Saturday, May 31, 2008
Friday, May 30, 2008
Looking back to 1994
Cambodia : A Land of Charm & Cruelty
The name of Cambodia is synonymous with the cries of the tortured and starving and more recently, the murder of western tourists by the genocidal Khmer Rouge, responsible for the deaths of over one million of their fellow countrymen in the late 1970s. However, that was my choice of destination for a week's break from the rigours of C&G life at Chief Office in late October . Cambodia, racked by civil war for the last twenty-five years, is one of the world's poorest countries with a population of nine million, the majority of whom live in abject poverty by western standards. Conversely, it is also a beautiful country with a fascinating culture and people and a history brought vividly to life by one of the world's greatest architectural achievements, the temple ruins of Angkor.
The country had captivated my attention since I was drawn to the suffering of its people in John Pilger's 1979 documentary, Year Zero. My interest was sustained as a member of parliamentary lobbying groups whose aim was to bring to an end the isolation they'd endured at the hands of the international community. A fragile peace had been achieved following the 1993 UN-supervised elections that had ushered in the country's first democratically-elected government and for the first time in recent history, the country had opened its borders to the more adventurous tourist.
Undoubtedly, the highlight of my trip was the three days I spent exploring the dramatic ruined cities of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. Flying from Phnom Penh, the capital, to the northern provincial centre of Siem Reap, I was unprepared for the awesome array of massive stone temples, wide majestic causeways, imposing towers and gates and beautifully intricate stone carvings that I encountered. The monuments were originally constructed by a dozen Khmer god-Kings between the 9th and 13th centuries but had lain hidden by dense jungle for nearly 500 years until their re-discovery by the French in the latter part of the last century. Alongwith my guide Soy Bun and driver Somath, I leisurely wandered for hours amongst the almost-deserted ruins before completing a whistle-stop tour of the lesser-visited outer-lying temples.
For sheer size, the vast spectacle of Angkor Wat, the largest religious edifice in the world, is simply stunning. Its central tower, surrounded by four smaller towers, a myriad of galleries and covered passageways and an 800-metre long series of richly carved bas-reliefs will linger long in the memory, particularly a dawn visit to watch the sun rise and bathe the temple complex in swathes of red and orange light. Perhaps more startling, although smaller and less restored, is the Bayon, at the centre of Angkor Thom. Its most intriguing feature - although its bas-reliefs are extraordinarily detailed - are the giant faces of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, with its enigmatic half-smile peering down from all four sides of the fifty-four towers. Amongst the other temples to make a lasting impression were the well-preserved Preah Khan - a labyrinth of fascinating pavilions, halls and galleries, and the temple of Ta Prohm. The latter has been left much as it was when it was first re-discovered - a mass of silk-cotton and fig trees, tangled roots and vines and fallen masonry, framing an eerie and haunting scene.
Phnom Penh on the other hand, was an altogether different proposition. It is a city in transformation. The once-elegant French-colonial capital became a ghost town when the Khmer Rouge forcibly emptied it of all its inhabitants in 1975. Today, parts of Phnom Penh are undergoing frenzied reconstruction, although life remains unchanged in the city's back alleys, where the majority of the one million populace live in hovels without basic amenities.
Negotiating the traffic - a multitude of mopeds, cyclos and bicycles jockeying with private cars and trucks - was a nerve-wracking experience, the loss of my suitcase at the ramshackle airport for three days was a nightmare but nothing could prepare me for my sobering visit to see the graphic reminders of the cruelty inflicted on the Cambodian people by the Khmer Rouge. At the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum - a former high school turned into a torture centre and prison - my guide Kin (right) gave me a tour of room after room of torture implements, photographs and other evidence testifying to the atrocities of the Pol Pot-inspired regime. Ten kilometres outside the city are the 'killing fields' of Choeung Ek, where at least 17,000 people were taken from Tuol Sleng, brutally murdered and buried in mass graves. A memorial glass tower at the site is filled with the cracked skulls of some 8,000 of those victims and is definitely not for the squeamish. I left Cambodia with many lasting memories, enriched by my experiences and eager to return to this fascinating country in the not too distant future.
