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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Tourists endanger Angkor Wat

ANGKOR, Cambodia - The ancient sandstone temples of Angkor have stood up to endless assaults down the centuries, from medieval raiders armed with clubs and spears to genocidal looters laying land mines.

These days, the onslaught begins in the early morning darkness, when invading columns of buses, taxis and sputtering tuk-tuks converge on a dirt parking lot across from Angkor Wat's broad moat.

They disgorge hundreds of camera-wielding tourists, who march through the gray light toward the awesome gates of the world's largest religious monument.

Hindus constructed it in the 12th century, with a gilded central tower representing Mount Meru, mythical home of the gods and the center of the spiritual and physical universes. They built it facing west, perhaps in honor of the Hindu god Vishnu, preserver of all things.

For today's tourists, the alignment has a more mundane appeal. It's a great place to snap a picture of the sunrise behind sprawling Angkor's best-known temple.

When the shutters stop clicking, tour guides herd their groups into the monument all at once. Tourists jostling for space bump, scrape and rub their fingers against exquisitely carved stone, adding to centuries of damage to the friezes of soldiers depicted in epic battle atop chariots and elephants.

By dusk, the mob of sightseers has moved to Phnom Bakheng, where buses drop off hundreds of people who then scramble for position on large, delicately balanced stone platforms at the small temple, Angkor's oldest.

Obscured from the road by dense forest, it was safely off the regular tour routes until sappers cleared land mines that Khmer Rouge guerrillas had placed to defend the strategic hilltop.

"Now it's suddenly become the destination where everybody wants to be at the end of the day to see the sunset, and to see the views, which are spectacular," said Bonnie Burnham, president of the New York-based World Monuments Fund.

The nonprofit group helps conserve historic sites around the world.

Many of Phnom Bakheng's 108 shrines stand on platforms that have shifted over the centuries as water trickles in and loosens sand and dirt, and the tourists are gathering where they shouldn't.

So many people have clambered up stones next to the crowded stairs that erosion is accelerating, with loosened sections poised to tumble, Burnham said.

"The platforms where people stand are not really stable," Burnham said. "They're eroding very rapidly. The magnificent sculpture on the shrine at the center of the temple is in very fragile condition and has not been treated for conservation yet.

"People shouldn't really be touching it, or going anywhere near it."

Burnham's fund received almost $1 million recently from the U.S. State Department for a project to stabilize the eastern side of Phnom Bakheng, the temple's most endangered section.

As night falls, the tourists feel their way back down the hill and onto air-conditioned buses. They're delivered to their hotels in nearby Siem Reap, where they rinse off the sweat of a long day's touring with a dip in the pool or a soothing shower before dinner.

As the taps open up, more of the dwindling groundwater is drained. UNESCO has warned that the receding water table could undermine Angkor Wat's fragile foundations, causing the temple to gradually sink.

There hasn't been enough research to say how much the heavy demand for water affects Angkor Wat's stability, said Dougald O'Reilly, a Canadian archaeologist who heads HeritageWatch, a nonprofit group working to protect Cambodia's historic sites from looters and overuse.

A decade ago, about 300,000 tourists visited Angkor Wat each year. It was possible to have a quiet, spiritual moment alone in nearby temples that had been swallowed up by the jungle.

But peace, after decades of civil war and upheaval, opened the tourism floodgates.
More than a million people are expected to file through Angkor Wat's narrow stone corridors this year, and the government hopes to draw 3 million annually to the site by 2010.

With more hotels and resorts on the drawing board, conservationists are pushing hard to prevent a destructive free-for-all of development and tourism.

"It's going to mean some sacrifices," Burnham said. "People aren't going to be able to do some of the things, in an unregulated way that they've been permitted to do in the past."

Angkor's temples aren't new to the indignities of visitors with sharp elbows.

Numerous armies have barged through the city-state founded 1,200 years ago. Its temples were abandoned to the jungle during almost half that period. Angkor Wat suffered its worst damage when Khmer Rouge fighters looted it in the late 1970s as they were committing mass murder in the name of an agrarian revolution.

