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Friday, February 18, 2011

Cambodia: Uncrowded Jewel of Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia has always been a popular destination for adventure-seeking travelers who want to experience something a little out of the ordinary. Tourists have streamed to countries like Thailand or Vietnam. But this year, make Cambodia your spot for exploration in a relatively uncrowded world.

What's There

Cambodia boasts much of the same lush scenery as other Southeast Asian countries. Coastal areas are home to beautiful beaches that aren't as touristy. Verdant rainforests spread over the landscape. The Cardamom Mountains are considered a natural resource, with ample wildlife habitat. The Mekong River is an impressive scenic wonder that begins in China and cuts through Cambodia.

For history-conscious wanderers, Angkor Wat is a must-see. It was built in the 12th century. The ancient site of Angkor was built by the Khmer civilization. More than 100 impressive stone temples survive and are a testament to human ingenuity and imagination.

Many people recommend that visitors take time to experience the countryside of Cambodia. Seemingly endless rice paddies are cultivated by the people. Visiting the rural areas rather than sticking to the urban centers such as Phnom Penh can be a way to connect with the rich and vibrant country.

Why Visit Now

Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world. Its citizens struggle to survive amidst extreme poverty and depression. It is one of the contrasts of this beautiful country. Among such lush scenery and historical importance is a struggling country. However, tourism is beginning to boom in Cambodia. After decades of war, Cambodians are welcoming tourists. It is a boost to the country's economy. Eco-tourism is getting some play, as various people attempt to preserve the country's resources.

Currently, the United States dollar is equal to more than 4000 riels. Thus, Americans can expect a fairly good exchange rate (though it is less than many European countries). In addition, dollars are widely accepted. In fact, visa fees must be paid in U.S. dollars. This makes it convenient for American travelers.

High-end hotels in Cambodia offer very competitive rates. I saw recommended 3-star hotels for as low as $29 a night. Resorts and spas could be obtained for less than $100 a night. Flights run expensive, expect to pay over $1000 for flights from the West Coast to Phnom Penh.
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Observers See Limited Role for Asean in Dispute

The stone remains of Preah Vihear, built nearly 1,000 years ago, are supposed to be a protected U.N. World Heritage site. Instead they are at the heart of a dangerous tug-of-war between Cambodia and Thailand.


With the UN Security Council this week urging Asean mediation in the Thai-Cambodian border dispute, political observers are skeptical the regional body will be able to help.

Cambodia addressed the Security Council on Monday along with Thailand, and the international body urged a ceasefire and a multi-party solution.

That could be difficult, analysts say, especially because Thailand has maintained it wants two-way talks.

Asean foreign ministers are scheduled to meet in Jakarta on Tuesday, and that could provide a useful venue, even if Asean cannot resolve the dispute, said Kem Sokha, head of the minority opposition Human Rights Party.

“I see Asean not as a facilitator, but only as an organizer for us to meet,” Kem Sokha said.

However, he said that without a third-party mediator, the status quo will likely remain.

Thailand and Cambodia have been engaged in a longstanding border standoff that erupted in deadly clashes earlier this month. Each side has blamed to other for provoking the fighting, and Cambodia claims Preah Vihear temple was damaged by Thai artillery fire.

Prime Minister Hun Sen said Thursday he wants a ceasefire to be signed at the Asean meeting Tuesday, with Asean foreign ministers as witnesses. Meanwhile, both sides reported isolated incidents of small arms fire along the border this week.

Cambodia would like to see Asean monitors along the border, even if it means hosting them unilaterally, Hun Sen said.

Asean’s ability to resolve the dispute remains in question, said Yim Sovann, a spokesman for the opposition Sam Rainsy Party.

“There are different political tendencies, different interests,” among the members, he said. “So in our view it’s difficult to depend on Asean to negotiate this issue.”

Government spokesman Phay Siphan said the ongoing dispute is a regional issue warranting Asean attention.
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Rallies against interests of jailed Thais: PM

By THE NATION


Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva warned yesterday that if the yellow shirts continued protesting and pressuring the Cambodian government, it might have negative consequences on the two Thai nationals being held in a Phnom Penh prison.

He added that the government was doing what it could to help get Veera Somkwamkid and Ratree Pipatanapaiboon released.

Abhisit also stressed that the decision on legal proceedings would ultimately depend on the two detainees and their families. The prime minister admitted that the conflict between Thailand and Cambodia was complicating matters, and urged the Thai Patriots Network (TPN) to cooperate instead of making things worse.