More news from the South Coast
Whoever says money can't buy happiness hasn't shelled out for their own beach in Cambodia. Before the crew of the Sea Breeze can even drop her anchor, Alexis de Suremain is in the water, swimming straight for 90 yards of white sand: his 90 yards of white sand. A wall of tangled jungle rises to the east; to the west, the sun sinks into its own reflection over the Gulf of Thailand. "See that?" de Suremain asks, waving at the sun as it bisects the beach view. "Right down the middle."If all goes according to plan, these 35 acres (14 hectares) of sand, rock and jungle will in a few years host a plush eco-resort of palm trees and solar-powered bungalows. De Suremain, a French expat who runs guesthouses in Phnom Penh, says he combed Cambodia's shores for three years before he settled on building his resort on the remote island of Koh Rong. "I wanted something where you couldn't hear karaoke, where the neighbor's dogs don't bark and where the cocks aren't crowing in the morning," he says. "I wanted something completely isolated." He's got it — for now.
The postcard-perfect beaches of Cambodia's scores of islands and 270 miles (435 km) of southern shore have gone largely unnoticed by developers for the past 40 years. But in 2007, a record 2 million tourists visited Cambodia, signaling that the country was beginning to shake its killing fields image as an impoverished backwater where wandering off the beaten path could mean finding yourself astride an unexploded land mine. Cambodia is starting to register as a must-see destination, and it's not all about Angkor Wat. Brackish mangrove swamps and remote beaches are being envisaged as golf courses and plots for five-star bungalows with private pools. Indeed, there are signs of vitality in other sectors of the impoverished country's once moribund economy. Cambodia's GDP grew 10.4% in 2006 — the highest rate in Southeast Asia that year — and foreign investment shot up some 400% to nearly $4 billion. Thirteen foreign companies, including Chevron, have licenses to explore Cambodia's offshore blocks for oil and natural gas; the government says domestic oil production could begin within three years. The rush for Cambodia's gold coast is on, raising hopes that the economic torpor of this aid-supported nation will finally end. "This part of the country has been a revelation for me," says Steve Smith, a Londoner who finances his endless summer as a dive instructor in southeast Asia. "I didn't even know there were beaches in Cambodia."
The Undiscovered Country
To witness this awakening up close, I recently borrowed a wreck of a bicycle for a slow ride through the sleepy Cambodian seaside town of Kep, near the Vietnamese border. After limping along the potholed coastal road past unkempt plots of oceanfront land with crumbling colonial-era manses, I stopped to look at a billboard — the only one in sight. On it was a picture of a home that would not have looked out of place in a Denver subdivision. A young man pulled up on a motorbike next to me. "You want to buy?" he asked. I told him I wasn't in the market, and so he handed me a flyer for his business, Sunny Tours, that bore a stern warning: NOW IS THE TIME TO ENJOY KEP!! Five years ago, Sunny Tours' catch-it-while-you-can marketing wouldn't have been very effective. In the early 20th century, Kep-sur-Mer was established as a getaway for French civil servants running the colony, and it served as an enclave for rich Khmer after independence in 1953. (The former King, Norodom Sihanouk, built a royal residence there that, like most of the old estates in town, now stands empty.) The holidays ended in the 1970s after an American bombing campaign brought the first wave of more than two decades of war, including the Khmer Rouge-led genocide that killed nearly 2 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979.
Stability has been slow to return to Kep and to the country as a whole. But today nearly every Asian nation has a stake in Cambodian industries, from hydroelectric dams to oil exploration to real estate development. In Kep, three Modernist homes have been restored into Knai Bang Chatt, a striking boutique hotel owned by two Belgians. At the other end of town, the early 20th century La Villa de Monsieur Thomas is being revamped into a five-star resort by a Khmer developer. And in February, Sokimex, a powerful Cambodian company that imports most of the nation's petroleum, began converting a colonial casino on Bokor Mountain into a flashy new resort. "All of a sudden there's interest," says Joseph Mussomeli, the U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, who last year hosted the first American business conference in Phnom Penh. The country is "lucky to be stuck between 85 million Vietnamese and 65 million Thai," he says. "It's hard to ignore this place now."
More projects are in the works. About an hour's motorbike ride down a red dirt road that trails off the coastal highway, residents of the fishing village of Angkoal have started selling their small holdings to real estate developers. One family, residents of a palm-fringed knob of land that slopes into the water, says their property is regularly visited by speculators. "They come every day," says Sry Mau — even though the place where the young woman's family has lived for 23 years has already been purchased by a Cambodian hotelier for $8,000. With the money, they bought a new, considerably smaller piece of land across the road and a new fishing boat.
