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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Cambodia: A village on stilts

Explore Cambodia's Tonle Sap Lake, home to a charming floating village with rustic and colourful double-storied houses

It was a warm, sultry day. The boatman signaled for us to move our chairs to the center of the motorboat. On cue, prickly twigs whipped the skiff savagely as we drifted through mangroves lining either side of the narrow Kampong Canal. Sometimes a quaint canoe or another tourist boat roared past us. This journey to Cambodia's Tonle Sap Lake, a bewitching pool that ebbed and waned with the seasons, was magical.

The mysterious lake

After three astounding days of exploring temples in Siem Reap, I drove a couple of miles outside the city and caught a boat from a tiny pier to Tonle Sap, a Khmer word, meaning large, fresh water river, or even, Great Lake. But this quirky water body doesn't retain its size throughout the year. Fed by the Mekong River starting in the Tibetan Plateau, in the dry season, the lake drains out back in the river and shrinks. But in the wet season, fed by the river and the rains it swells, nearly five times in size, to a whopping approximate 12,000 square kilometers informed Bros, our Khmer Guide. In the swell, the silt gets deposited on the floodlands. When the water levels recede, paddy fields and acres of green beans, corn and watermelon, scent the landscape, sprouting up like magic.

I peered in the water to spot some of the 200 freshwater fishes and handful of snakes present in the lake that Bros had mentioned. But the humidity seemed to have had a soporific effect on all, including my companions, whose gentle snores wove with the water's melody. As the canal gradually widened, a pagoda on stilts shrouded by wild grass came into view. Soon enough, rows of houses on stilts, and then, an entire water civilization emerged in the middle of nowhere: Kampong Phluk - a floating village, hidden to the outside world.

The floating village

Kampong Phluk was a melange of pastoral, water scenes: women wrapped in colorful scarves paddled lone boats; cheeky naked children swam like fish; a few villagers snoozed on hammocks tethered on stilts; boats with fishing nets rushed about; and even pigs rested peacefully in floating pens! Interestingly, the village didn't float literally; much of it stood on stilts, and the rest was tied-up and bobbed around.

Home to nearly 500 families, Kampong Phluk's rustic double storied homes soared to nearly six meters above the ground. Hewed from special wood, the colorfully painted hamlet, decorated with kitschy fake flowers sat in sharp contrast with the mud-coloured, silt heavy water flowing by.

The sloping roofs made from sheets of corrugated tins were a recent addition, replacing palm leaf roofs that were once de rigueur. And almost each home had a lovely view of the Great Lake. Itsy-bitsy balconies were trussed out in hammocks, deck chairs, and rocking chairs, all to watch life float by.

Our boat slowly ground to a halt at the makeshift pier. We stepped on to a sliver of magically dry land, dotted with homes on stilts that appeared to float when the area flooded. Stopping by a shop to gorge on steaming tapioca cakes, I climbed a rickety staircase and peeped in a garishly decorated guesthouse, popular with adventurous tourists, available for just a couple of dollars per night.

But the strangest home in the village was a Lilliputian machan. It had a bird house attached to it with a mug of local brew, incense sticks and a couple of bananas placed on it for good measure. The water spirit house, the locals prayed here before they left for fishing, explained Bros. By then it was already dusk, and, Tonle Sap and its wondrous floating village had already cast its spell.

Tips

Getting there: SilkAir, the regional wing of Singapore Airlines, flies from 7 cities in India to Singapore, with 10 convenient connections a week to Siem Reap, one of the 34 exotic destinations it flies to across Asia. (www.silkair.com)

Visit to Kampong Phluk: A day trip to the village and Tonle Sap Lake costs approximately 40 USD. Contact Exotissimo Travels which organizes exotic holidays in Cambodia at www.exotissimo.com.

Best time to visit: The best time to visit Kampong Phluk and Tonle Sap Lake is between July and January, when water levels in the canal are high.

Neeti Mehra @timesgroup.com
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Detained Frenchman Willing To Go to China, Cambodia Says

Cambodian officials say a Frenchman arrested last month in connection to a murder case in China is willing to be sent back there.

Patrick Devillers, who has been detained since his arrest in Phnom Penh on June 13, can return at his own request, said Khieu Sopheak, a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior.

A general view of the home of French architect Patrick Henri Devillers is pictured in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, June 21, 2012.
 
“He tends to express his wish to go to China, and wherever he goes is surely his own decision, and if he decides to go to China, we are OK, we would follow his personal decision,” Khieu Sopheak said.

Devillers should make a request in writing, however, Khieu Sopheak said. “We all have to be transparent.”
Devillers, 52, has personal and professional links to Gu Kailai, who is suspected of the murder of a British national in China and is the wife of ousted politician Bo Xilai. The high-profile case has fueled a political crisis in China.

A French Embassy spokesman declined to comment on the case Tuesday, but French officials have said in the past Devillers should not be extradited without clear legal basis. Read more!

Groups Want Stronger Asean Declaration of Human Rights

“Asean member states, as members of the United Nations, have to comply with those minimum standards.”


ASEAN countries' foreign ministers join their hands during a photo session at the 45th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers' Plus three Meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tuesday, July 10, 2012.


As Cambodia prepares to host a major regional security meeting in Phnom Penh this week, local and international rights group say the country should use its presidency of Asean this year to push for a declaration of human rights that is up to international standards.

Asean members have already drafted a human rights declaration that it expects to approve later this year, but built into it are limitations that rights advocates say need changed.

Asean officials have not allowed members of civil society to officially review their draft declaration, but according to a draft obtained by VOA Khmer, basic rights and freedoms are subject to a number of exceptions.

These include “the just requirements of national security, public order, public health, public safety, public morality, as well as the general welfare of the peoples in a democratic society,” according to the draft.
These limitations create the potential for justifying human rights abuses, rights advocates say.

“Having points like that, I don’t want to see them, because human rights have already been recognized internationally,” said Pung Chhiv Kek, president of the rights group Licadho.

Rights workers from Southeast Asian countries should be allowed their input, she said, “in order to have a good document for the Asean declaration, for the advantage of the people.”

The draft declaration does call for rights to “freedom of thought, conscience and religion”; “opinion and expression”; and peaceful assembly and association.”

However, Shiwei Ye, a Bangkok-based representative of the International Federation of Human Rights, said the draft remains substandard because of its limitations.

“If Asean adopts a declaration that is lower than international human rights standards, that will be unacceptable,” he said. “Asean member states, as members of the United Nations, have to comply with those minimum standards.”

Observers say Asean member nations with poor human rights records, such as Burma, Cambodia or Vietnam, make it hard to open a dialogue with rights groups. Asean’s charter also prevents one nation from interfering with the internal affairs of another.

Asean leaders are expected to approve the declaration in a major summit in November. The draft will be finalized in October.

“I think one important provision to include in the declaration is that no parts of that declaration should be interpreted or implemented in a manner that undermine international human rights standards,” Shiwei Ye said. “Then we could always refer to this safeguard provision to make sure that, when members of Asean actually refer to the declaration in the future, they can’t use it as the excuse to justify human rights violations.” Read more!