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Sunday, May 03, 2009

Adventures in Angkor

By Elaine O'Connor, Calgary Herald

Two hours into a back-road motorcycle ride through the Cambodian countryside-- wind cutting the baking 34-degree heat, dust flying up from the road --I'm treated to a parade of rural Khmer life.

Two women bicycle by in peaked straw hats, a farmer passes with a load of hay strapped to his scooter, another hauls a slaughtered hog, kids ride three to a bike, parents with toddlers sit four to a scooter.

We weave around each other, trying to avoid the worst of the road's ruts. With every teeth-rattling, spine-shattering swerve, I remember my airport taxi driver's ominous warning after I landed in Siem Reap. Three tourists die every month trying to see the wats (temples) from the back of a scooter, he said. I thought he was just trying to land a gig as my chauffeur.

Now, I'm not so sure.

But the effort to uncover Angkor's Beng Malea --a remote 12th-century forest shrine more than 60 kilometres from the heart of the ancient city of Angkor,

which is a UNESCO World Heritage site--proves well worth my bruised tailbone.

Angkor, Cambodia's star attraction, is considered the seventh wonder of the world, and its archeological mysteries lure four million visitors a year.

The temples of Angkor ("holy city" in Khmer)were built between the 9th and 13th centuries when the kingdom was at its height, with a million people.

It was the seat of the Khmer empire, whose influence extended into Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, and it was the region's most sophisticated city for over 500 years. Archeologists believe it was the largest preindustrial city in the world.

Beng Malea is a massive, kilometre-square crumbling monument strewn with tumbled rocks the size of small cars set quietly in the jungle. It was built by King Suryavarman II, who also built Angkor Wat. But in contrast to Angkor

Wat's tourist throngs and iconic status, Beng Malea seems forsaken, lost and abandoned.

Cambodia itself has profoundly struggled, and tourism to its ruins is just beginning to help it rebuild.

The nation of 14 million was bombed during the U. S. war in Vietnam to flush out Viet Cong, creating two million refugees. A famine followed in 1975 and that same year the rebel Khmer Rouge took power. Pol Pot's Communist Party renamed the country Kampuchea and tried to return it to its agrarian roots, forcing educated Cambodians to work on farms, killing doctors and teachers and outlawing anything western.

One to three million people were tortured, slaughtered or died from lack of food or medicine. A Vietnamese invasion in the late 1970s ousted the regime, but the Khmer Rouge rebels continued to fight in pockets throughout the countryside: though 1999 was the first full year of peace in 30 years, there are reminders of the Vietnam War everywhere. On the streets, it's rare to see a man over 40. At one wat-side stall, a young girl with a stack of plastic-wrapped books offered a slim volume, reading off its title: Children of Cambodian Killing Fields.

The development and dollars that accompany tourists to Angkor Wat-- arguably the country's top renewable resource--seem to be having a positive impact.

Angkor Wat itself, the world's largest religious building, makes a profound impact.

Nearby lie more remarkable ruins. The gates of Angkor Thom, a three square-kilometre city built by King Jayavarman VII starting in 1181, are flanked with giant, Buddha-like statues--passing through can feel like entering another world. The otherworldly Bayon temple lies on the other side.

The Bayon, with its 37 towers chiselled with dozens of enigmatic, all-seeing Buddha faces offers an eerie introduction to Angkor's wonders. Eyes seem to follow you as you explore the temple, climbing over ruins, ducking under lintels, running fingers over the ancient bas-reliefs, and clambering up stone steps. The mysterious Bayon is one of Angkor's most affecting temples.

For those put off by the two-hour trek to Beng Malea, the temple of Ta Prohm is a fine substitute.

Ta Prohm is perhaps one of the most atmospheric of the inner temples, overgrown with thick vines with slabs of rock smothered in snaking tree roots. No wonder it was used in scenes from Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie. The 12th-century temple has been left as it was found--and has become beautifully meshed with the jungle.

It can be exhausting playing amateur archeologist in the 30-degree heat but, thankfully, Siem Reap has lots to offer in the way of rejuvenation. The city comes to life after sunset and though Siem Reap is a small town, restaurants, night markets and street stalls in the tourist-centric core remain lively well after midnight.

French colonial roots run deep here, so good bread here is almost as common as rice, and vendors balance baguettes on their heads on their morning rounds.

