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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Kep: Cambodia's Secluded Beach Retreat

Kep was once the beach resort of Cambodia. Located near the luxury hotel, casino, and hill station atop Bokor Mountain, it was part of a popular retreat for French colonial administrators. After independence and the end of French Indochina in the mid-1950s, the officials of the Royal government and the small middle class of Phnom Penh became the main patrons there. All that came to an end in with the rise of the Khmer Rouge; Kep was sacked and abandoned. Since Cambodia re-opened to tourism in the late 1990s, the port city of Sihanoukville has become the main focus of beach activities in Cambodia. However, as Sihanoukville becomes more and more like a bad knock-off of the Thai beach city of Pattaya, the quiet, seaside charms of the village of Kep are coming more to the fore.

Getting There

Kep can be reached from Phnom Penh by bus or share-taxi, with the share-taxi costing perhaps ten times as much. Depending on the bus company in question, you will be boarding the bus to the neighboring town Kampot, which will run past Kep on its way there, and drop you off just outside of the village.

The simplest way to get back and forth from Kampot, the nearest town, is to bargain for a trip on the back of a fellow's motorbike ("moto"). This is a common means of transport in Cambodia, and pretty much anyone passing on a motorbike may be willing to double as a bike-taxi.

It is also possible to get to Sihanoukville by share-taxi, but these must be chartered.

What to Do

Kep is a small fishing village, set off of a strip of sand and pebble. These are typically busy on the weekend, but quiet during the week. Kep is a popular weekend holiday location for expats and middle class Khmers from Phnom Penh. The expats will be mostly French and working for the UN or some other NGO, and are getting a kick out of being in their former colonial retreat. Very few "proper" international tourists find their way to Kep, so when the weekend visitors go home, these will be the only tourists around, creating a very tranquil, sleepy atmosphere during the week.

The beach road is lined with seafood shacks. Kep is famous for its crabs, which are caught on a line and then kept in a shore cage for the utmost freshness. You can either have the crabs there, or take them back to your guesthouse/hotel for cooking. Also, neighboring Kampot is the center of Cambodia's pepper plantations. Once upon a time, no fine French restaurant would dare to have served anything but Kampot pepper. Furthermore, fresh green peppercorns are a completely different culinary experience from dried pepper. So, be sure to sample the crabs, any dish that features pepper sauce, and preferably fresh crabs in fresh pepper!

The walk along the beach road can take on a creepy atmosphere. If you turn away from the seashore, you will see ruin after ruin. These were the villas owned by well-to-do Khmers, sacked and the abandoned by the Khmer Rouge. They stand as a shabby, mute testament to a very different Cambodia, now long gone.

Alas, the beach at Kep is not very good. In the 1960s, the King had sand dredged from Sihanoukville and brought to Kep to maintain a nice-but-half-artificial beach. However, there is a good beach on nearby Koh Tunsay (Rabbit Island), which can be reached by fishing boat for a modest fee. Make a nice day trip of it. The waters are calm, crystal clear, and host a lot of fish if you wish to snorkel around. The island itself is small, home to very few permanent residents, and so more than likely there will be fewer than 15 people, tourists and Khmers, on the island at any given time.

Also, the Kep Lodge has begun arranging snorkeling trips. While there are plenty of fish off Rabbit Island, there are no corals. The snorkeling day trip will take you to Koh Saran, with two snorkeling sites boasting the extreme rarity of a virtually untouched coral reef.

Trips to the ruined resort atop Bokor mountain can be arranged either by renting a sturdy motorcycle and going alone, or by going up to Kampot. It is also possible to easily visit the pepper plantations around Kampot.

Where to Stay

Kep is not yet Sihanoukville, but there is still an ample selection of places to stay, suiting all prices ranges. The most well-known is the Beach House, a standard mid-range hotel at the far end of the Beach Road. Offering some intimate, simple luxury is the Kep Lodge (who also run the snorkeling trips), featuring only six modern bungalows on the property.

However, if you can do without air conditioning, the author strongly recommends Le Bout du Monde Guesthouse. Run by a young French couple (the wife's parents were Khmer refugees), the place evokes the feel of a tropical paradise playhouse. The guesthouse's restaurant specializes in authentic Khmer seafood. It is one of the most charming places in the world to get a little simple, rustic peace and quiet.
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Thais rally over Cambodia border dispute


BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) — Thousands of demonstrators accused the Thai government Wednesday of yielding a disputed border region with an ancient temple to Cambodia, the latest trouble for the embattled prime minister who has been facing daily protests calling for his resignation.

