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Sunday, July 24, 2011

Cambodia's ancient wonders suffer modern ills

By Denis D. Gray
The Associated Press
Siem Reap, Cambodia

The blistering heat at Cambodia's Angkor temples eases, and the sun's last soft shimmer will soon brush some of the most wondrous monuments ever created by man. A moment for peaceful reverence? Hardly.

A traffic jam of up to 3,000 tourists surges up a steep hillside, trampling over vulnerable stonework and quaffing beer at a sacred hilltop that provides spectacular sunset views of the massive beehive-like towers rising from the main temple in this ancient city: Angkor Wat.

Below, guides describe its wonders through blaring loudspeakers in a host of tongues as buses circle what is said to be the world's largest religious edifice, one of hundreds erected by Angkor's kings between the 9th and 14th centuries.

"Nobody should be allowed to walk on 1,000-year-old stones," says Jeff Morgan, executive director of the U.S.-based Global Heritage Fund.

He says limits on tourists at the temples are decades overdue.

The influx hastens the deterioration of edifices already buffeted by invasive tropical vegetation and monsoon rains. The relentless tread of feet and the fumes from heavy traffic wear away the soft sandstone. Oily fingers harm the magnificent bas reliefs. Noisy crowds rob visitors of near-mystical moments of quiet contemplation or the chance to imagine they are jungle explorers discovering a lost city.

Too many tourists are not Angkor's only woe.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site and its gateway town of Siem Reap are also beset by crass development, alleged corruption and endlessly delayed plans on how best to preserve the temples.

Once abandoned and overgrown by the jungle, and isolated by wars, these stone buildings have emerged as one of Asia's top tourist draws and a vital money spinner for one of the world's poorest nations. Cambodian Tourism Minister Thong Khon says some 6 million visitors per year are projected by 2020.

The growth curve has been spectacular.

On one day in 1980, shortly after the overthrow of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, this correspondent was the sole tourist in the entire complex. The inauguration of direct international flights to Siem Reap in 1998 was pivotal, and the filming at the temples of Angelina Jolie's 2001 Hollywood hit "Tomb Raider" also helped put Angkor on the map.

Tourist arrivals quadrupled from 60,000 in 1999, to 250,000 in 2001. This year's expected total is 2.5 million.

"Mass tourism is the major challenge. There will be an accelerated use of temples that were not constructed for that purpose," says Anne Lemaistre, who heads UNESCO, the U.N.'s cultural and educational body, in Cambodia. "It's not time to talk about it anymore. We need to act."

There has never been a lasting master plan to preserve and regulate the 160-square-mile (400-square-kilometer) site, although an Australian-devised Heritage Management Framework enacted this year should help, she says.

"It's just the beginning. I am not going to say if it is going to be successful or not but we will try," Lemaistre says.

Previous plans over the past two decades have been violated or become outdated.

In 1994, zoning rules to keep approaches to the temples development-free were openly flouted. Today, the once-grand avenue flanked only by towering trees leading to Angkor Wat is a congested line of top-end hotels mingling with cheap, ugly shophouses.

Vann Mollyvann, an architect who headed an independent Cambodian agency to manage Angkor, fought for the zoning and other measures to prevent what he called an "Angkor Disneyland." He eventually was fired for being obstructive, and the agency, Apsara, was put under the direct control of Deputy Prime Minister Sok An.

A company owned by Sok An's son was later awarded a contract to light up the temples. It was revoked after widespread criticism that the installations were damaging the monuments. Still, a high-profile critic of the project was sentenced to prison in 2009, accused of spreading disinformation.

The way entrance fees are collected also has drawn criticism.

In a hushed deal with no bidding, Sok Kong, a tycoon close to Prime Minister Hun Sen, was granted a concession to collect the fees. Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay and others allege some of that money flows into the dealmakers' private pockets rather than government coffers and Angkor's restoration.

Morgan says Sok Kong's company "is just milking the site."

"Everyone knows it. It's a great deal. You are getting lots of money without putting in any investment," he says.

The government denies any wrongdoing, and the tourism minister said it's "a good mechanism. We can get a lot of money."

Critics say such deals at Angkor merely mirror today's Cambodia, dominated by Hun Sen and the powerful politicians and tycoons around him.