TPN is planning to send representatives to visit Veera and Ratree in prison next Friday and find out how they want to proceed.

In a related development, Abhisit said he was not aware of any Asean forces being deployed in Cambodia or if the neighbouring country would take the conflict to the World Court.

Meanwhile, Nattaporn Tor-prayoon, the lawyer representing Veera and Ratree, said TPN did not have the authority to sack him because the network had not hired him.

The network is unhappy about the lawyer planning to seek a royal pardon for the two activists instead of fighting the case through courts. Nattaporn, denying that the Thai Foreign Ministry had pressured him, said he had spoken to Veera's younger brother yesterday morning and he had confirmed that the two were still planning to seek a royal pardon.

"I hope they are sympathetic to the others [detained] and recognise the hardship [in prison]. Perhaps they might want to try being in jail themselves," Nattaporn said. "Do not mix politics with the suffering of others."

NETWORK SLAMS COURT

Nattaporn said the families of the two might issue a public statement soon, explaining that the decision to take the battle to the Appeal Court had been dropped because of the length of time involved.

The Thai Patriots Network, led by Chaiwat Sinsuwong, had announced earlier that it had relieved Nattaporn of his duties because he had wrongly advised his clients to seek a royal pardon.

TPN added that they considered the entire court proceedings illegitimate because Veera and Ratree, along with the five who have been released, were wrongly accused of trespassing and espionage. The group has also denounced the Abhisit government as being insincere in solving the problem and securing the release of the two detainees.

Meanwhile, in Si Sa Ket, which saw deadly clashes between Thai and Cambodian troops earlier this month, about 450 new bunkers will be built and the 300 old ones renovated, Governor Somsak Suwansujarit said yesterday.

Work on the bunkers will begin on Monday in the border district of Kantharalak, which was hit by a hail of rockets from Cambodia during the four days of fighting. The governor said he expected the bunkers to offer villagers better protection in case of renewed fighting.

Yesterday, a Thai F-16 jet fighter was spotted flying near Preah Vihear Temple, which is located on the common border between the two countries.

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Cambodia makes border mountain a strategic point

By the Nation

Phu Makhua has caught the media limelight since it became a clash point between Thai and Cambodian soldiers early this month.

The border skirmishes caused casualties and sent thousands of people fleeing for safety.

Locals along the borderline have known the Phu Makhua very well.

It is a mountain full of stripe eggplant during rainy season. The plant, known as "makhua lai" in Thai, has given the mountain its name.

Phu Makhua is located in a disputed area near Wat Keow Sikha Kiri Svara and the Preah Vihear Temple. Thai rangers used to have a base on Phu Makhua but abandoned it about a decade ago for unknown reasons.

Cambodian troops have clearly marked Phu Makhua as a strategic location. This explains why Cambodia has installed iron ladders with more than 900 steps for its troops to climb up to the top of Phu Makhua. Cambodia has also constructed a system for two makeshift cable cars for the purpose of carrying its troops and military supplies up to the mountaintop.

The cable-car system is on a spot known among Thai soldiers as "hua doh". Thai villagers have called the spot "pa lan tham phra" because it is a quite spacious stone yard.

Presently, some 1,600 troops from a Cambodia's special-warfare unit are now deployed at Phu Makhua. This is in addition to a military unit widely known as Hun Sen's loyal bodyguards. Members of this unit are war orphans supported by Hun Sen. They are thus very loyal to Hun Sen and his family. This unit is now under the supervision of Hun Sen's beloved son, Hun Manet.

These soldiers are on top of troops positioned on the frontline.

Cambodia, moreover, is now clearing way for its plan to construct a road that will run from Komui village of Cambodia's Preah Vihear province to Phu Makhua, and to the Preah Vihear Temple.

The construction of the road is now 70-per-cent complete.

The new road is clearly a strategic route for military operations. Many of Cambodia's military bases will enjoy access to this road.

The road is also part of Cambodia's management plan for the Preah Vihear Temple complex, which it hopes the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) will approve.

The management plan follows the Unesco decision to inscribe the ancient Hindu temple as a world-heritage site in Cambodia three years ago.

Since Cambodia unilaterally sought the inscription, border tension has intensified. Thailand has now objected to the management plan proposed by Cambodia with the argument that some parts of the Preah Vihear complex are located on Thai soil.

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