Led by the People's Alliance for Democracy, about 5,000 people gathered in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and accused the minister, Noppadon Pattama, of giving into the Cambodians in exchange for business concessions.

The Preah Vihear temple, dating back to the 11th century, has been the subject of a boundary dispute since the 1950s. The International Court of Justice ruled in 1962 that the cliffside temple was within Cambodian territory.

Accusing the government of corruption and abuse of power, demonstrators have been holding sometimes violent protests since May 25 to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej and his coalition government.

The protesters say Samak is merely acting as a proxy for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a military coup in September 2006.

The political discord heightened Wednesday after opposition Democrat Party lawmakers lodged a no-confidence motion against Samak and seven other Cabinet members over alleged conflict of interest and mismanagement.

The Preah Vihear temple issue resurfaced as Cambodia was preparing to apply to UNESCO for the temple to be listed as a World Heritage Site, a process that requires the inclusion of a map.

Sondhi Limthongkul, a key leader of the anti-government alliance, alleged that Noppadon gave up some territory near the temple in exchange for his "boss" — Thaksin — getting concessions to develop a casino complex on Cambodia's Koh Kong island.

Noppadon served as Thaksin's lawyer and continues to have close ties with him.

Waving Thai flags, the protesters held up placards reading, "Thailand is not for sale," and "Bandit government sold Thai soil to Cambodia."

Noppadon denied the allegations.

"The minister of foreign affairs deserves flowers instead of brickbats," Noppadon said, adding that not "a single square centimeter" of Thai soil was lost during recent negotiations with Cambodia.

He said Cambodia had drawn up two maps, one of the temple and the other of the adjacent area.

Noppadon said the Cambodians will present only the temple map in their upcoming request to UNESCO. The second map, which includes the disputed boundary, will not be an issue and thus Thailand has not yielded any territory, he said.

Samak's People Power Party won general elections last December. His new Cabinet is packed with Thaksin's allies and relatives, and critics say rehabilitating the former leader is among the new government's top priorities.

A court disbanded Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party last year and banned him from public office until 2012.
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Cambodia's genocide tribunal to get more Japan funding

Japan has agreed to donate nearly $US3 million to Cambodia's genocide tribunal as it prepares to bring former Khmer Rouge leaders to trial.

A spokeswoman says the funding will go to the operations of the United Nations-backed court's administration office.

Court officials are also in New York this week seeking some $US100 million so the tribunal can continue operations.

They are set to meet potential donors on Friday.

Japan has already contributed more than $US21 million to the tribunal.

The radical Maoist Khmer Rouge regime, which ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, is blamed for the deaths of up to two million people by execution, starvation and excessive work.
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Cambodia lawmaker in court threat

The Khmer Rouge regime and the Mafia associates have continoued terrorizing Cambodia until today. The former Khmer Rouge leaders are still in power keeping intimidation, threating and even killing innocences under the UN' nose.

By Guy Delauny

The leader of Cambodia's main opposition party is facing the possibility of prosecution just weeks before the country's general election.

The Phnom Penh municipal court has asked the National Assembly to remove Sam Rainsy's parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

Cambodia's foreign minister has brought allegations of defamation and disinformation against him.

Sam Rainsy has described the legal moves as a "political threat".

If the National Assembly agrees with the court's request, the opposition leader could be called in for questioning, prosecuted and possibly jailed.

A conviction for defamation no longer results in a prison term. The law was changed after an outcry over its use to detain several human rights activists two years ago.

But Sam Rainsy also faces a charge of disinformation - which does allow for a custodial sentence.

Election run-up

The Foreign Minister, Hor Namhong, pressed charges over remarks the opposition leader made about him in a speech.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has also ordered an investigation into allegations that Sam Rainsy Party officials were connected to domestic terrorist groups.

Sam Rainsy himself has dismissed both sets of allegations as attempts to intimidate voters in the run-up to the general election.

But a government spokesman accused the opposition leader of playing "dirty tricks".

The leader of Cambodia's second-largest opposition party, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, is currently in self-imposed exile.

He faces an 18-month jail term for breach of trust if he returns to Cambodia.