In a country where 4.7 million people live on less than 50 cents a day, the surge of investment is changing lives and could help create jobs. The country desperately needs more employment opportunities. About a third of Cambodians are 15 years old or younger, and they'll be entering the workforce in droves over the next two decades. Hundreds of NGOs are already busy trying to fix Cambodia, and about 20% of the government's total budget still comes from foreign aid. The prospect of a tourism boom coupled with the start of domestic oil production offers the tantalizing possibility of a more independent way forward. With foreign aid, "you'll always be living according to somebody else's rules," says Rithivit Tep, director of the private-equity firm that owns Kep's Thomas villa and development rights to two islands. "We have wasted a lot of time."
A few hours drive down the coastal road, I was sitting inside the dusty office of Sokun Travel and Tours when the lights cut out. "No good," said the woman behind the desk, looking into the dark street. "Every day, two or three times." We conducted the rest of our transaction by candlelight. Mourn Sokun, who owns the travel agency, says Sihanoukville, the current hub of south-coast tourism, can't keep up with the rush of tourists. The number of foreign visitors to the city shot up by 50% between 2006 and 2007, and infrastructure, including electricity generation, is overtaxed. In 2007, the local airport reopened to shuttle tourists between Angkor Wat and the coast, only to close months later when a domestic flight went down, killing 22 people on board. It's still closed today. Som Chenda, Sihanoukville's minister of tourism, says the city needs more of everything — more hotel rooms, more restaurants, more hospitality training, more language teachers. "We need it all," says Som. Right now, Sihanoukville doesn't even have enough fresh produce coming in: "There are too many tourists and not enough food."
In a line of work that relies on clean beaches and clear water, Mourn, the travel agent, worries the authorities aren't working hard enough to protect the environment. As more guesthouses and bars pay their license fees to operate at the popular beaches, Mourn says raw sewage is being piped into the water and trash is being dumped onto the sand. "People pay their money, and the government closes their eyes," Mourn says. Government officials say they are aware of the growing problem. "The coast is not so good now because of the fast development," says Prak Visal, who heads the Sihanoukville branch of a regional coastal-management project. Solid-waste dumping, mangrove destruction, unsustainable fishing practices and illegal logging are a few of the challenges he says the area faces. But slowing things down? Not an option. "We protect, but we develop, too," Prak says.
Though some are happy with the money they've made, others living in valuable areas fear they'll lose their land, or lose it without being fairly compensated. Few families hold formal land titles, leaving many to rely on local authorities to vouch for them as landowners if a developer comes calling. Though efforts to provide documentation for landowners have been ramped up — almost 1 million land titles have been granted since 2004, according to the World Bank — there are millions more to go. Cambodians' scramble to secure their rights speaks to a fundamental anxiety: faith in the law is dismally low. For the past two years, the country has ranked near the bottom of Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index, and in a 2007 World Bank study, only 18% of respondents said they thought judges were honest. "Corruption is so pervasive it's part of the culture," says Theary Seng, executive director of the Center for Social Development, a Phnom Penh-based NGO. She worries that the billions coming in from private investment — particularly in oil — will not trickle down to the countryside where 80% of the nation lives. "If they want to do it right, they have lots of good models in the world," says Mussomeli, the U.S. ambassador, warning against Cambodia going the way of oil-cursed nations like Nigeria and Chad. "Or they could do it wrong and they could suffer the political consequences in 20 years. This is their chance to be a real country. This is their chance to have a real economy. If they screw it up, they'll be a vassal state."
The Road Ahead
Alongside road 4, the 143-mile (230 km) ribbon of asphalt connecting Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh, water buffalo graze in rice paddies that stretch from horizon to horizon. Kids in white school uniforms pedal their bikes in the dirt, moving alongside traffic like birds riding on air currents. It's places like these — in other words, most of Cambodia — where the five-star visions of the coast begin to get a bit blurry. Neither tourism nor oil alone can drive the national economy in a meaningful way. There must also be investment in agriculture and other sectors that employ most Cambodians, says Arjun Goswami, country director for the Asian Development Bank. "If one of these days I can go into Whole Foods and see a Cambodian export on the shelves, that's when I'll be a happy man," says Goswami.
