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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Living in a water world

By Penny Watson

In the jungle and farmland surrounding the Cambodian city of Siem Reap, the famous Angkor temples punctuate the landscape. Remains of the ancient Khmer empire, these magnificent edifices, numbering more than 1,000, vary in scale, design and state of repair.

Tourists descend on the complexes particularly during the dry season, starting in October. But for an escape from the Angkor audience, you can take an easy side trip to the nearby floating village of Kompong Phluk. We traveled only 25 kilometers via motorbike, boat and tuk-tuk, a type of motorized rickshaw, to leave the busy tourist hub far behind. Our wooden longboat slipped through the narrow waterways, past ravaged banks battered by the wet season. As we stared in awe at this strange landscape, our guide explained how Kompong Phluk came to be.

The result is nature's own anomaly — a sunken mangrove forest, home to a curious species that survives almost completely submerged in water, and Kompong Phluk, a floating stilt village, ebbing and flowing with the coming and going of the seasons.

We pulled up beside a crude-looking jetty servicing a row of stilt houses 8 or 9 meters above us. The jetty led to a strip of dry road running up the middle of the village. In the worst of the wet season we would have been treading water, but at the start of the dry season we had the advantage of being able to explore on foot.

We climbed a bamboo ladder to the abode of a wiry old man, who was happy to receive guests for the customary exchange of a small tip. His hut was made of ad hoc bamboo scaffolding and sheets of rusted, corrugated iron. Inside, barely-there walls made of overlapping palm leaves separated three small living areas, home to a family of six, maybe seven.

We continued our walk to the pagoda, one of Kompong Phluk's few concrete buildings, where two smiling monks were biding their time, smoking and talking. Come the flooding waters, this small patch is the only dry land in the village, the only constant in an environment where water dictates a way of life.

Getting there and around: Bangkok Airways (www.bangkokair.com) and Vietnam Airlines (www.vietnamair.com.vn) fly to Siem Reap from Bangkok and Saigon, respectively. To get to Kompong Phluk, find a tuk-tuk-driving guide in Siem Reap. He will negotiate cheaper fares and establish the best route to the village depending on whether you travel in the wet season (April to September) or the dry season (October to March). It will cost $40-$75 for two people, including tips.

Most visitors stay in Siem Reap. Jasmine Lodge (www.jasminelodge.com) goes the extra mile with clean fan rooms and a free rooftop pool table by the restaurant. Hidden down the back streets, Red Lodge (www.redlodge angkor.com) is a modern villa with free bicycles. Khmer, Thai, Indian, Vietnamese, Japanese and Western eateries abound in town.

Richard I'Anson / Lonely Planet Images After rainy season, Tonle Sap Lake rises, creating floating markets and villages in Cambodia. One floating village, Kompong Phluk, is just 25 kilometers from the bustling city of Siem Reap.
Living in a water world

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Cambodian tyrant Pol Pot's limousine for sale on eBay

PHNOM PENH - CAR collectors with macabre tastes and at least £35,000 (S$104,000) to spare now have a chance to own a limousine reportedly used by Pol Pot, the late chief of Cambodia's notorious Khmer Rouge.

'For sale - one classic 1973 Mercedes Benz stretch limousine ... previously used by one infamous owner Pol Pot, who led the Khmer Rouge during its genocidal regime in Cambodia from 1975-1979,' reads a listing on the online auction site eBay.

The car, reportedly purchased in 2001 by the current owner, who used it 'for Sunday drives around Phnom Penh and the outskirts,' had attracted one bidder by Sunday afternoon, with bidding due to end Tuesday.

The seller is apparently an expatriate British banker, Paul Freer, who bought the car when he lived in Phnom Penh, but moved to neighbouring Laos a year ago. He could not immediately be reached for comment.

Whether the vehicle was actually used by Pol Pot could not be independently confirmed.

Records of virtually everything were lost during the regime of the Khmer Rouge, who abolished private ownership and attempted to turn Cambodia into a primitive agricultural society. The communist group's radical policies also led to the deaths of some 1.7 million people from hunger, diseases, overwork and execution.

'Part of the proceeds of the sale will be given to a Cambodian children's charity,' says the car's description on eBay, which added that the vehicle was originally acquired by a foreign journalist who discovered it being used by Cambodian farmers to transport watermelons to market.

The ad claims the car was also used by Hollywood movie star Matt Dillon when he filmed his movie 'City of Ghosts' in Cambodia in 2001.

The car, waiting for a new owner, has been on display at the Renakse Hotel opposite the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh for about a year now, Yan Phirun, a hotel worker, said on Sunday. He said he is a nephew of Mr Freer's Cambodian wife, Chhea Lina.

'I used to hear my aunt saying that the car used to belong to Pol Pot. She bought it from a previous owner,' he said.

Mr Sep Yan, a receptionist at the hotel, said many people have looked at the car and left because the asking price may be too high.

'I don't know the real history of the car because I was not yet born' when the Khmer Rouge were in power, he said.

Mr Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, an independent group researching Khmer Rouge crimes, said there were quite a few black Mercedes Benz vehicles used by Khmer Rouge dignitaries.

'There is no way you can confirm which one belonged to Pol Pot,' he said. -- AP


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Cambodia given more patrol boats

China is giving Cambodia nine naval patrol boats to safeguard oil installations in the Gulf of Thailand, another sign of Beijing's deepening ties with the Southeast Asian nation, military officials said.

"These boats will enable us to prevent maritime crimes such as terrorism, but also to protect natural resources within our sea territory," said General Nim Sovath, who attended a signing ceremony in the Chinese city of Guangzhou this week.

An army-run Cambodian TV channel heralded the deal as evidence of stronger military cooperation with China, which provided Phnom Penh with six naval patrol boats in 2005 to help combat people and drug smuggling.

Beijing followed up the next year with $600 million (NZ$794 million) in aid and grants - a sum equal to the annual amount given by Cambodia's traditional donors.

Cambodia is expected to take possession of the vessels, believed to be worth around $60 million (NZ$79.4 million), early next month.

Even though Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen spent much of his life fighting Pol Pot's Beijing-backed Khmer Rouge, he has worked hard in recent years to build ties with China as a counterweight to Vietnam, which lies between them.

The improved relationship also works well for Beijing, keen to negotiate access to friendly deep-sea ports in Southeast Asia, its main fuel gateway.

Sihanoukville, Cambodia's only such port, will be the processing centre for oil and natural gas expected to flow from its Block A chunk of the Gulf of Thailand by 2010.

US oil giant Chevron Corp is leading exploration drilling.

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