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Saturday, July 11, 2009

Seeing Cambodia's temples - but without the crowds

John Burgess
The Washington Post

It's early on a Sunday morning in Cambodia and I'm standing at a 12th-century moat. Traces of mist hover above the lotus leaves that dapple the water. Across a causeway, through a tumbled-down gate, lies Banteay Chhmar, one of the largest temples ever built by the ancient Khmer Empire. My friends and I will have the place all to ourselves.

We walk in. It turns out that we do end up sharing it, with a local man who brings his cows onto the grounds to graze. And with an affable mason who leads us across acres of fallen stone to see a message from the past, an inscription chiseled into the door jamb of a holy tower. This kind of company we welcome.

Cambodia's great temples of Angkor, 100 kilometres away, have long since been rediscovered after a quarter-century of closure by war. They now draw more than a million foreign visitors a year, not a few of whom regret that so many other people had the same idea. At peak hours, human traffic jams can form at temple steps.

But go beyond Angkor and you can find places that serve up the old solitude and sense of discovery.

Banteay Chhmar is among the most spectacular of these places. Getting to it entails hours on very bumpy and dusty dirt roads. Staying the night means making do with primitive accommodations: candlelit rooms in local homes, bath water drawn from that same moat.

I stayed the night, and it turned out to really make the visit. The next morning I rose early, as everyone here does, and took a walk in clean country air. I passed hens foraging with their chicks and boys tending to a mud oven in which charcoal was being made. I was seeing not only a temple but a way of life.

Today several thousand people -- rice farmers, cattle herders, market vendors -- make their homes on all four sides of the temple. They grow vegetables on the banks of a series of moats; they pile straw within the walls of lesser ancient buildings that dot their settlement. The ancient and present day coexist.

Spending time here also means doing a good turn, spreading a bit of wealth in a part of a war-recovering country that has largely missed out on the tourist dollars that Angkor is bringing in. People do have cellphones (charged by generator), and some have small tractors, but there are few other signs of affluence.

Banteay Chhmar was created in the Khmer Empire's last great burst of construction, under the 12th-century Buddhist king Jayavarman VII. His engineers were thinking big even by Khmer standards: To contain a great settlement, they built earthworks and moats that formed a square measuring roughly one 1.5 kilometres on each side. At its centre, within another square moat system, they built the temple.

More than a century ago, French archeologist Etienne Aymonier found the temple to be in a state of "indescribable ruin.'' It still is, despite the efforts of the friendly mason, who is part of a small reconstruction team. But that's part of what makes the site so enticing.

Exploring it means climbing over piles of large fallen stones. We passed ruined towers, courtyards and ceremonial walkways. Sometimes the stones were so high that we were walking at roof level.

The temple is no longer a formal religious site, but Cambodians believe that it, like all those that their forebears left behind, remains a holy site. In one surviving chamber we found a small contemporary shrine, with a Buddha image wearing a cloth robe, where people made incense offerings.

One of the best parts of this temple is the many bas-reliefs on its outer walls. We had to scramble up more stones to get a good view. Before us was a full sample of life 900 years ago: processions of elephants, prominent ladies tended by maids, children roughhousing, villagers in a sampan, servants tending a stove.

There were also many scenes of war with Champa, a long-vanished rival state to the east: The temple is in large part a memorial to four generals who lost their lives in that long conflict. On land, the men of arms go at one another fiercely with spears (you can identify the Chams by the curious blossom-shaped headdress they wear). On water, rows of men pull at oars from galleys as others strike at the enemy with spears. There are also images of the divine, notably the god Vishnu, with 32 arms arrayed like rays of light.

The carving style is similar to that of the Bayon temple reliefs in Angkor. The difference is there's no need to fight for a view. We did cross paths for a few minutes our first day with a party of about 20 French-speaking tourists. We saw no other visitors that day or the next.

Late in the afternoon, we went to see what the ancient Khmers could do with water. Just east of the temple, they created a big reservoir. Academics disagree over whether it did only symbolic duty as an earthly stand-in for the mythic Sea of Creation, or was part of an irrigation system, or both. Whatever the truth, I was awed by the scale.

The reservoir was now largely dry, but because its floor is low and collects water, it has been divided into rice paddies. We went for a stroll, walking along paddy dikes to keep our feet dry. We said hello to members of a farming family who were tinkering with a small tractor. A woman had caught a bucketful of paddy crabs and insects, which she would sell as food.

I spent the night at the house of a Cambodian family, friends of a friend. They couldn't have been more gracious. They gave me a room, bottled water, mosquito coils and a big luxury: a car battery hooked to a fluorescent light.