In Phnom Penh, I stop by the offices of Rory and Melita Hunter, an Australian couple whose real estate company was recently granted a 99-year lease to build a luxury boutique hotel on Song Saa, a tiny pair of islands off the coast. They show me elaborate renderings of the future 40-room complex, replete with a wine cellar, air-conditioned library and 15 over-water bungalows designed to reflect the architecture of a nearby fishing village. The Hunters paid relocation costs for the 15 or so families living on the islands. They hauled away tons of trash that had been piling up for years, and started to revive the local coral reef that had been all but destroyed by overfishing. "Knowing that there had been all these other issues about how people had been relocated, we wanted to do it properly from the start," says Rory Hunter. "We're going to be doing business here for a long time." Maybe money will buy happiness for Cambodia; maybe it won't. But nobody said paradise was built in a day.
BBC on the Tonle Sap
Saving Cambodia's Great Lake - by Philippa Fogarty, BBC News
Every May, when the rains come, water levels in the Mekong start to rise. When the river flows into Phnom Penh it meets another river that drains from a lake in central Cambodia. So full is the Mekong that it reverses that river's flow, forcing water back upstream and expanding the lake more than five-fold. This is the Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia. Cambodians call it the Great Lake. It is an area of extraordinarily rich biodiversity and a key breeding ground for fish, which migrate upstream from the Mekong to spawn in seasonally-flooded forest areas. The lake is vital to Cambodia. It provides two-thirds of the country's protein and more than one million people depend on it directly for their livelihoods. But the lake faces serious threats. Cambodia's population has risen rapidly and pressure on resources has increased. Fish stocks are threatened by over-exploitation and illegal fishing methods. Farmers and developers have taken advantage of weak governance to seize and drain land in the flooded forest, destroying key wildlife habitats and polluting the lake. More trees have been felled for domestic use by local people, some of whom have been hunting rare wildlife to compensate for smaller fish catches. Last year, Prime Minister Hun Sen warned of a "serious environmental disaster" if the problems were not addressed.
The Asian Development Bank-financed Tonle Sap Environmental Management Project (TSEMP) is leading efforts to do that. Eight years ago, more than half the lots on the lake allocated to commercial fishing were released to local communities. Part of TSEMP's work is helping villages create legally-recognised community fisheries to protect and preserve their own resources. More than 170 of these groups have now been set up. Soer Tao is deputy head of the community fishery in Kampong Klaeng, on the lake's northeast shore. The village is home to about 10,000 people living in stilted houses to cope with the seasonal flooding. Some 85% of residents depend on fishing for their livelihoods. Ten years ago, Soer Tao says, illegal fishing and destruction of the forest were causing serious problems to villagers. But local management of resources is bringing benefits. The village boundaries have been formally set. Residents patrol the area and if people are fishing illegally or if developers are trying to encroach into the flooded forest, they should now be better positioned to tackle the problem. The village has also established a fish sanctuary, 300 metres by 30 metres, where fish can spawn during the dry season. It is marked by red flags and guarded at each end. When the flooding comes, the fish will swim out - hopefully in greater numbers every year. "The fish sanctuary will protect the fish as livelihoods for everyone," Soer Tao said.
But it is not just about protecting fisheries. Preak Toal is a floating village. Everything floats, even the school and the petrol station, and everyone depends on the lake to live. Now projects are being set up to help families diversify their livelihoods away from the lake in a bid to reduce pressure on resources. Former poachers patrol a biosphere reserve, guarding the rare water birds that they used to hunt. Tourists pay to enter and local families use pedalos to show the day-trippers around. Some residents have built floating gardens for fruit and vegetables, while others are growing mushrooms in their floating houses. One group is trying to turn water hyacinth into charcoal-like fuel. But the initiatives are, of course, not perfect. It is still much simpler for villagers to get firewood from the forests and to sell fish for quick profit.
'Turning point'Dr Neou Bonheur, director of TSEMP, admits that trying to promote environmental awareness to those struggling to make a living can be difficult. "It is hard," he says, "but when we teach them not to cut the forest because it is a breeding ground for the fish, they see the benefits of that." The villagers, he says, are not the greatest challenge. "Now we are at a turning point - rice and fuel prices are up and there is a tendency to look for resources such as land, not from the communities but from outside groups who want to claim areas for development. "That's the most difficult thing for us, the people who damage the communities and fisheries in that way." Community resource management was put in place at the right time, he says, but it must be strengthened to ensure local people have a permanent voice. He describes efforts to date as "so far, so good", but says they must be sustained. "We cannot say it is now enough - we have to continue to work hard on many areas." But there is one key issue Cambodia cannot control. China, Thailand and Laos all want to dam the Mekong for hydropower, something experts say could have a serious effect on the seasonal influx of water and wildlife into the lake. "We are a downstream country and less powerful compared to upstream countries," says Dr Bonheur. "We can only hope that through dialogue, Cambodia can voice its concern. The Tonle Sap is a great asset for Cambodia. We must protect it at all cost."