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Cambodian real estate market heated up by S Korean projects

By Long Heng, Xia Lin

PHNOM PENH, June 18 (Xinhua) -- South Korean investor GS Engineering and Construction held here Wednesday the ground-breaking ceremony for the construction of its 52-story skyscraper, the tallest one to be built in Cambodia and latest one to stir up the heated market and trigger off mixed comments.

Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Sok An said at the ceremony that the construction shows the close relations between South Korea and Cambodia and the confidence of foreign investors for Cambodia in its political and economic stability.

"The project will provide hundreds of jobs and contribute to the economic development of our country," he said.

The skyscraper, a model role from the private sector in developing the country, will become the historic building and the tallest in Cambodia and become a center of tourism, culture and engineering. he added.

GS Engineering and Construction, the largest real estate developer in South Korea, will take 45 months to complete the billion-dollar International Finance Complex (IFC) project near the Tonle Bassac River around March 2012, according to a press release.

The 68,461 square meters project includes a 52-story office block, a 32-story residential block with 275 units, an international school and a shopping mall with 1,064 units, it said.

"The plan is to expand business domain not just to architecture and housing, but to a broader area of plant, civil engineering and development," it added.

GS Engineering and Construction president and CEO Kevin Kab Ryul Kim said that the recent interest of the Cambodian government in city development welcomes South Korean company's development projects with advanced technologies like us.

"IFC Phnom Penh projects will open the gates to more South Korean companies entering the Cambodian market," Kim said, adding that with this project, GS will lead the real estate and development market of Cambodia, newly rising in the Indochina peninsula.

The plan is to expand business domain not just architectures and housing, but to a broader areas of plant, civil engineering and development, he added.

Meanwhile, Mu Hion Woo, the developer's Chief of Business Division in Cambodia, told local media earlier last week that the project is not only a business but also a contribution to the development of Cambodia.

"If you want to see the potential of Cambodia, you can see it in this project," he added.

Currently, a second South Korean real estate developer is constructing a 42-story skyscraper of comprehensive functions, namely the Golden Tower, in downtown Phnom Penh and a third one developing a satellite city named Camko in the suburbs.

These South Korean projects will transform the skyline of the capital, as it is now dominated by buildings only four- or five-story high.

And, the GS project seems to compete with the Gold Tower and the Camko City in the ever booming real estate market of Phnom Penh.

The three mega projects are widely considered as new achievements of the Cambodian government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen. People are waiting and want to see them turned into reality.

Chan Sophal, president of the Cambodian Economic Association, expressed concern over the new buildings' inconsistency with the previous style of the city.

"We all welcomed the construction of the highest skyscrapers in Phnom Penh and other places in Cambodia. We also requested for the government to conserve the houses built in the French colonial era," he told Xinhua.

If conservation and development work well with each other in style and construction, Phnom Penh will be a city both modern and classic, more beautiful and with more cultural hints, he said.

In addition, he asserted that these projects has mirrored the confidence of foreign business people in the political and economic stability of the country and will therefore bring in more foreign investors and benefit the local people.

However, Chan Sophal is also worried that skyscrapers can't really meet the market demands.

The skyscrapers have drawn much public attention, because the Cambodians never saw these things before, but in regard of their essential choice, they prefer to live at the ground floor of a house with a garden and some trees.

"Only rich people will buy apartments at the skyscrapers, because the price is unaffordable for most people," he said.

Some wealthy people subscribe to houses at the top floor of these skyscrapers, but they won't live there.

"They buy them for investment. When sold again, there will be profits," he added.

Nov Rathana, general manager of the Gold Tower project, said that his project will finish in May 2011, adding that market competition is a good impetus for developers.

Sung Bonna, director of the Sung Bonna Real Estate Agency, said that house and land are hot topics for the Cambodians now.

"People like to talk about land, house and their prices. Most of them buy land and houses for investment, and expect fat rewards when they sell them out," he said.

According to industry statistics, land and house prices have spiraled in Phnom Penh and neighboring provinces as result of 10 years' stable development of the country. Top villa in downtown Phnom Penh now sells over one million U.S. dollars, 10 times the previous price.

The mega development projects of skyscrapers have just fueled the vogue and drive land and house prices even higher, said Sung Bonna.

"Phnom Penh still has huge land, waiting for us to develop," he added.
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