Other members of our party slept at a formal homestay, the term given to guest houses. It had two rooms with large beds covered by mosquito nets. Downstairs there was a basic bathroom with a squat toilet and scoop bath.

In the morning we had breakfast at a stall in the town's market; there are no proper restaurants. It was noodle soup with chicken, and very good.

I first visited Angkor in 1969. Back then, you could be alone in the big temples there. I once walked through the largest of them, Angkor Wat, encountering hardly a soul.

It's good to know that such an experience can still be had. You just have to work a bit harder for it.


Getting around: There is no public transportation to the sites described here; wheels are on a bring-your-own basis. Tour companies in Siem Reap will arrange visits. If you feel adventurous, strike deals directly with taxi or motorcycle drivers and go on your own.

Being Mealea and Koh Ker can be visited in one long day. Banteay Chhmar, at four hours each way, is a bigger challenge to reach. If you're entering Cambodia overland from Thailand, you can save time by turning north at Sisophon town to reach the temple.

When to go: Winter is Cambodia's peak tourist season. Avoid March, April and May, the peak time for heat. Don't be scared off by the summer-through-fall rainy season. The rains typically occur only in late afternoon.

Where to stay: A French non-profit organization has been helping Banteay Chhmar operate a homestay program. It provides for overnight accommodations, often in a guesthouse next door to the host family's home; meals; local culture performances; and an ox cart ride. Tour companies can book you. Or you make direct contact by emailing program co-ordinator Tath Sophal at tathsophal (at)

Koh Ker has guesthouse accommodations.

For more information: The official Cambodian tourism site is
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Woman Hears Call, Responds, Raises More Than $2,600 For The ‘Silent’

Religion Editor

The saga of how area kindergarteners raised $680 to assist children sold into slavery in another country is a story worth telling repeatedly as an encouragement to those wanting to "do something," said an area children's minister.

Missy Zivney, children's minister at Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, helped raise more than $2,600 in July for the locally based nonprofit For The Silent.

The story starts in January, when Missy Zivney, a mother of four, went to see the child sex-slave traffic rockumentary "Call + Response." The depiction of abused children "gripped my heart," she said. She left the Times Square Cinema, which showed the film in cooperation with local churches, feeling bewildered and almost paralyzed.

"The problem of sex trafficking children is so pervasive and so overwhelming, you can get paralysis from the analysis," said the Whitehouse mother of four. "It's a temptation to just want to shut it out, and have it be 'out of sight, out of mind.' For awhile, I was wondering what one person could even do."

But not for long. During a benefit concert in May at Rose Heights Church with Paul Balouche, she heard more about For The Silent, a local nonprofit featured in the Tyler Morning Telegraph during the sold-out "Call + Response" showings. For The Silent founders Kenny and Julie Rigsby, 27 and 25, respectively, said their effort focuses on poverty stricken Cambodian children sold into slavery. The children have few or no advocates and almost no resources to help them escape a dismal life of servitude in seedy brothels.

"At the concert, I heard Kenny speak about this horrible and heinous crime on their bodies that these kids experience, and it gripped my heart all over again," Mrs. Zivney said. "After the concert was over, I saw all these For The Silent donation envelopes on the floor and in the pews. I sent two of my children to gather them all up, and I said, 'Lord, I'm going use these somehow.'"
She wasn't sure just how until a meeting at Pleasant Hill weeks later to form a church day camp for her young charges.

"That's when it hit me like a lightening bolt," Mrs. Zivney said. "We would structure our whole day camp around For The Silent. I didn't want to just have a fun day camp where the focus is just having a good time. I wanted to issue a challenge to get them to go out and do something, something with a meaningful basis, something to do with ministry."

Getting some church teens to help with the approximately 160 kids from dindergarten to sixth grade who came to camp each day June 29 through July 3, Mrs. Zivney set up a crafts fair. The children made and painted birdhouses, rocks, paperweights, picture holders and colorful tiles to be used as trivets in kitchens.

Then they sold them from 50 cents to $ 1.

"I'm telling you," Mrs. Zivney said, "the response was overwhelming. Parents sent in $20 $50 and $100 checks for a $1 item. They got so excited and behind this ministry that the kindergarten-age camp class alone raised $680."

The grand total from the entire camp was $2,600. When Kenny Rigsby heard the total raised, he was momentarily speechless.

"It's completely incredible to see kids helping other kids going through some of the worst things imaginable," he said, "and area kids having a positive impact on children they'll never know or see. It's always cool to see young kids caring about what God cares about."

