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Saturday, March 20, 2010

Cambodia: Stepping back in time at Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

By Mark Palmer


There were no photocopy machines in Cambodia until about 1990. In those days, not even fearless entrepreneurs with Xerox contracts in their suitcases would dare venture to this beleaguered, war-torn part of Indo-China.

So, change has come fast. Cambodia is now firmly established in the tourist firmament, and offers far more than a popular diversion for backpackers looking for thrills and spills (and cheap beer) on their gap year.

Even so, I could not get the bloody image of Pol Pot and the Khmer


Beautiful: The Angkor Wat temple took 37 years to build and was one of the jewels of the Khmer Empire

Those scenes in the 1984 film The Killing Fields, in which men, women and children are photographed by their captors before being executed and their bodies dumped in mass shallow graves, were no Hollywood exaggeration. They happened — and not so very long ago.
Vin seemed to pick up on my unease. 'Terrible things have gone on in my country and we are sorry for that,' he said, totally unprompted.

'But now we are a peaceful people and the situation is different. I wish you a pleasant stay in Cambodia.'

It turned out to be very pleasant indeed. And Vin was right about the people: wherever we went, they were indeed peaceful and unfailingly courteous.

Siem Reap is enjoying its second coming. Following the 'rediscovery' of the temples of Angkor by French archaeologists in the 1860s, the town became a beacon for wealthy travellers.

It continued that way until the late Sixties, when the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Kennedy came to call. Then war, famine and fear kept outsiders well away right up until 1999.


Awe-struck: Mark Palmer with his wife Joanna, who were given a rare glimpse of the temple's reclining Buddha

Everyone says you have to see Angkor Wat at sunrise to capture its full glory, but we felt relieved when Vin said we would start our tour at 10am. We were then amazed to find we practically had the place to ourselves.

'Where are all the people?' I asked as we drove around the massive moat. 'On the other side,' he replied.

He meant we had approached via the East Gate, a grand ruin of a lodge leading to a gravel drive that takes you up to the main temple.

With dappled sunlight foraging through the swaying trees and a crumbling building in the distance, we could almost have been visiting a stately home past its best in Gloucestershire.

What took me by surprise was the perfect symmetry, the motifs, the detail on the bas-reliefs — and we hadn't even set foot inside yet.

Vin ushered us into the shade and asked us to sit on giant pieces of sandstone.
We didn't move for the next 40 minutes as he went about his lecture, producing maps and plans and dealing patiently with interruptions from us that tended to start with: 'But how...?' or 'So, why...?'

Our questions were all trying to make sense of such an extraordinary feat, one that took 37 years to complete and involved stone either being dragged from a quarry 50 miles by elephant or on bamboo rafts 100 miles by river.

No wonder King Suryavarman II is such a hero.
As we moved from one level to the next, getting closer to the central shrine, Vin pointed at some scaffolding and explained that tourists had not been allowed access to the highest point for two years.

He said the reclining Buddha was a sight to behold — but sadly one that would elude us.
'Do people ever just climb up when no one's looking?' I asked, adding: 'There doesn't seem to be too much security.'

'You want to go up?' he said. Vin made a call from his mobile. Ten minutes later, a man with a walkie-talkie and bad teeth appeared. 'Come,' he said.

We made a dash for the scaffolding, ducking under some tarpaulin and climbing the steep steps. And then we climbed some more.

My new guide had two lookout men posted near the top. 'We have five minutes,' he said. 'Come.' We rushed here and there and, yes, I got to see the reclining Buddha looking majestically calm and serene.

It was almost 2pm by the time we got back to our hotel in the centre of town. La Residence d'Angkor, part of the Orient-Express group, is the place to stay. Lush and luxurious, it's recently benefited from a brand new spa, and the swimming pool is a decent size.

But Vin didn't give us much downtime.

