For more information on Hotel de la Paix go to hoteldelapaixangkor. com, call +855-63-966 000, fax +855-63-966 001 or e-mail info@hoteldelapaixangkor.com.
To contact Shinta Mani, go to shintamani.com, call +855-63-761 998, fax +855-63-761 999 or e-mail cba@shintamani.com.

The Business Enterprises for SustainableTravel (BEST) website, sustainabletravel.org, offers tips on How To Be a Civic Traveler.
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Cambodia, Vietnam commemorate 40 years anniversary of diplomatic ties

Cambodia and Vietnam celebrated the 40 year anniversary of diplomatic relations at a ceremony here on Saturday, while both countries determined to have more cooperation and help each other for development, a joint statement said.

Cambodia and Vietnam determined to cooperate to work harder than before and maintain their relationship as good forever because they are neighbors which used to help each other, the statement said.

It added that the diplomatic relations have made the two countries help each other in liberating from new and old colonies and made they have independence, national unity, peace and development subsequently.

The ceremony was attended by about 50 senior governmental officials from both countries, including Cambodian senior minister Men Sam On.

The Kingdom of Cambodia and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam established diplomatic relations on June 24, 1967.

Source: Xinhua
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