Foreign donors and governments, led by the United States, France and Japan, have spent as much as $50 million over the past 15 years to repair the scars of time and abuse.

But the work is far from finished, and new threats are building.

Sokimex Group, which has used its connections with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to become the country's biggest company, plans to build a 900-room hotel and spa, with shopping mall, water park, slot machines and conference center, on a 56-acre site in Siem Reap.

Sokimex also controls the ticket concession to Angkor. Passes cost $20 a day, $40 for three days and $60 a week.

It's small change for a company that deals in oil, gas stations, pharmaceutical products, garment making, property development and luxury hotels and resorts, in addition to running an airline.

Sokimex's share of the admission take is set by a contract with the government, and Burnham said it leaves most of the profit in the company's hands. One-third of the revenue is supposed to go to Apsara, a Cambodian agency set up by royal decree to preserve the Angkor sites and manage development.

But some people dispute the ticket sales figures, saying Apsara, which takes its name from the heavenly nymphs of Hindu and Buddhist mythology whose bare-breasted figures adorn the Angkor temple walls, gets enough only to cover basic expenses.

"Apsara has virtually no money for conservation," Burnham said. "All of the conservation at Angkor is being done through international assistance."

The effect of millions of feet pounding on Angkor Wat's steps and floors has already led officials to close some areas.

The towers, the tallest of which rises 213 feet, are off-limits because the constant wear and tear made the structures unsafe.

A first step toward reducing congestion could be as simple as insisting that visitors walk through Angkor Wat in the same direction, from beginning to end, Burnham said.

She also wants to see Cambodian officials set time constraints on tickets for the busiest of Angkor's temples, to limit pressure during peak hours.

The day may come when a strict quota is placed on the number of visitors allowed at certain monuments, Burnham said.

But O'Reilly hopes to avoid that by persuading tourists and their guides to make better choices.

O'Reilly is deputy director of the Greater Angkor Project, a team of researchers at Australia's University of Sydney who in recent years have discovered how vast ancient Angkor was by studying images taken by NASA satellites and an ultralight plane.

Their theory is that the city's 15th-century collapse occurred largely because people neglected their environment, cutting down too many trees to expand rice paddies, causing waterways to fill with silt.

If they're right, it's a cautionary tale for the 21st century, as overdevelopment threatens the magnificent buildings and art that ancient Angkor left behind.
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Australian finds new spiritual career in Cambodia

ELIZABETH JACKSON: To Cambodia now, where the dirt poor nation is providing spiritual richness to an Australian man. Paget Sayers was in the import-export business, until he retired a few decades ago.

But now pushing 80 years of age he's found a new career and a new journey that fits with his Buddhist beliefs.

South East Asia correspondent, Karen Percy, met up with him in Cambodia on his visit there last month.

(Sound of children reciting their times tables)

KAREN PERCY: At the Kbal Romea school near the town of Kampot in Southern Cambodia young students are reciting their three times tables.

It's the kind of scene you'd expect to see at almost any school across the country. But there is something that sets this school apart.

(Sound of water)

Paget Sayers is visiting.

PAGET SAYERS: We say just as important to wash you inside as you outside. So we've got to get them enthusiastic, and I hope they're gradually getting a taste for clean water.

KAREN PERCY: The 78-year-old is a hero here after building rainwater tanks. Today he's on a mission to ensure that every child has his or her water bottle, and he's making sure the bottles are filled.

PAGET SAYERS: Good. Nearly empty. One more.

KAREN PERCY: He was prompted to act when he discovered there was arsenic in the local wells.

PAGET SAYERS: Some of the mother's were a bit nervous about "Ooh, rainwater. Pond water is what we've been using. You know, boiled pond water, but a bit murky". We got a letter from the Pasteur Institute which said the water is fine, so the mothers are feeling pretty relaxed now about this nice clean water.

KAREN PERCY: This part of Cambodia isn't on any tourist trail. Paget Sayers was brought here in 2005 on a spiritual path. A practising Buddhist for 30 years, he was visiting temples and monasteries.