On our first day, he wanted us to see Ta Prohm (the jungle temple where Tomb Raider was filmed) and the mysterious Bayon, where the shapes of gigantic faces are etched into stone towers, before taking our positions high above the plain to watch the sunset.

We ate spectacularly well at La Residence, but we also came up trumps at a new restaurant called Rina Rino on Pub Street. The most expensive item on the menu was £2.

We then spent an hour in the night market, where I resisted the chance to try a 'fish massage', which involves dangling your legs over the side of a plastic swimming pool while fish nibble dead skin from your feet.

Next morning, we did watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat — along with a few thousand other spectators.

The earth didn't move for me, but I liked the camaraderie of the experience: the standing and waiting at 5.30am with visitors from all over the world, the offer of cheap coffee from locals, the scent of expectation.

Later that day, we drove 45 minutes out of town to Tonlé Sap, the largest freshwater lake in South-East Asia and home to entire villages built on stilts.

Houses are erected on rafts that can be towed to different areas depending on water levels. Families can move ten times a year.

We hired a dragon boat and explored some of the channels leading to the main lake. It was utterly enthralling — and shocking. Men fish at night and spend most of the day beating the whitebait from their nets before selling it for next to nothing.

Life is hard. Average income is £300 per year and a 46 per cent literacy rate is well below the national average. At least 12 per cent of the children die before they reach the age of five.
We stopped at a floating shop where crocodiles are kept in captivity while being fattened and sold to the highest bidder.

We also came across naked Vietnamese children floating in washing-up bowls with pet snakes wrapped around their necks. They were fishing for money.

On the way back to the airport, we passed some of the hotels that have sprung up in the past five years.

If relative stability persists in Cambodia, Siem Reap will expand still further and struggle to retain its charms.

Which means if Angkor Wat is on your list of places to see before your final boarding card is issued, then you might want to do it sooner rather than later.

Travel factsThe Ultimate Travel Company (020 7386 4646, www.theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk) can arrange a tailor-made nine-day stay in Cambodia from £1,895 pp.

This itinerary includes three nights at La Residence D'Angkor, two at Raffles Le Royal Phnom Penh and three on the beach at Knai Bang Chat, plus private guided sightseeing at the temples of Angkor and breakfast, Thai Airways flights from Heathrow, flights in Cambodia and private transfers.
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Cambodia to build memorial for slain journalists

Cambodia will erect a memorial to nearly 40 foreign and Cambodian journalists who died covering a savage five-year war that ended with the triumph of the Khmer Rouge 35 years ago, a government official said Saturday.

The groundbreaking for the monument will take place at the end of April, the anniversary of the Khmer Rouge victory, as foreign journalists who covered the conflict also gather for a reunion, government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said.

At least 37 journalists were killed or are listed as missing from the 1970-75 war, which pitted the U.S.-backed Lon Nol government against the North Vietnamese-supported Khmer Rouge.

They included reporters, photographers and television cameramen from Japan, France, the United States, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, India, Laos, Australia and Cambodia.

A number of the journalists were captured by the Khmer Rouge and never seen again. When the ultra-communists seized control and began their reign of terror, at least 17 Cambodian journalists were executed or disappeared.

Khieu Kanharith said the memorial, built to remember the work of the journalists, is being designed and will be erected near the hillside Buddhist monastery of Wat Phnom in the heart of the city.

The initiative for the monument came from Chhang Song, who served as information minister in the Lon Nol government, and organizers of the April 20-23 reunion, which will be followed by a similar one in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, a week later.
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Late Mass. monk’s poems recall Khmer Rouge horrors

LOWELL — During Buddhist monk Ly Van Aggadipo’s final days, he wrote often in a notebook. Temple followers knew the nonagenarian spiritual mentor to many local Cambodian refugees was recording some sort of personal history, but they weren’t sure what.

"He told me, ’When I’m gone, make sure others read this so people don’t forget what happened,’" follower Sokhar Sao said. "I didn’t really understand until he was gone."

