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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

US Providing $51 Million in Health, Education and Other Aid

The US on Tuesday provided more than $35 million to Cambodian health and education, part of more than $51 million in funding expected this week.

The US will provide $33.55 million in grant funds to reduce HIV and AIDS and prevent major diseases like tuberculosis and other dangers such as maternal and child health, officials said. And it will provide another $1.55 million for Cambodia's “education objectives,” including improving basic education and access to education.

Cambodia's economic growth and future development rely on “an educated and healthy population,” US Ambassador Carol Rodley said in Phnom Penh at a signing ceremony Tuesday.

Long Visalo, the acting Minister of Foreign Affairs, accepted the funding Tuesday, calling health and education “the two highest priority sectors” for reducing poverty and increasing economic development.

The US is expected to provide another $16.44 million to Cambodia in a ceremony Wednesday, in a separate initiative to improve the country's business environment and enhance its agricultural capabilities.
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Cambodia's Kep: Sleepy seaside town begins to stir

The Associated Press

KOH TONSAY, Cambodia — Ask for the crab. In black peppercorn sauce.

The proprietor of the thatched-roof and bamboo-walled island restaurant will acknowledge the order in sign language and broken English. She'll shuffle across the seaside grass over to the dock where the crab cages sit, steeping in the Gulf of Thailand's tepid waters.

She'll return with a bucket of crustaceans and fry them in an iron wok over a charcoal fire in her open-air kitchen, searing them in a sauce made largely from sweet, fiery Kampot peppercorns. She'll bring you a heap of steaming seafood, pepper sauce, paper napkins and beer to the shaded picnic tables. You'll eat the crab — soft-shells and all — sucking the sauce from your fingers, drinking the beer to blunt the fiery pepper and thank the stars that few people have discovered the culinary and aesthetic pleasures of this southern coastal region.

While Cambodia's Angkor Wat temples are its biggest tourist draw, beach-bound tourists — particularly those looking for more than the backpacker-on-a-shoestring itinerary — are waking up to the unexplored beauty that this muggy country has to offer. The low-key beach town of Kep and the riverside village of Kampot, a three-hour drive south of the capital Phnom Penh, offer rough edges but simple charms, along with nearby islands like Koh Tonsay, where the crab in peppercorn is served.

The Kep-area beaches also offer alternatives to better-known regional beach resorts like Thailand's Phuket and even Cambodia's own Sihanoukville. Sihanoukville was a favorite of jet-setters (Jackie Kennedy visited in the '60s) before the country was beset by the horrors of wars, coups and the Khmer Rouge. These days, Sihanoukville's luxury resorts have plenty of attitude, having been rediscovered by growing numbers of nouveau-riche Cambodians and others. Sleepy Kep, in contrast, seems to attract a clientele that spurns Sihanoukville's swagger.

The town of Kep consists of a collection of modest residences and hotels tucked into the foliage off crumbling pavement and dusty roads, along with rows of motley shacks and several grand villas, many of which still show the ravages inflicted by the Khmer Rouge who sneered at Kep's bourgeois trappings. Kep Beach is mostly a stretch of rocky sand directly under the main road, though that doesn't stop the locals from swimming along the stony promenade. Notable local landmarks include an unusual nude statue of a fisherman's wife and a monstrous statue of a crab. The 16-room Beach House hotel and its tiny swimming pool hides just above the beach in the tropical hillside foliage, offering sweeping views of the gulf.

Bending around the promontory to the west and north is Kep's main drag, the Crab Market: a line of bamboo and thatch shacks where you can find crab, fish, prawns and squid, not to mention laundry service, tourist trinkets, boat rides, motos (mopeds), cold beer, cheap drugs, Internet connections, massage services and just about anything else you can imagine. The circus mix of locals, backpackers and proper tourists is a prime spot for people-watching.

Farther up the coast are Kep's nicer accommodations. Inland and up in the hills, there's the Veranda, with a wooden restaurant and bar on a slope with a vista of stunning sunsets over the water. Waterside, Knai Bang Chatt has the swankiest lodgings in town with an emerald infinity swimming pool and stylish, modernist building. The hotel's Sailing Club next door has a dining room perched on piers over the water and a small sandy beach where you can sip vodka tonics while the waves lap your toes. Kep Malibu Estates, despite the unusual name, is also perched inland, its swimming pool and grassy yard up a dusty road past rundown shacks and the disconcerting sight of impoverished farm families tending ragged plantings and staring blankly at passing tourists.

For many, the islands just off of Kep are the real draw. Phu Quoc is the largest, but it belongs to Vietnam and it's some distance away. For that reason, Koh Tonsay — translated as "Rabbit Island" — is arguably the most popular. Like many things in Cambodia, getting there is not entirely for the faint-hearted. Most hotels have connections with boat operators, or you can arrange a boat ride at one of the Crab Market shacks. The skinny boats, built mainly for fishing, are powered by crate-sized outboard engines with propeller shafts the length of a small tree. Their narrow width means they pitch and yaw more than most people feel comfortable with. That said, they move fast, and the 30-minute ride to Koh Tonsay (about $10) takes you out into a bay past poetic scenes of fishermen tending lines and seine nets.