The money will go toward purchasing a vehicle for a Cambodian After Care ministry that desperately needs a vehicle to transport children rescued from the slave trade, Rigsby said.

"That's hugely important in Cambodia," he said, "because vehicles cost so much there and there is little money to buy them. The center needs safe transportation for the children to go to school, visit the doctor and to see their families. We take transportation for granted here, but there it makes a tremendous difference."

And making a difference is what the children of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church did for some children in Cambodia.

Rigsby said, "What Missy did is what we always ask people; do what they already know how to do to make a difference in the lives of these children. She used her camp and influence to extend her reach into families. She did Day Camp For The Silent and look at the result."

Mrs. Zivney said, "Our kids got T-shirts that read, 'Go Win With Jesus For The Silent.' What better way to minister to those children in need than through our children?"

Donations of about $10,000 are still needed to purchase the vehicle for the After Care ministry. To donate online, visit, or send donations to For The Silent, P.O. Box 998, Tyler, 75710. Call 903-530-4931 for information.

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Angkor’s temples are uniquely Khmer

The Indianization of Southeast Asia was one of the early theories developed in the last century to explain the pervasive presence of Hindu religious sites, sculptures and languages in this region, but the mechanisms of Indianization have always been subject to debate. In the early years of this theory, it almost seemed as if Southeast Asia was a passive recipient for Indian ideas and religion, but today the general consensus is that local rulers used the religious teachings from India as a way to further validate their royal power, leading to many similarities in the ways rulers exerted control over their subjects here (think the traditional Mandala structures of kingdoms), but also to regional distinctiveness. This article shows how the buildings of Angkor reflect that Indian influence, but are also fundamentally Khmer in construction.

Ancient Khmer art and culture have characteristics distinct from India, though some ideas appear to have been borrowed from the tradition, a Canadian archeologist told guests in Washington last week.

Speaking to a small conference at the Freer-Sackler Art Gallery, Mitch Henderickson, director of the Industries of Angkor Project and researcher at the University of Sydney, said he found no evidence after seven years of research indicating that temples or architectural structures like Angkor Wat had been built in India.

“In the past it was interpreted as a direct diffusion of Indians and Indian ideals into Cambodia,” he said. “It has only been, say, in the last 10 years that we have truly understood how Brahman and Buddhist ideals have been brought into Cambodia and whether the actual Brahman or monks were giving the ideas.”

Some architecture and arts were now thought “uniquely Khmer,” he said, “because there are no temples in India that are built in the same way. They don’t follow the idea of building a ‘baray’ with a ‘mebon’ in the center, which is the representation of Mount Meru in the Sea of Milk [epic]. There’s nothing like that i​n India. So, the idea is that now we realize that Cambodia took the ideas that they wanted and modified them to suit the purpose and goals of the rulers and kings.”

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The Vietnamese Government Unlawfully Imprisons Members of the Democratic Party of Vietnam (DPV)

SAN JOSE, Calif.--(BUSINESS WIRE)--In the last three weeks, three members of the Democratic Party of Vietnam (DPV) have been arrested for promoting the strengthening of democracy and human rights for the people of Vietnam.

On July 7, 2009, Dr. Nguyen Tien Trung, the leader of the DPV’s Youth for Democracy organization, and Lieutenant Colonel Tran Anh Kim, a key member of the DPV, were imprisoned for urging increased freedoms of the press, religion, travel and improved human rights. On June 13, 2009, Le Cong Dinh, a prominent attorney and member of the DPV, was unlawfully detained for similar reasons.

These actions came shortly after the arrest and imprisonment of Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, CEO of OCI, Le Thang Long, Le Thi Thu and Tran Thi Thu on May 24, 2009. The above individuals had been politically involved in a peaceful manner with the aim of promoting & strengthening democracy and human rights, leading to economic prosperity and stamping out poverty.

According to Dr. Nguyen X. Ngai, the Vice Secretary of the Democratic Party of Vietnam, “The actions of the Vietnam government are unlawful and unacceptable in the world community, and is just the opposite of what the Vietnam government agreed to when it joined the WTO and the United Nations.

“The DPV deplores this action and demands that the government of Vietnam obey the law and release all the above individuals, as well as other political members who are still unlawfully imprisoned in Viet Nam, without any restrictions or conditions attached.”

The Democratic Party of Vietnam has been cooperating with the Vietnamese Communist Party since 1944. At that time, the late Hoang Minh Chinh, former Secretary of the DPV, reformed and reshaped the DPV to place emphasis on non-violent but law-abiding activities with no affiliation to any other political parties. This was announced and reemphasized again on January 9, 2008.

Central Executive Committee

Democratic Party of Vietnam

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