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Thursday, March 19, 2009

After fire, victim renews passion for Cambodia

Kent Davis and his wife, Sophophan, lost everything when their home in Holmes Beach burned down last year. But they have built a new home and Davis has rediscovered his passion for Cambodia.


Published: Thursday, March 19, 2009 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 19, 2009 at 1:41 a.m.
HOLMES BEACH - Book publisher Kent Davis and his wife, Sophophan, escaped from their burning Holmes Beach house with only the clothes on their backs and a cell phone.

Lost in the blaze were many prized personal possessions, among them 20,000 photos of Angkor Wat, a giant Cambodian religious temple built in the 12th century and rediscovered by French archaeologists in the 19th century.

But Davis and his family are rebounding from the April 2008 fire, and now his passion for Cambodia, its culture and the Angkor Wat temple have found a new beginning as well.

Davis has had a love affair of sorts with Cambodia and its culture since marrying Sophophan, who is Thai, in the 1990s and touring Cambodia during a visit to see his wife's family.

As he and his wife have struggled to regain their footing, and build a new home, Davis experienced an unexpected rebirth of his relationship with Cambodia in the form of official state gifts given on behalf of the United States to the king of Cambodia.

It came about because Davis' publishing company, DATAsia, produces books about Southeast Asia.

So, when U.S. ambassador to Cambodia Carol Rodley was looking for a gift to present to King Norodom Sihamoni at her formal presentation of diplomatic credentials and gifts in January, she contacted Davis.

"I was looking for a gift that would symbolize the connections between the United States and Cambodia, and ideally for something related to Cambodian culture," Rodley said in an e-mail.

Davis offered Rodley three gifts: An English-language book published in 1924, and republished by him, that opened up Cambodian tourism to the world and a book and a documentary about Cambodian dance made in the early 1960s.

Davis worked in Thailand from 1990 to 1995. He wanted to learn the language and joked that he met Sophophan while looking for people to talk to. He had heard about Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but only as a cool place to visit.

Davis and his wife moved back to Florida, opened and then sold a Thai-themed resort, and in 2005 went to visit Sophophan's family in Thailand. They were looking to go somewhere they had never been before and decided to visit Angkor Wat.

It was a momentous decision.

"From the minute I walked into Angkor Wat, I saw something that just made me ask a question: 'Why is Angkor Wat, the largest religious structure in the world, filled with the images of women?'" Kent Davis said.

Not men, not children, not warriors. Women.

"I found that to be a question I need to answer in this life."

There are 1,780 women carved in the temple, and no two are alike, he said.

"Some of them are very elaborate and have royal crowns; some of them are simpler and have simpler hairstyles; they wear strange jewelries; they're all in specific poses; they're all in very specific locations."

"My theory is that these women represent a hierarchy and that they also embody this culture."

Sophophan Davis grew up in a village near Kalasin, a city in northeastern Thailand that is about 120 miles north of Angkor Wat.

In November, Davis and Sophophan returned to Cambodia, and he took about 7,000 pictures at Angkor Wat, beginning anew his photo collection of the sacred temple.

"I fell in love with the monument, too," Sophophan said.

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Cambodia's Lake Placid

Buddhist monks from Kampong Khleang village look out on the lake.

Ancient body of water nestles floating villages, gives sanctuary to birds and feeds a nation

John Lander
Special to the Star

Kampong Khleang, Cambodia–Fishermen repair their nets as their wives pound out Cambodian fish paste or prahoc with mortar and pestle beneath houses built on towering 10-metre stilts.

Kids scramble between the stilts in yet another round of hide-and-seek as chickens forage for food. Out on the lake, floating grocers greet their shoppers arriving in tiny boats, as hawkers in other boats prepare steaming bowls of noodles for hungry fishermen.

Farther out on the lake, the market is gearing up for business as masses of fresh fish are displayed in giant buckets. A few hundred metres away floats the barbershop, a health clinic, the school and a church.

Tiny houseboats bob around the floating neighbourhood, sheltered by a thatched roof over makeshift walls – just enough space for a family.

The floating villages are friendly places that receive few visitors, and those who do visit usually make just a brief passing by boat. There is no shortage of parking here, nor is there any road rage – or indeed, any road – only miles of lake, a virtual inland sea.

The Tonle Sap may, on the surface, appear to be just a nice big lake but this body of water sets the rhythm of Cambodia, if not its very heartbeat.

One of the most abundant sources of fish in Asia, the lake feeds a hungry nation. With its unique connections between lake and river, plant and animal, man and nature – life on the lake and on its shores has not changed much in centuries. Apart from scattered floating trading centres, families live in isolation as they have always done, moving their stilt houses further inland with changing water levels on the lake's shifting shores or, if they are completely water-borne, merely pulling up anchor and moving elsewhere.

Be it a lone fisherman checking his bamboo fish traps or an old woman boiling soup on her tiny canoe, lifestyles here have remained unchanged by the passage of time. Despite the playful kids, friendly waves and smiles of the people here, life has always been hard work.

Kampong Khleang, one of the largest villages on the lake is made up of mostly stilt houses – some as high as 10 metres, about eight metres of which are submerged during the rainy season. One of the few structures that remains dry all-year-round is the local Buddhist temple, with its rather terrifying mosaic of heaven and hell on its outer wall – belied by the friendly resident monks and novices who are happy to show visitors around. On the other side of the lake lies the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve and adjacent Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary, home to hundreds of species of birds. The best time of year for birdwatching here is during the dry season, December and January. The government maintains a research station at Prek Toal.