The island reportedly was used at one point as a prison colony by the country's long-ruling monarch, Norodom Sihanouk. Today, however, its dense interior foliage keeps most visitors limited to the crystalline waters that slosh the whitish sands on its north side, where simple wood platforms are dotted with hammocks and thatched roofs. Just inland are the open-air kitchens and shacks of the half-dozen families who cater to tourists. For overnight stays, many families rent bungalows that are nothing more than enclosed shacks with wooden sleeping platforms and mosquito nets.

For most visitors, lounging on the beach platforms, alternating between swimming in the bathwater sea and drowsy contemplation of swaying palms is the most activity one can muster. Occasionally, wiry, naked-to-the-waist Cambodian men shimmying high into tree canopies, hacking at bushel-sized bunches of coconuts with machetes and letting the green fruit thud to the ground, spooking unsuspecting tourists. For less than a dollar, they'll trim off the husks for you, lop a hole into the top and pop a straw in it for the freshest coconut milk you could possibly hope for.

But when hunger truly strikes, it's best to find crab. The size of golf balls, these crustaceans are caught by traditional hook and lines, and left in cages in the water until mealtime. For less than $5, the cook/hostess prepares a mound of the animals, cooked in oil and peppercorns of the Kampot — a once-famous Cambodian agriculture export — and beer for two. The instinct is to equate crab with lobster, use your teeth to dismantle the shell and suck the meat out. But the shells are so soft, you realize it takes less effort to just eat the crab, meat, shell and all. With pepper sauce tingling on your tongue and cold beer washing it down, gorge yourself on Kep's finest culinary offering — and enjoy a place while it remains untrampled by the crowds.

If You Go...


TIMING: The best time to visit Cambodia is in the rainy reason (roughly late September through February), when the daytime temperatures aren't sweltering. The rains, while heavy, are brief in their duration and awe-inspiring in their intensity. This is considered high season for many hotels and other tourist services.

GETTING THERE: Fly to one of Southeast Asia's hubs — like Bangkok or Singapore — then take a budget carrier — Air Asia, Silk Air, Dragon Air, Jet Star, to name a few — to Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh. Regular bus service between Phnom Penh and Kep is cheap (around $7; but getting tickets and finding the right departure point in Phnom Penh's chaotic streets can be difficult, so best to ask your hotel or a travel agent for help. Renting a taxi to make the three-hour drive is also possible. Cost varies depending on whether you use a private car ($20-35 a day; or a shared taxi or car ($40 and very subject to change with no notice)


—Knai Bang Chatt: Located waterside, about a minute by moto or tuk-tuk (motorized rickshaw) from the Crab Market. Rates $150-$350 high season, $110-$225 low season.

—Veranda Natural Resort: Located inland, up a steep hill at end of dirt road, about three minutes by moto or tuk-tuk from Crab Market. Rooms and bungalows $40-$210, high season,; $35-$195, low season.

—Kep Malibu Estates: Located inland, up a short dirt road, about three minutes by moto or tuk-tuk from the Crab Market. Rooms or bungalows, $35-$120, high season, $30-$80, low season. Camping is also available.

The Beach House: Located on a steep hill overlooking Kep Beach, 3 minutes by moto or tuk-tuk from Crab Market. Rooms $40-$55.
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Workers, Factories Agree to Negotiation Commission

Trade unions and garment manufacturers have agreed to establish a government-brokered commission in order to break an impasse over increased income for workers, after thousands went on general strike earlier this month.

Union and factory representatives met with government officials on Monday, agreeing to establish the commission, with five members each from workers and manufacturers, in order to reach some kind of agreement over monthly income that workers say does not enable them to meet a decent standard of living.

Thousands of workers from one block of unions went on strike earlier this month to demand more negotiations, after manufacturers said they would not increase salaries beyond a $5 raise, for a monthly total of $61, in July.

The strikes cost factories millions of dollars, and some companies have brought lawsuits in its wake. Despite agreeing to the negotiation commission, companies said they would not be deterred from legal action against some strike leaders.

Ath Thun, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers' Democratic Union, said Tuesday his unions had submitted the names of its five commission members to the Ministry of Labor in preparation for the meeting. That list includes himself and four other leaders of unions.

Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia, said the group will send its names forward on Wednesday, after which a meeting date can be scheduled.

The general strike, which last four days, comes as Cambodia is looking to rebound from the global financial crisis. Garments remain the country's main earner, ahead of tourism.

The strike also prompted some major clothing distributors, including the Walt Disney Company and Levi Strauss, to issue a call for reconciliation.

“We urge all parties to respect the process and engage in good faith dialogue to find a solution, show commitment to constructive action for a long term solution and refrain from any inflammatory action or counterproductive rhetoric, and find a solution that is inclusive of all parties’ concerns and provides a long term stability for the industry,” they wrote in a letter to the government, unions and GMAC.
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