For a taste of colonial cuisine, try Le Malraux (named for French adventurer Andre Malraux, arrested for stealing temple bas-reliefs in the 1920s), for salade Parisienne, salmon rillettes and cream puffs amid art nouveau interior. Stop for dessert at the Blue Pumpkin cafe, which offers exotic ice cream flavours like banana galangal, green lemon and Kaffir lime, and ginger and black sesame.

After dinner, take care of watwandering tensions with street-side foot massages. They're a dime a dozen (actually, about $3 US for half an hour). Or enjoy an affordable body massage ($10) or pedicure ($7). Several shops also offer massages by the blind; at Seeing Hands Massage on Sivatha Road, part of the proceeds go back into training Cambodia's vision-impaired citizens in the trade.

But for a more refined experience, step into Bodia Spa, a cool, inviting retreat across from the Old Market. A chilled ginger tea and cold herb-infused face cloth greet clients as they enter the white, high-design minimalist space en route to their oil body massages and herbal compresses.

Once refreshed, practise your bargaining skills at the Night Market off Sivatha Road--where endless rows of silk scarves beckon--or shop for social good at several local stores that support non-profit ventures. Rehab Craft near the Old Market sells handmade carvings, wallets and silks made by disabled employees and Artisan's D'Angkor trains poor youths in carving.

Top off the evening with a drink or two on the terrasse of the Red Piano, a restored French Colonial home with a sweeping corner balcony. Raise a glass of Angkor or Chang brand beers or sip a "Tomb Raider" cocktail (the restaurant was known as the place Jolie and crew hung out during filming) and toast to the spirit of Cambodia, to the beauty of Angkor, and to the adventurer in you.

Learn more at Tourism Cambodia:

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Cambodia refutes U.S. underestimation of its anti-terrorism capability

PHNOM PENH, The Cambodian Information Minister has refuted a U.S. State Department report about the country's capability of countering terrorism as "not 100 percent correct," national media said on Sunday.

The recently issued U.S. report about the global anti-terrorism situation claimed that terrorists might take advantage of the weakness of Cambodia, such as corruption, poverty and lax management of the border, to carry out illegal acts in its territory, despite the government had made a clear promise to crack down on this type of crime, the newspaper Jian Hua Daily quoted the minister as saying.

In addition, Cambodia lacked training and other resources to counter terrorism, it added.

Khieu Kanharith, also spokesman for the Cambodian government, said "there is no country in the world that can control its border with 100 percent accuracy, neither Cambodia."

However, "the government has established strong and trustworthy relations with different communities in order to nip any social violence in bud," the spokesman said.

Meanwhile, the newspaper also quoted a senior official of the Interior Minister as saying that there is minimum possibility that terrorists' acts occur in Cambodia, and fighting against money laundering should be the kingdom's priority in the anti-terrorism field.

According to official reports, no major terrorism case with global connection has occurred in the country so far.
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Wolverine Hugh Jackman-declawed

“Wolverine” star Hugh Jackman has many sides. There is the movie action hero, the Broadway musical award winner and the charming Oscar host. He also hobnobs with billionaire Rupert Murdoch’s family and visits Third World countries where microfinancing projects give people hope for breaking out of poverty.

Jackman plays the main character in superhero movie “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” that opened on Friday, reprising his role as a tough mutant with claws that spring from his knuckles.

But in real life, the 40-year-old Jackman is not likely to turn anyone into mincemeat as he does in the “X-Men” movies, including the fourth and latest film in the franchise which kicks off Hollywood’s blockbuster season.

Jackman is a married family man, whose two young adopted children have playdates with Murdoch’s kids, and who himself hangs out with the media mogul’s adult son.

Of course, the “X-Men” movies that made Jackman a star are productions of Murdoch’s Twentieth Century Fox, and both men are Aussies, so there’s a kinship there.

But Jackman, who says his most expensive hobby is wine and who splits his time between New York and Australia, also has a kinship of sorts with an impoverished woman in Cambodia, after visiting the nation to see microcredit charity work in action.

“It was unbelievable to see this woman get 200 U.S. dollars in her hand, with tears running down her face and the real first chance she and her family had ever had to escape the cycle of poverty,” Jackman told Reuters in a recent interview.

The woman planned to use the money to buy a sewing machine and some supplies to start a clothing business, he said.

Jackman made the recent trip to Cambodia as an “ambassador” for charity World Vision, which has joined in the microcredit movement, offering loans to poor residents of developing countries so they can make a living and sustain themselves.

Jackman is friends with Nobel Peace Prize-winning economist Muhammad Yunus, a pioneer in the world of microcredit and author of the 1999 book “Banker to the Poor.”