Connected to both the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers, the lake has a unique flood cycle. During the monsoon season, starting in May, the Mekong floods and reverses its flow, increasing the size of the lake fourfold. At its highest point in November, the nation celebrates with the Water Festival — fiercely competitive boat races are held, feasts are given and after three days of revelry the king of Cambodia cuts a ribbon to symbolically invite the water to flow back to sea. When the water recedes, the locals trade in their boats for trucks and motorbikes and farm the land during the dry season. Once the water level drops, the nutrients left behind create fruitful shores of fertile soil teeming with wildlife – terrapins, ibis, cormorants, and kingfishers.

It has been said that the Age of Angkor would never have happened without the Tonle Sap. Traces of civilization along the lakeshore and riverbank date from more than 1,000 years ago, notably from India which brought irrigation, farming techniques, Hinduism and its architecture – out of which rose Angkor. The lack of stone quarries in what is now Siem Reap suggests the massive stones that make up the vast complex of Angkor were transported from far away. Henri Mouhat, who rediscovered Angkor Wat hidden in the jungle in 1859, may have described the Tonle Sap best: "Here is a world of water. It is a territory of immensity, of loneliness, of the silence from the beginning of time."

John Lander is a Tokyo-based freelance writer.

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Cambodia Showing Signs of 'Oil Curse'

By Geoffrey Cain

Up to $1.7 billion a year in oil money is set to flow into impoverished Cambodia, where 35 percent of the population lives under $1 a day and where this year's national budget is only $1.8 billion. Yet in a country ranking a dismal 166 out of 180 on Transparency International's annual corruption rankings, allegations of nepotism and cronyism are already surfacing around the country's nascent oil sector, set to start production in 2012. Critics, like London-based watchdog Global Witness, claim the makings of a "resource curse" are in place, wherein a political elite will siphon profits that should be used to address poverty.

The International Monetary Fund initially estimated the newly found oil reserves, discovered in 2005, at 2 billion barrels, while energy giant Chevron forecast a more modest 400 million barrels. Amendments to a 1991 oil law subsequently placed the fields under the jurisdiction of the Cambodian National Petroleum Authority (CNPA), controlled directly by Prime Minister Hun Sen and his deputy, Sok An, with little parliamentary oversight. Global Witness claims the CNPA is rife with secrecy, its administrators regularly withholding documents and denying telephone usage to employees. That's in addition to millions of dollars, paid by companies to secure oil blocks, that aren't showing up in the government's revenue reports.

The developments follow a pattern that has emerged in other countries that have fallen prey to oil curses, such as Nigeria, Venezuela, and Iraq. Ou Virak, head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, argues that Cambodia has much in common with those three countries, in particular the fact that all government bodies and revenues are under the control of a few people. One Asian Development Bank consultant even labeled the CNPA a part of Sok An's "empire" (which also includes the corruption-rankled genocide tribunal).

The diversification into pillaging the oil and mining sectors comes after the country's ruling elites exhausted Cambodia's logging resources to fund their civil war in the 1990s. International donors largely remained silent at the time, said Eleanor Nichols of Global Witness. Now she says they must demand reform to keep Cambodian leaders from plundering oil and mining resources with impunity as well. The government allegedly said in October it would not endorse the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a global coalition of businesses and governments that require disclosure of revenues, according to a Global Witness report. But Nichols said EITI is back on the table, with donors urging more transparency in Cambodia's oil find.

With foreign aid contributions totaling half of the government's $1.8 billion budget, donors can easily exert far-reaching influence upon Cambodia's ruling elite. But new donors with new agendas are courting Phnom Penh as well, and they don't attach the same conditions of democratic reform that Western governments do. In January, Sen finished his first-ever tour through Kuwait, which offered $546 million in soft loans for agriculture -- destined for Cambodia's vast rice fields -- as a means of securing its own food supplies.

China, facing staggering demand for minerals and timber to support its rapid growth, is also counteracting longstanding Western influence in the mineral-rich country. In exchange for access to resource supplies, China is powering the Cambodian countryside -- which faces some of the highest energy costs in the world -- by building $1 billion worth of hydroelectric dams. All of Beijing's soft loans come with no strings attached.

Whether Middle Eastern countries and China will hold Sen to international transparency standards remains to be seen, but transparency has so far not been high on their list of priorities. With Cambodia now hurtling headlong into an oil disaster, donor pressure will prove crucial to resisting the resource curse pattern plaguing developing countries.

Geoffrey Cain has covered Asia for the Economist, Far Eastern Economic Review, and .net Magazine. His personal Web site can be found here.
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Cambodian court sentences Michigan man to 13 years on charges of sexually abusing girl

A Michigan man was sentenced Thursday to 13 years in prison on charges of sexually abusing a 13-year-old girl, a Cambodian court official said.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia —

A Michigan man was sentenced Thursday to 13 years in prison on charges of sexually abusing a 13-year-old girl, a Cambodian court official said.

Jason Todd Bambauch, 40, also was ordered to pay 20 million riel ($5,000) as compensation to the girl's family, Judge Chan Madina said.

Bambauch, a designer whose hometown was not immediately known, was arrested last September. Police charged he had sexual relations with the girl for more than a year, paying her $100 a month for her school fees as well as other money.

Bambauch's lawyer, Chap Keo, said his client never had sex with the girl and that her parents promised that he could marry her when she turned 18. The lawyer said Bambauch would appeal the verdict.

Lax law enforcement and poverty have made Cambodia a prime destination for foreigners seeking sex with minors. But police recently have stepped up efforts to fight the crime, and several foreigners are serving lengthy prison terms.
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