Theft of artifacts
Villagers Guard Their Own Antiquities - by Frances Suselo, Oct 2005
Reet, 14, grew up among the hilltop ruins of this district, about an hour's drive from the capital Phnom Penh and learned how to count by going up and down its 412 steps. It is also right here at the local school that he learned about the looting of antiquities from the 11th century temple, also called Phnom Chisor, at the top of the hill. But, he tells visitors, ''There is no looting here''. The community around the ruins runs a programme to educate villagers about the Phnom Chisor temple, made in Baphuon and Khleang architectural style and from laterite and sandstone. Jutting out to the sky from the 100-metre hill, Phnom Chisor was built by Suryavarman I, the king of the Khmer Empire, for the god Brahma in 1010. The Angkorian temple is more or less intact, unlike many other ruins, such as Koh Ker, capital of the Khmer kingdom in the 10th century, and even parts of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap province.
Looting is often done by poor villagers who sell the artefacts for small amounts, these then find their way to local or international markets, activists say. International auction houses do not make enough efforts to ensure items are not obtained illegally, argues Dougald O'Reilly, founder and director of Heritage Watch, a Phnom Penh-based non-government organisation. An ancient looted bead would probably bring a local a mere one US dollar, then could be sold for a hundred times the amount in a Bangkok market - and much more outside Asia, says Terressa Davis, project coordinator of Heritage Watch. Meantime, Reet says that Cambodian law forbids the looting of the country's antiquities. What would he do if someone offers him a lot of money for something from the ruins? His eyes blazed as he answered, ''I won't do it because it's illegal. Besides, I know it's a bad thing to do''. "Officers from the Ministry of Culture have made it very clear that looting is prohibited. People are more informed now, so they will not be tempted to loot,'' said a monk at a modern Buddhist temple beside the ruins. ''We all have the duty to protect our own cultural heritage''.
The total value of cultural assets, both counterfeit and original, smuggled each year is around 22 million dollars, O'Reilly quotes Masayuki Nagashima, the author of 'Lost Heritage: the Reality of Artefact Smuggling in Southeast Asia', as saying. Worldwide, trafficking in stolen works of art and national treasures is valued at up to eight billion dollars a year, according to the Art Theft Programme of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, which calls the trade ''a major category of international crime''. Interpol says that the annual dollar value of art and cultural property theft is exceeded only by trafficking in illicit narcotics, money laundering and arms trafficking. The looting of artefacts also means the loss of crucial information about the past: social and political structures of society, pre-historic health, ancient technologies, records of border trade as well as art and architecture. Many other Asian countries experience differing degrees of looting. But the popularity of Khmer artefacts, porous borders and lack of resources add to the problems in Cambodia.
Activists admit it is hard to curb the demand in the trade in stolen antiquities. So, groups like Heritage Watch focus on education campaigns to prevent looting or encourage communities to protect their heritage by training villagers to develop new skills, such as managing small businesses and producing crafts to sell to tourists. But Davis says 80 percent of the catalogues of international auction houses have no provenance - information on items' origins - and this does not help efforts to protect Cambodia's heritage. ''They can simply say that a vase is done in Ming style, but they won't say where exactly they got it from,'' said Davis. ''The absence of provenance could mean either they really don't know where the item came from, or the information could be incriminating. People assume that because they are big companies, they follow the law, when in fact they are operating under a very thin veil of decency,'' she added.
