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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Cambodia: Ten tips on visiting Angkor's temples

Michelle Jana Chan reports on how to see the Cambodian temples at Angkor at their best, in spite of the crowds.

By Michelle Jana Chan

Angkor Archaeological Park is home to hundreds of temples as well as villages, schools and farmland. Just as a millennium ago, Angkor is a vast area where people live and work. Glimpses of rural Cambodian life – immaculately uniformed children walking to school and their parents working the fields – offer humble interludes between temple visits.

Its centrepiece is Angkor Wat, Cambodia's best-preserved and beloved temple. Originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, it has remained a place of worship since its foundation. Thought to be a miniature replica of the universe, its towers, moats and concentric walls reveal an architectural sophistication, and the bas-relief with their plump figures and triumphal battle scenes reflect a healthy, wealthy period of history.

Elsewhere, in the park, some of the most elegant carvings can be found at Banteay Srei temple, decorated with sensuous celestial dancers. Ta Phrom is one of the most photographed temples, deliberately left mostly unrestored, and tangled and strangled by undergrowth, branches and roots.

The perennial favourite is the Bayon temple at Angkor Thom whose towers – like at Banteay Chhmar – are etched with enlightened bodhisattva faces. The Bayon is also decorated with enchanting bas-relief depicting ordinary Khmer life rather than the Hindu mythology seen at most other temples.

Aside from these landmark temples, there are smaller but equally moving sites like Ta Nei (resembling a diminutive Ta Phrom), Ta Som (with a four-faced tower like at the Bayon) and Banteay Samre (like a petite Angkor Wat). Built on a more human scale, they can offer some respite from their grander cousins.

Here are 10 tips on how to visit Angkor well:

1 High season runs from November to March, when the weather is usually fair. Late October and November, the country is still lush after the rains and there are fewer tourists.

2 Wear comfortable shoes with good soles; the paving at the temples is uneven and slippery when wet. Take an umbrella against the rain/sun. A torch is useful for windowless rooms.

3 Have a basic understanding of Hinduism and Theravada Buddhism. Most guidebooks have a section on this subject. A good map is available at local bookshops in Siem Reap (they do not have one at the ticket office).

4 Most tourists follow a well-trodden route: sunrise at the west gate of Angkor Wat before returning to the hotel for breakfast; late morning, Angkor Thom, Ta Phrom and Banteay Srei; after lunch, exploring more fully Angkor Wat; sunset atop Phnom Bakheng hill. Avoid this itinerary to beat the crowds.

5 This is the way I would do it. Early to bed, early to rise. Angkor opens at 5.30am and this is the best time to start exploring. After sunrise, most tourists head swiftly back to their hotels for breakfast. Instead, stay out until 9am when the temples are remarkably peaceful. Plan on a late lunch, or ask the hotel to pack a picnic. Between noon and 2.30pm, many temples are empty. The afternoons are best spent at the smaller temples. I love sunset at the fiery-red Pre Rup or East Mebon temples.

6 Ask your tour operator to assign you their best private guide. Touring temples can be wearying unless you have someone bringing the history to life.

7 At some temples children sell souvenirs and employ emotive language about how they need money for school. Buying from them will encourage them to work in this way. Most tour operators and hotels have links to NGOs, and visits can often be arranged to schools and orphanages; donating to these organisations might be a wiser way to support the local community.

8 Try to visit the National Palace Museum in Phnom Penh. This stopover works best after visiting the temples. The newly opened Angkor National Museum in Siem Reap is poorly curated but is worth an hour with a good guide.

9 A visit to the British Museum is worthwhile; it is currently hosting Images and Sacred Texts: Buddhism Across Asia, which includes artefacts from Cambodia (until April). The world's most comprehensive collection of Khmer artefacts is in Paris's Musée Guimet.

10 It is not uncommon to hear tourists say they are "templed out". Pace yourself, take breaks and visit smaller, less busy temples.
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In US Ship's Visit, a Commander's Homecoming

U.S. Navy Commander Michael Vannak Khem Misiewicz serves as a commanding officer of the guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin.

When the US naval ship USS Mustin docks in Cambodia next month, it will be a homecoming for the the destroyer's commander.

Michael Vannak Khem Misiewicz was adopted by an American woman in 1973, as Cambodia fell to the war and the oncoming Khmer Rouge. He was raised in the US and has not returned home in 37 years.

“The purpose of the trip to Cambodia is to develop and further the relationship between the United States and Cambodia...and it’s a special trip because the Mustin is commanded by a Cambodian-American,” Misiewicz told VOA Khmer by phone from aboard his ship. “We'll help train some of the Royal Cambodian Navy and military, and we're also going there to do community relations projects.”

The USS Mustin, based in Yokusuka, Japan, is a guided missile destroyer, carrying 300 sailors onboard. The December visit to Cambodia comes on the heels of a visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, this month.

“I know it's going to be very emotional,” said Misiewicz, who was born in Kandal province but was adopted by an American woman whom his aunt worked for.

Misiewicz, whose given name is Vannak Khem, went to school in the US, not knowing what became of his family after the Khmer Rouge came to power. He graduated high school, joined the US Navy, and later went on to the Naval Academy, earning his officer's commission in 1992.

When he returns to Cambodia, he will be reunited with his aunt. His father was executed by the Khmer Rouge in 1977, but his birth mother now lives in Texas with her family.
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Cambodian lawmaker focuses on rights for women

By Bonnie Adler

Nobel Prize nominee Mu Sochua, an advocate for rule of law and rights for women in Cambodia, is a remarkable study in contrasts.