During his journey he came across so many that were locked up and neglected by the abbots. But here Abbot Chay Nhu was different.

PAGET SAYERS: For me he's a fulfilment of what the Buddhist story is all about; being satisfied with life; being happy. You can tell he's happy because he's always laughing and smiling.

That's something that you don't always see in abbots around South-East Asia and even Australia. Sometimes they're a bit grumpy. But he's never grumpy, are you? You're never grumpy, particularly when you get two lots of cement out of me, two tonnes. No.

KAREN PERCY: Yes, yes, to build the kitchen, says Abbot Chhay Nhu. When it's finished I will thank you, he tells Paget Sayers.

PAGET SAYERS: Always cheer me up. Always cheer me up you do. When I think it's too hard, or too hot, you cheer me up.

(Sound of Chhay Nhu speaking)

Yes, the floor, I know. You want the cement floor in the kitchen, yes, yes I'm happy, happy.

KAREN PERCY: Paget Sayers' Sydney-based not-for-profit charity, The Buddhist Library and Meditation Centre, initially raised money to build water tanks.

There were three to begin with at one school, and now there are well over 1,000 in 170 schools.

His project, Cambodia Now, runs Khmer language classes, English language classes; and helps older students develop job skills.

He's also established informal schools near the local rice fields for children who can't afford to attend or can't make the journey to the local school.

Each time he visits this region there's a new school or a new program, and many new demands. But his focus never waivers from his Buddhist aims.

PAGET SAYERS: You see a lot more monks now than you used to; there used to be not too many monks around cause a lot of them were killed. And now you see monks going out on their dhyana rounds in the morning.

So there's endless things we can do to take advantage of the synergy we've already created.

This is Karen Percy for Correspondents Report.
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Cambodia's temple wall

it is a fabulous intention to build a wall at the edge of the Dang Rek mountain, if the Cambodian government want to turn Preah Vehea region into a robust tourist destination and it also to ward off the thug Siameses from encroachment.

Phnom Penh - Cambodia plans to build a Berlin-style wall to shut off Thailand and develop tourist facilities around the still disputed Preah Vihear temple, a senior official said on Sunday.

The Cambodian government will build a series of walls at "complicated border areas," while still calling for talks to mark and properly demarcate the frontier, Khieu Kanharith, Information Minister and government spokesman, told reporters at a press conference.

Both sides should start to discuss to plant border markers from undisputed border areas to the complicated border areas and some complicated border areas will be built with border markers or concrete walls, Khieu Kanharith said

Cambodia will allow private companies to invest at least $2 million dollars at the Preah Vihear Temple to set up cable cars for tourists, he said, adding that the government is also trying to build a road to the temple.

The Preah Vihear border gate to Thailand will be open when the situation there is stable, he said, adding that foreign tourists could visit the temple from the Cambodian side.

At the moment, authorities have closed the temple grounds to visitors. For decades, the only way to get to Preah Vihear was through Thailand, because the temple is situated atop a sharp cliff on the Cambodian side.

Cambodia and Thailand share a border of over 800km with only 73 demarcation markers, the Cambodian official said on Sunday.

At a meeting on Aug 18-19, Cambodian and Thai foreign ministers agreed to arrange a second-phase troop redeployment at the disputed border area near the temple.

They agreed to a meeting of the Cambodian Temporary Coordinating Task Force and the Thai Regional Border Committee on Aug 29 in Cambodia to discuss the troop redeployment.

The two foreign ministers also agreed to recommend to their governments that the next meeting of legal experts and the Thai-Cambodian Joint Border Committee be convened in early October, to discuss the issues related to border survey and demarcation of the relevant frontier sectors.

On July 15, Thai troops went into the border area to fetch three trespassers who had intended to claim Thai sovereignty over the Preah Vihear Temple. The incident triggered a military standoff, as troop strength on each side grew to more than 1,000 soldiers.

In 1962, the International Court of Justice (World Court) decided that the 11-century temple belongs to Cambodia. (Agency reports)
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