But Wannida Saetieo, country manager of Sotheby, Thailand, said the company is a ''proper public company'' that has always followed the law. ''At Sotheby's, we always try our best to ensure that all items are genuine and not acquired through illegal means,'' she said in an interview. Before an item can be sold through Sotheby's, the owner must show documents certifying ownership, she added, but conceded the company ''cannot guarantee 100 percent that an item is not stolen. If we know that there is only one item and that the item is in a museum somewhere and if someone comes with an item that looks alike, then we know it's a fake,'' she stated. But ''it's the responsibility of the buyer to also do their own background check on any item,'' she added, flipping over a Sotheby magazine to its back pages to show the company's disclaimer. Wannida also stressed that Thailand forbids the bringing of Buddha statues out of the country. ''There is a big demand for them, but we don't sell them because it's illegal,'' she explained. Wannida said that provenance on Sotheby's catalogues can be absent because wealthy owners guard their privacy and prefer not to see their names printed for the whole world to see. ''These people are very, very private,'' she stated.
National and international laws and conventions exist to make theft and trafficking harder, but they are not always adequate. In 1996, Cambodia's National Assembly adopted the law on the Protection of Cultural Heritage, which covers ''movable and immovable objects and cultural property from vandalism, illicit transfer of ownership, excavations, illicit export and import''. In the same year, Cambodia claimed all cultural properties for the state, making the selling of Khmer antiquities illegal. But to recover a stolen artefact, the government has to prove theft by producing a picture of the item in its original site before it was stolen. Most pictures of Khmer antiquities in their original sites were taken in the 1930s by the French, so this loophole has added to the difficulty in prosecution.
Stolen Khmer artefacts are usually smuggled out either by sea to Singapore, or by land to Poipet, a Cambodian town on border with Thailand, said O'Reilly. Smugglers take advantage of the fact that Singapore and Thailand are not signatories to the 1970 UNESCO convention that prohibits the import of stolen cultural property and requires countries to monitor the antiquities trade within their own borders. Cambodia is also a signatory to the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects, which declares that ''a possessor of a stolen cultural object must return it regardless of personal involvement or knowledge of the original theft''. This allowed the Cambodian government to negotiate with Thailand in 2001 and 2002 for the restitution of 43 Cambodian cultural artefacts, which had transited through Singapore. A 9th century stone head of Shiva and a 12th century stone head of a demon were also returned by the Honolulu Academy of Arts in 2002.
For now, small teams of local experts from Heritage Watch continue documenting Cambodia's ruins, so there is visual evidence in case some artefacts go missing and turn up somewhere halfway around the world. These teams also use illustrated comic books in Khmer to explain why villagers should protect their temples and ruins. Heng Chan Thol, a former student of the Archaeology Department of the Royal University of Fine Arts in Cambodia, agrees: ''Poverty alleviation and education should be the main efforts to get rid of this phenomenon''. For instance, ''the Apsara Authority, in charge of protection and preservation of Cambodian cultural heritage has tried bringing local people to work as guards for local historical sites. As a result, the looting in Siem Riep (Angkor Wat) has almost completely disappeared,'' he said. ''One day, they will be held accountable,'' Davis said of traffickers in stolen antiquities. ''Art collectors, looters and smugglers will face the same discrimination as those who profit from ivory and fur today''.
Serious monkey matters
Iconic imagery at Banteay Chhmar
The two Avalokiteshvara still on view at Banteay Chhmar are the 32-armed example with eleven visible heads, standing on a lotus in the middle of an assembly of kneeling worshippers in a state of anjali, and one with 22 arms and seven eroded heads. Apsaras or devata in ten large medallions surround the main figure. These images are a key attraction at Banteay Chhmar and the temple authorities must take care that they are treated with respect by visitors - on a previous visit, I observed graffiti carved on one of the figures. Banteay Chhmar is a remote site though funding and recognition is slowly being channelled towards the temple and the early fruits of minor restoration work can be seen at the temple's entrance. It's certainly one of my favourite temples in Cambodia.
Thursday, May 29, 2008
Farewell to Kompong Khleang
Inside the stilted village
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
Cambodia's soccer success
Anyone have a spare house?
Nat Geo on Mondulkiri
Tigers, Elephants Returning to War-Torn Cambodia Forest - by Stefan Lovgren in Mereuch, Cambodia for National Geographic News
For years wildlife poacher Lean Kha had prowled the war-ravaged forests of Mondulkiri Province in eastern Cambodia looking for meat. A former teenage soldier for the Khmer Rouge political party, he estimates that he killed a thousand animals, including ten tigers, after the fall of the brutal Pol Pot regime in 1979. Once dubbed the "Serengeti of Asia," almost all of Mondulkiri's wildlife was wiped out by poachers during decades of conflict, which began with the war in neighboring Vietnam. Now, with Cambodia finally at peace, small but growing populations of animals—including Indochinese tigers, Asian elephants, and critically endangered species such as the giant ibis—are returning to one of Southeast Asia's last remaining dry forests. And Kha, now 45 years old, is helping to protect them as a head ranger supported by the international conservation group WWF. "At the time I was ignorant and did not think there was a problem when I shot those tigers," he said, sitting at the forest headquarters in Mereuch as the Srepok River rushed behind him. "Now I know we need to protect these animals for our children and grandchildren."