"They control Siem Reap and Angkor like everywhere. They could do whatever they please no matter what the law says," Son Chhay says.

The population of Siem Reap is projected to double to a quarter million by 2020. Unrestricted pumping of underground water has sparked fears that the earth under Angkor's temples might sink and collapse.

The once-charming town now has 320 hotels and guesthouses. More will soon rise after the construction of a new airport that can handle long-haul jets. The current airport now takes smaller planes from regional points.

Many protectors of Angkor say the time has come to strictly limit the number of tourists per day, as is done at Spain's Alhambra palace and Peru's Inca citadel Machu Picchu, or to require slippers and severely curtail where visitors can walk.

Starting this past year, only 100 people have been allowed entry into the uppermost section of Angkor Wat at any one time, and they can stay for no longer than 30 minutes. Some wooden walkways have been installed at the most popular temples.

But much of the temples remain free-for-all zones.

"Tourist management at Angkor sucks and they've had 20 years to work on it," Morgan says.

Lemaistre agrees that Angkor's romantic charm has faded — standing alone on the glorious causeway of Angkor Wat is no longer possible — but that all is not yet lost.

"It's very complicated to maintain Angkor's great quality but it must be maintained," she says. "It cannot become a tourist factory. That would be a nightmare."
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GLEN CARBON, Ill. (AP) — The remains of a Vietnam War veteran from southwestern Illinois will be buried alongside his parents on Sunday, 40 years after the young helicopter gunner was killed in a crash overseas.

Army Spc. Randy Dalton will be buried with full military honors at Sunset Hill Cemetery in Glen Carbon, Ill. He is being buried exactly four decades after the 20-year-old was killed in a helicopter crash in Cambodia.

More than 200 people, some waving American flags, watched as the Illinois Patriot Guard escorted Dalton's casket from St. Louis to Sunset Hill Funeral Home on Friday.

Dan Lentz, of Anna, Ill., told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that it was important to give Dalton an honorable welcome home.

"This soldier went to fight for our freedom, served in an unpopular war and was lost in the jungle for 40 years," Lentz said.

Susan Schulte of Grafton also attended the event and gave Dalton's sister, Linda Kruse, a red metal MIA bracelet with her brother's name on it. Schulte has kept the bracelet for nearly 30 years.

"It's like it was meant to be," the 55-year-old Schulte told the (Alton) Telegraph said of her encounter with Kruse. "She was very sweet, very appreciative and thought it was nice I had it all this time."

The U.S. government and Dalton's family spent decades trying to identify his remains. Boxes retrieved in 1989 took years to examine before relatives were asked last winter to submit DNA samples.

Dalton's scout helicopter was shot down on July 24, 1971, during a reconnaissance mission near the South Vietnam border. His body and that of another soldier were left behind due to enemy fire, and their bodies were missing the following day when officials attempted to retrieve them.
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Trade, tourism along Thai-Cambodian border active after World Court ruling

SI SA KET, July 24 – Cross border trade at Chong Sa-ngam border crossing with neighbouring Cambodia in Si Sa Ket on Sunday has reportedly been revived as many Cambodians queued up for the opening of the border crossing in the morning to exchange products with Thai traders.

Cambodians crossed the border to buy and sell large amounts of consumer products. Border trade activities was seen as active again amidst security provided by police officers of Phu Sing Police Station and local army rangers.

Apart from the trade, tourism along the Thai-Cambodian border was also boosted as many tourists have been visiting the area, asking for information about cross-border excursions to attractions such as Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom in Siem Riap, according to Hattachai Pengchaem, head of the trade and tourism operators association in Chong Sa-ngam.

Mr Hattachai said that the return of the active trade and tourism can be attributed to the July 18’s International Court of Justice (ICJ) or World Court rulings on the Thai-Cambodian border, adding that both Thai and Cambodian traders have expressed their confidence in the border situation.

The rulings applied to both Thailand and Cambodia, requiring that both countries withdraw troops from the disputed border area near Preah Vihear Temple.

Meanwhile, the overall Thai political situation in Thailand is becoming clearer, as a new coalition government led by Pheu Thai Party will be formed after the July 3 general election. (MCOT online news)
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