At 55, she is an exotic beauty, slender, soft-spoken, graceful and charming. She is also alarmingly brave and intensely committed. As the most outspoken female leader of the opposition party in an impoverished post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia, she risks her life in calling publicly for the cessation of sex trafficking, equality for women and an end to the corruption that is endemic to all levels of Cambodian society.

Mu Sochua made numerous appearances in Westport last week, raising awareness about her work as a Cambodian lawmaker to promote greater equality and freedom for women in her country and to publicize the deeply disturbing film documentary “Redlight,” an expose about the global issue of sex trafficking of children.

Mu Sochua is featured in the film, which focuses on the personal stories of the victims of child sexploitation and the efforts made thus far to try to stop the crime, which is so prevalent in Cambodia. “Redlight” was directed by an award-winning Israeli filmmaker, Guy Jacobsen, and was shown in Westport and Ridgefield last week with personal appearances by both Mu Sochua and Guy Jacobson.

Mu Sochua also made a day-long appearance at Staples High School, speaking with students in the about the situation in her country. She also made a special presentation to the Staples High School chapter of Teen Vital Voices, where Westport teens are learning about women empowering other women.

Mu Sochua is sponsored by Vital Voices Global Partnership, an international non-profit organization that trains and empowers emerging women leaders and entrepreneurs around the world, with the goal of creating a better world for those in impoverished and underserved countries.

The Connecticut Chapter of Vital Voices brought Mu Sochua to Westport and Ridgefield, where she participated in a number of events aimed at highlighting the devastating effects of poverty and lawlessness in her country. Her demands, made in her firm but soft-spoken voice, are for laws which Americans take for granted, such as the enforcement of the laws which make illegal the practice of sex slavery by children.

In an interview with the Minuteman, Mu Sochua said, “There is a Cambodian proverb which says, ‘Men are gold, women are just a white piece of cloth.’ Gold can be worn forever. It is always solid, but a white piece of cloth can be stained forever. In Cambodia, if you are raped, you are ruined forever. If you are divorced you are ruined forever. Society will not accept you. If you are independent of your husband you are a ‘bad woman.’

“As a Cambodian Cabinet Minister, I committed myself to changing this proverb to ‘men are gold, but women are precious gems.’ Now my supporters are known throughout Cambodia as ‘precious gems.’

“We have a large problem with domestic violence. When I was minister, we did not blame the men, but gave a picture of a family where the gold and precious gems to work together in order for the family to be intact with a sense of harmony. We did not ask women to demand equal rights, but tried to make the men understand that a sense of harmony is for the family, and that men and women should share the same responsibility to raise the family.”

At 18, Mu Sochua’s family sent her abroad to escape the Khmer Rouge and to get an education. She received a Masters degree from the University of California at Berkeley, where she was deeply influenced by the women’s movement. Those were also the years the Khmer Rouge swept through Cambodia, killing millions in just three and a half years, including Mu Sochua’s parents.

“The scar of the Khmer Rouge is so deep, it is carved into our minds, our souls. I suffer the pain of an outsider, the loss of my parents, and of course, having to grow up outside the country and reconstruct my life from then on.”

Remarkably, she says she holds no grudges and it is with that kind of attitude that she has positioned herself as leader and lawmaker and a role model to young women in Cambodia.

When Mu Sochua returned to Cambodia 18 years after she left, she was appointed to lead the Ministry for Women’s Affairs. She took the job, which she describes as “being in charge of 52 percent of the population,” far more seriously than those who appointed her ever imagined.

“I wanted to bring in western values of feminism and equality. Slowly, I slipped the ideas through, mainstreaming them into family life and culture, but at the same time saying that education is a right, quality of life and free health care are rights and women can be in charge of their own bodies.”

According to Mu Sochua, Cambodia is 85 percent rural, with an extremely high poverty rate. Four million of the 14 million population live on less than a dollar a day, a fundamental cause of the everyday violence and the rampant sex trade.

“The government is corrupt. We have the legacy of the Khmer Rouge, with violence agains women and a culture of impunity. Our present is still haunted by the genocide of the past, which occurred thirty years ago,” said Mu Sochua.

Undaunted by the enormity of the task, she fights each day to improve the situation. “As an opposition lawmaker we know things could be better. We demand a strong rule of law, accountability and the end of violence against women and the end of social stigmatization of victims.”

Not surprisingly, this kind of public opposition was met head on by the Prime Minister of Cambodia. The two clashed in a battle of words and the Prime Minister started a public campaign against her.

“His speeches against me were broadcast on the radio across the country,” she said. “He even said he would finish my political life.” The battle went on for months, and although Mu Sochua lost the lawsuit, she gained much more public recognition and took advantage of the opportunity to defend her right to justice and a fair trial, and what she calls “the right of a woman to be seen and to be considered as a human rights defender.”

She was nearly imprisoned, but the government ultimately backed off when it appeared that the publicity generated by the imprisonment would be too visible and help Mu Sochua’s cause. Instead she was fined $4,000, a king’s ransom in a country where teachers make $50 a month.

“Now I am seen totally differently, even by the Prime Minister. I am a very straightforward lawmaker, although sometimes outrageous, but I do make sense to the people. I am now widely recognized and I still continue to take these causes very seriously.”

Even as she has gained a measure of renown in her own country, Mu Sochua is broadening her battle. She is seeking funding from the United States government to help the growth of democracy in Cambodia. She is hopes to obtain funds for more entrepreneurial opportunity for women in the form of microbusinesses run by women in local villages in order to decrease the level of poverty. She hopes for greater educational opportunity and access, and funding for more radio and television access. Dreams of technology are still far off, as less than one percent of the population is computer literate. Recently, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Cambodia, with a message of support for the protection of human rights. “I want delivery on that promise,” she said.
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