Coming Back Home
Humans cannot live inside the protected Mondulkiri Protected Forest reserve. A visitor can walk for miles without seeing any sign of humans, an unusual experience in otherwise densely populated Cambodia. And with the region's searing summer temperatures and open, shadeless terrain, it's also usually hard to spot wildlife during the day. But camera traps that take pictures at night show a different story. A few years ago park rangers caught their first Indochinese tiger on camera. In 2007 a camera trap produced a picture of a female leopard and her cub. Other wildlife returning to the area include banteng, a type of ox; Eld's deer; several species of wild cats; and one of the region's last remaining wild water buffalo populations. "There is a lot of wildlife out there, considering the beating that this area has taken," said Nick Cox, who coordinates WWF's regional dry forests program and is based in Vientiane, Laos.
While leopards are now relatively common, there may be only five to ten Indochinese tigers in the forest today. But conservationists say that as the density of prey species increases, the number of tigers could rise to at least 30 in as little as five years. That is, if the 70 rangers working the forest can keep poachers at bay. Like Kha, many of them are former hunters who have spent their whole lives under the forest canopy. Now they spend at least 16 days on patrol every month, keeping strict records of wildlife numbers. "All protected areas need to know the number of important prey species and carnivores, because if we don't know the credit in our bank account, we can't monitor our wealth," said Prach Pich Phirun, a research coordinator for WWF's Srepok Wilderness Project.
Even without the threat of poachers, the battle for this vast forest of almost a million acres (close to 400,000 hectares) is far from over. Cambodia's popularity as a tourist destination is skyrocketing, with foreign tourist arrivals topping two million last year, according to the country's tourism minister. And the remote Mondulkiri Province is becoming the country's new hot spot. Draped over several rolling hills, Sen Monorom, the tiny provincial capital, has the feel of a Wild West boomtown. A plethora of hotels and backpacker lodges have opened up, and wealthy Cambodians are streaming to the area to snap up any available land. The main road being graded and paved by Chinese contractors will ease access to the region. "This increased activity could put a lot of pressure on the environment," said Craig Bruce, WWF's technical advisor on protected areas in Cambodia, who is based in Sen Monorom. A housing building boom, he warned, could also lead to a surge in illegal timber cutting. And there are signs that poaching and illegal wildlife trade are on the rise in Cambodia, where animals are being smuggled through Vietnam with the involvement of Chinese traders.
Conservationists are now investing in ecotourism projects in the hopes of keeping the Mondulkiri forest protected. WWF is planning an upscale eco-resort with eight cottages along stilts on the banks of the Srepok River. Yet money earned from such eco-projects must benefit local communities living around the forest, said James MacGregor, an environmental economist at the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development, which backs the WWF project. "There are a lot of poor people in this area who have traditionally generated their livelihood through hunting and collecting wood," MacGregor said. "We're asking people to forgo doing something that has helped them for years." Planners envision that Mondulkiri could also become a destination for adventurous travelers, such as mountain bikers. Mark Ellison of Cambodia-based Asia Adventures said tour operators are looking to offer tourists additional activities in Cambodia besides visiting the popular Angkor Wat temples. "Here's an opportunity to go mountain biking in an area that is for all intents and purposes undiscovered," he said.
While a recent bicycle trip of conservationists and journalists showcased the unchartered nature of the terrain, it also turned into a harrowing ordeal at one point, with bikers getting lost without any means of communication. Luckily a passing elephant driver had noticed tire tracks from the bikes going the wrong way and tracked down the team just as its water supply was running out. Cox, the WWF dry forest program coordinator and one of the most experienced bikers on the trip, admitted that some work needed to be done before Mondulkiri would be ready to welcome visitors. "There are a few kinks that need ironing out, that's for sure," he said. Link: Read about my adventures in March