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Saturday, July 05, 2008

The Slowest Train in The World

By Tynan


Cambodia has only one passenger train that still runs, and I'm on it right now.

Calling it a passenger train is a bit of a misnomer, though. Most of the few seats still attached to the floor are piled high with exotic fruits: durians, pineapples, and several others that I've eaten before but can't name. I think one's a jackfruit, and another might be a soursop.

Half of the back car is full of lumber which I helped load a few stops ago. I almost crushed my foot.

The train is slow, probably the slowest train in the world. The fastest I clocked it with my GPS was 17kph. That's fast enough that if you want to take a jog you can just hop out the back and run along.

The journey from Battambang, a city reasonably close to the Thai border, to Phnom Penh takes four hours by air conditioned bus. I've been on the train for 17 hours now and there's been no word on when we'll finally arrive. The official timetable claimed it would be 5 hours ago.

As I write I'm sitting in one of the wood benches, which puts me in the minority. Most people string up cloth hammocks in front of the open windows or ride on the roof.

I rode on the roof for a good part of the day. The local kids showed me how to jump from car to car as if I was part of an Indiana Jones movie.

When I arrived at the train station this morning there were a dozen other foreigners. Most of them stayed as long as Purset, the big stop 5 hours in which allows the rest of the journey to be completed by bus.

Four of us are left. My friend Todd, a lonely planet writer named Andrew, and Laila who has been traveling for 4 months and is expecting to travel for another 12. Her seat is a huge bag of charcoal that she claims is more comfortable than my bench. She's probably right.

The train probably won't run for much longer. Giant holes in the roof douse everyone and their cargo when it rains. No attempt is made at repairing the gaping holes in the rotting floor that expose the wheels and the track below us.

We once stopped unexpectedly because one of the four car's bumpers had jumped onto another one's.

You might be wondering why anyone would ever ride this train, and you might be surprised that I couldn't possible recommend it any more. Why?

Because THIS is how to see Cambodia. Not all of it, of course, but it's a whopping serving of authentic Cambodian life.

From the rusted roof of the train you get an unrestricted view of the beautiful rice paddies that cover the countryside. You watch as families work together to harvest the rice and direct their Oxen.

Children run up to the train and wave and yell out the few English phrases they know.

The train makes a few short stops, mainly to load or unload lumber and fruits, and vendors run up with trays of food, illuminated by kerosene lanterns.

I've been to a lot of countries, and I'm not sure I've met friendlier people.

When the monks saw that Laina had only bought one bag of steamed rice, they bought her another bag and some eggs. The woman sitting near us insisted on holding my flashlight while we ate.

When a pineapple vendor started cutting up one of her pineapples on the train, I hurried over to buy it. She gave it to me and then absolutely refused to take money.

Everyone smiles and tries to talk to us. They show us how to tie our hammocks and warn us when the train is about to leave after a stop.

Traveling can be more about the journey than the destination. I haven't been to Phnom Penh yet, but I don't know how it will be more memorable and enjoyable than the ride over.

If you're in the area and you want a train ride of a lifetime, check out this page on seat61.com, which is an amazing resource for traveling by train, bus, or boat.

UPDATE: It took 24 hours total. A parting word of advice - buy a hammock in Battambang before you go. The locals will show you how to hang it.
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Last chance to see Davik

By Greg Mellen, Staff Writer

LONG BEACH - Friends and supporters of Davik Teng will have a last chance to say goodbye before she and her mom return to their home in Cambodia next week.

Hearts Without Borders, the Long Beach nonprofit that found the 9-year-old with the heart defect and brought her to the Southland for open-heart surgery, will play host to a final benefit for Davik and her mom, Sin Chhon, Sunday at 5:30 p.m. at Golden Villa Restaurant, 1360 E. Anaheim St.

The cost of the dinner, which will be a Khmer buffet prepared by Sophy's Restaurant, is $25. The event will include Khmer music. Money from the event will help Hearts Without Boundaries bring another ailing Cambodian child to the U.S.

Davik was discovered in a remote village outside of Battambang City in Cambodia. She suffered from a heart condition called a septal defect - a hole in her heart that was the size of quarter.

Because blood did not effectively flow through her heart she suffered from shortness of breath and fatigue. As the conditioned worsened, she faced the likelihood of a life of decreasing quality and likely ending in an early death.

Only open-heart surgery would improve her condition. After attempts to have the procedure performed in Cambodia failed, Hearts Without Boundaries negotiated with Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, which donated its facilities and staff to perform the surgery.

Davik underwent the procedure March 24. She has since been cleared to travel and will fly back to Cambodia July 10.

After Davik returns home, Hearts Without Boundaries hopes to find another child to save. The organization is currently negotiating with local hospitals for its next ailing child.

For information about the "Last Dance With Davik," call Peter Chhun at 818-640-6191 or Lakhena Chhuon at 562-397-5513.

greg.mellen@presstelegram.com, 562-499-1291
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Former FM: Thailand never supported Cambodia on temple claim

BANGKOK, July 5 (TNA) - Former Thai foreign minister Nitya Pibulsonggram said Saturday that Thailand never supported Cambodia's unilateral application to register Preah Vihear temple as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

His denial was made after current Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama on Friday told the Constitution Court it
was the previous government of Gen. Surayud Chulanont, installed by the September 2006 coup-makers, which had pushed and supported attempts by the Cambodian government to register the temple as a World Heritage site, and not himself.

Mr. Noppadon said the previous government made the commitment during the 31st meeting of the World
Heritage Committee meeting, held in Christchurch, New Zealand, in June last year.