Next month, friends and followers will release a book of poetry by Ly Van, who survived the brutal communist Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia and later led the Glory Buddhist Temple in Lowell from 1988 until his death in January 2008. The book, entitled "O! Maha Mount Dangrek," is a collection of two lengthy poems: one an autobiographical piece on the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, the other about a friend’s story of love in the time of genocide.

The title in English means "Oh Mighty Mount Dangrek" and refers to the mountainous plateau between the Cambodia-Thailand border that refugees were forced to climb in order to escape the Khmer Rouge regime.

Organizers plan a 14-city tour to promote the book with readings and accompanying musical performances by two young Cambodian artists. The tour will begin April 1 at a Middlesex Community College reading in Lowell and continue with stops in Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Paul, Minn., and Long Beach, Calif.

The publication of Ly Van’s work, printed in its original Khmer and in English, completes a two-year project by followers. The day he died, a follower found the poetry tucked under stacks of old Buddhist texts inside the temple.

On worn pages were handwritten, carefully crafted poems describing Ly Van’s memories of labor camps, starvation and infant executions and his dreams of escaping to America.

"We all said, ’Wow ... we have to publish this,’" said Samkhann Khoeun, who studied under Ly Van and served as the book’s editor. "Here was something so beautiful describing something so horrible. It brought tears to our eyes."

Khoeun then went on a campaign to get the book published. The Glory Buddhist Temple and local nonprofit groups Light of Cambodian Children and Cambodian Expressions agreed to help with the publication cost, while Khoeun worked on translation with other refugees.

Ly Van was born in 1917 in a small Cambodian village where he and his family lived through the 1970s rule of the Khmer Rouge regime, which perpetrated one of the worst genocides of the 20th century.

An estimated 1.7 million people died from starvation, disease and executions due to the group’s radical policies. According to the temple’s biography of Ly Van, he was forced to work on farms and public projects 14 hours a day. It was during this time that he witnessed mass executions and large-scale starvation.

In early 1979, when Vietnamese soldiers invaded Cambodia, Ly Van and thousands of others fled to Thailand through dangerous terrain where he and others ended up at refugee camps while hoping for asylum to the U.S. with the help of the U.N.

He and his family were granted asylum and resettled in Lowell, an old mill city less than an hour’s drive northwest of Boston.

Today about 20,000 Cambodians live in or around the city, making it second only to Long Beach for the largest number of Cambodians living in the United States.

As a refugee in Lowell, Ly Van helped establish the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association, which promotes educational, cultural, economic and social programs for Cambodian-Americans and other minorities, before leading the Glory Buddhist Temple until his death of old age at 90.

But while counseling his fellow refugees and performing volunteer efforts, Ly Van quietly worked and reworked his long poems about horrific moments in his life that he rarely shared

Besides the epic poems, the new book also features photos of Khmer Rouge-era Cambodia and of refugee camps in Thailand.

Some of the photos are from the collection of photojournalist Jay Mather, whose images helped earn him a 1980 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting with reporter Joel Brinkley while at The Courier-Journal newspaper of Louisville, Ky. Others come from refugees’ personal collections and the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which has documented Khmer Rouge atrocities.

Khoeun said he wanted readers to see images related to Ly Van’s poetry.

"We have to face it," said Khoeun, 47. "This is what we went through."

Sao, who has a bullet wound on one of his calves from being shot at a refugee camp, agreed.

"It’s painful to see and remember," said Sao, also 47. "Every time I hear the words Khmer Rouge I get a little emotional. So you can imagine what’s going on when I read this poetry and see these images."

Around 3,000 copies of the book are planned for the first printing, with proceeds going to costs for a planned second printing, Khoeun said.

The goal is not to make money, Ly Van’s followers said, but to share the story of Cambodian refugees with others.

"I think my own children don’t believe what we went through to get here," said Sao, a father of four children who were born in the U.S. "I don’t talk about it much and can’t put it into words like this."
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