Apart from his philanthropic work, Jackman enjoys skiing, kayaking in Sydney Harbour and horse riding. Like many children, his kids enjoy tearing the limbs off the “X-Men” toy figurines that have become popular in recent years.

“Somehow, it’s saving me therapy bills for my kids down the road,” Jackman joked.

Although some reviewers have taken their shots at “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” indications are that it will post strong box office numbers this weekend. Online ticket seller reported on Friday that the firm accounts for 81 percent of its ticket sales, and that it appeals to both men and women. In a survey of moviegoers planning to see the film, 48 percent were female, and 72 percent of all respondents said Jackman’s starring role was the major reason to see “Wolverine.”
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Pakistan’s impending ‘Cambodian Moment’

By Harold A. Gould

The latest news from the Hindu Kush makes one thing painfully apparent: The Taliban/Al Qaeda jihadistani quasi state, “Jihadistan Emirate”, has achieved critical mass. It has now metastasized into a killer disease that threatens the survival of Pakistan’s fragile democracy.

The decisive indication that coherent political integration has been achieved by the Taliban is their successful conquest of Swat. This initial incursion outside their montane territorial fortress now shows that Taliban/Al Qaeda can call the shots regarding subsequent targets. This is evident from their deliberate and systematic expansion from Swat into the contiguous portions of Malakand Division, commencing with Buner district.

What is striking is that they are undertaking the latter in blatant defiance of agreements that were ostensibly ratified between them and the Pakistani government. It is clear, in other words, that the Taliban/Al Qaeda leadership view understandings and agreements that have been made with government authorities in the course of their politico-military expansion purely in tactical terms.

They sense the weakness and paralysis of the Pakistani government, and its consequent willingness (nay eagerness!) to engage in political appeasement, as a golden opportunity to gradually overpower and gain control of the Pakistani state.

The signs are everywhere that the Taliban/Al Qaeda strategy is working, and the authority of the Pakistan government is gradually waning despite official assurances to the contrary. Pakistani officials insist that the situation is under control when all the evidence points in the opposite direction. When US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton alluded to the “existential threat” to Pakistan’s survival posed by the extremists, Pakistan’s Ambassador in Washington, Husain Haqqani, replied that “we do not have a situation in which the government or the country of Pakistan is about to fall to the Taliban.”

His statement exemplifies the state of denial the democratically elected government of Pakistan is in. Clearly, President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, and even army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kiyani are in a state of paralytic inaction.

If one is searching for an analogy to what may be forthcoming from the Hindu Kush, in the face of the breakdown of popular government in Pakistan, it might not be far fetched to look no further than the Pol Pot phenomenon and the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. There are disturbing similarities between the two cases.

As the Khmer Rouge germinated and perfected their retrograde Maoist extremism in the remote jungle backwater of Cambodia, so the Taliban and Al Qaeda have honed their brand of doctrinal extremism and their accompanying organizational apparatus in the remote valleys of the Hindu Kush. As in the case of the Khmer Rouge, the Americans and the purportedly more advanced segments of Pakistani society at first took the extremists lightly, slighted them strategically, and indeed played political footsie with them until it became apparent that they were a serous threat.

When it seemed to then US secretary of state Henry Kissinger that the Khmer Rouge could be useful in opposing the North Vietnamese, in January 1968 the US Army helped the Khmer Rouge establish the Revolutionary Army of Kampuchea, which materially strengthened them. Much as ISI and the CIA from time to time bolstered the Taliban when it seemed they might be of value to both countries’ regional strategic interests.

There is another horror scenario waiting in the wings should a political collapse result in a “Cambodian Moment” for Pakistan. A Taliban regime in Pakistan would not only tear at the social fabric of Pakistan and plunge millions of Pakistanis into fratricidal conflict, it would potentially place nuclear weapons in the hands of lunatics like Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar!

This would impose on US President Barack Obama a moral dilemma beyond anything he could have imagined or contemplated when he assumed office. The only option open to him would be to take out the Pakistani nuclear facility at Chagai Hills in much the same manner, but on a grander scale, than Israel did when it feared that Saddam Husain’s Daura reactor near Baghdad would go critical by July or August of 1981.

The ramifications this would have for South Asia and indeed the entire world boggle the mind.

Yet this is a scenario whose occurrence cannot be dismissed as long as Pakistan’s civil society acting through its elected secular government, in consonance with the United States and the UN, move decisively before it is too late.

(03.05.2009 - Harold A. Gould is visiting scholar in South Asian Studies at the University of Virginia. He can be contacted at

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