But Mr. Nitya said the Thai government, while represented at last year's meeting, did not agree that Cambodia should apply for the listing of the temple alone without cooperation from Thailand, forcing the World Heritage Committee to postpone the decision as Cambodia did not receive sufficient votes to support it.

Thailand at last year's meeting reiterated that close cooperation between the two countries was needed and
that both should also discuss plans to jointly manage the area, Mr. Nitya said, adding that Thailand's support
depended upon conditions being met.

Mr. Nitya said Thai representatives attending a meeting in the Cambodian town of Siem Reap in January this
year again opposed the Cambodian government's idea to apply to register the temple after it proposed an
earlier map which included disputed area claimed by both countries.

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee will again consider the matter at the current annual meeting in
Canada. The issue is expected to be taken up Sunday. (TNA)-E111
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Thai Museum at Angkor Raises Ire in Cambodia

SIEM REAP, Cambodia — There is no question that Angkor and its famed temples are among the world’s archaeological treasures, providing a window into the Cambodian dynasty that flourished there from the ninth century to the 15th century. But tourists who flock to the site in northwestern Cambodia say something is missing; few artifacts remain to help them imagine the customs and rituals of the ancient empire.

Antiquities were looted over the centuries or appropriated by museums in France, the country’s former colonial ruler. Of those that remained, many were relocated to Cambodia’s National Museum, more than 185 miles from Angkor.

Now, a Thai company says it is trying to address the problem, opening a museum that borrows artifacts, including nearly 1,000 Buddhas, from the National Museum and elsewhere. It is just a few miles from Angkor Park, the sprawling area near here that is considered one of Southeast Asia’s most important archaeological sites and includes Angkor Wat, its celebrated temple.

But the new museum, Angkor National Museum, which opened in October, has already drawn criticism from powerful detractors. The critics include international restoration specialists who are fiercely concerned about anything that affects Angkor, which was restored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or Unesco, and others after the wars of the 1970s.

Some quibble with the museum’s aesthetics — the complex includes a sprawling retail area — and with its sense of history. There are hundreds of Buddhas, for instance, that date back no further than the 20th century.

Other critics object to the Thai involvement; Angkor was once under Thai control, and some Cambodians remain suspicious that Thailand retains designs on their patrimony.

Those suspicions were stoked in 1999 when large sections of walls with bas-relief images of the revered multiarmed figure, Lokeshvara, were looted from the 12th-century Banteay Chhmar temple near the Thai border. The stolen art was intercepted by the Thai police and returned to Cambodia.

Then in 2003, anti-Thai riots broke out in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, after a Thai actress was reported to have said that Angkor Wat still belonged to her country.

One of the critics, Darryl Collins, a historian based in Siem Reap, said the displeasure of some Cambodians was understandable. An enterprise that is foreign led and “primarily interested in turning a profit,” he said, can hardly be called national, especially when Cambodia already has a National Museum.

Angkor National Museum was created by Vilailuck International Holdings, which is based in Bangkok. For 16 years Vilailuck’s parent company, the Samart Corporation, has been a major investor in Cambodia’s telecommunications sector.

Under the terms of its contract with the Cambodian government, the company agreed to transfer control of the museum to the government after 30 years in exchange for the right to display treasures from the National Museum and from the Conservation d’Angkor, a national trove of some 6,000 artifacts. That collection includes important statues of Buddha from several historical periods.

The Thais involved in the museum have been stung by the criticism of the project, which Vilailuck spent $15 million to build.

“We want to educate Cambodian people about their own history,” said the museum’s managing director, Sunaree Wongpiyabovorn. There are those “who know little about its monuments, and even less of the progress of Buddhism and what led up to it,” she added.

Ms. Wongpiyabovorn is especially sensitive to allegations that the company is motivated by economics. She said that Vilailuck had tripled its original investment of $5 million because of cost overruns and did not expect to see a profit for at least 10 years.

Moreover, complications seem to have left the Thais frustrated, especially with regard to the terms and conditions of the loans. Under the original plan, the former director of the National Museum, Khun Samen, agreed to hand over as many as 1,000 artifacts during the 30-year contract, as well as 31 major pieces for a six-month loan.

His successor, Hab Touch, reduced the number of major pieces to be shared to 23. “I am not going to surrender important pieces that should be permanently displayed here for the integrity of the collection,” he said.

Unesco, which has declared Angkor a World Heritage site, is generally supportive of the museum and is trying to help by providing advice on display and other aspects of museum practice.

Still, Azedine Beschaouch, an adviser to the organization, agrees with some of the criticism.

Mr. Beschaouch, an expert on Angkor and a special adviser to Unesco’s assistant director general for culture, is no fan of the retail area, which Vilailuck calls a “cultural mall.”

“This seems to have been foremost in the mind of the designers, while the collection came second,” Mr. Beschaouch said.

He is also impatient about what he called “presentation that cannot claim to reflect international standards in museology.”

It has not helped matters that although the museum opened months behind schedule, some of the artifacts still had not been labeled.

In the museum’s defense, Ms. Wongpiyabovorn said that the Conservation d’Angkor’s documentation of many of its works was lost during Pol Pot’s reign, leaving many artifacts with few historical records.

The museum insists that it needs more time to develop its identity. Its curator, Chann Charouen, who is Cambodian, plans to rotate artifacts and bring in new pieces from Cambodian provincial museums.

It remains to be seen whether the museum will embrace the growing scholarship and broad debates that currently characterize Angkorian studies, or be content to lure tourists to the knickknacks of the cultural mall.

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