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With its lowest water levels in anyone's memory, the Tonle Sap Lake is giving up a few secrets this year. Researchers are now seeing dry land that had never been seen before which not only presents obvious scientific benefits, but has solved the mystery of an old legend, as well as providing a new place to drink beer.
Patrick Evans is the Siem Reap head of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization's Tonle Sap project. As he's also a friend of mine and sometime drinking partner I've had plenty of news about this year's Tonle Sap phenomenon.
First, the water levels. Each year the Tonle Sap drains from a depth of as much as ten meters to as low as sixty to eighty centimeters. This year the lake has averaged about twenty to forty centimeters in depth and some areas are completely dry. Why? Some like to blame the damming of the Mekong in China, and while that and other damming (or damning to hear some put it) projects may prove to be problematic further on, for the time being what we are seeing is more likely the result of the fact that last year we didn't get very much rain and thus the lake didn't fill as high as it normally does. Furthermore, the rains this year, though moving in, are taking their time getting here.
Late one night in early April, I partially in jest, suggested to Patrick that we should sponsor a Walk Across the Lake day to raise awareness of the lake and maybe raise some money for some project somewhere. Technically, in any given year this would be doable, but with 30 to 50 centimeters of mud beneath the water, the walking would be quite difficult, though I suppose a set of snow shoes might ease the journey (well, snow shoes helped get Dennis Quaid to New York in The Day After Tomorrow). Still, little did I know that when I said this, that come mid-May a few folks would indeed set out some lawn chairs in the middle of the lake and have a couple of cold beers.
More seriously, a legend has circulated for ages among the fishermen and families of the Tonle Sap that speaks of an ancient road that once ran through what is now the upper portion of the lake. This year's remarkably low water levels have allowed for solving the mystery and debunking the legend. Patrick submitted the story to the Phnom Penh Post for inclusion in the May 21 - June 3 issue, but had told me of it several weeks prior.
With the water levels what they are, Patrick and his group, a mixture of expats and Khmers working for the FAO, decided to set out onto the lake and find this road. A probe here, a stick there and soon something was found lying under 40 cm of water and another 30 cm of mud. It was something hard, about ten meters wide and six to ten centimeters thick. A few pieces were removed for inspection and study by a local geologist. The conclusion, back in the days when the Tonle Sap was a mere puddle, say 5000 years ago (it's a young lake), there was likely a massive flood and what constitutes this ancient road is nothing more than a hardened bed of run-off sediment.
While the myth of the ancient road makes for good stories, the more immediate issue is that solving this mystery from a scientific perspective, as well as the other research opportunities created by these unprecedented low water levels, is an example of how every cloud has a silver lining.
The low water levels are creating a number of hardships. This is certainly not a good time to derive one's income from fishing, boat services have been cancelled creating inconvenience for travelers as well as causing delays in the shipment of goods, and floating villages like Chong Khneas no longer float, existing now as mere house boats stuck in the mud. And let's not even begin to think about the sewage problems created here. Normally, human waste is dropped right into the lake and ecology (fish and bacteria and the like) sort it all out in rapid time.
On a side note, if this has you wondering where all the fish go when the lake runs low, many of the fish are migratory and undertake an annual expedition heading down the Tonle Sap River towards the Mekong as the water flows out and then making their return when the water flows back in.
While researchers are making the most of the opportunities created during this window of semi-aquatic-aridness, a few resident expats have seized the opportunity to put their motorbikes onto previously untouched soil, as the possibility has existed for a brief period of time to actually ride a motorbike to otherwise inaccessible villages (from land), Kompong Phluk in particular, or even ride between Kompong Khleang and Kompong Phluk. Perhaps if the low water levels are a continuing trend, and we truly hope not, maybe Walk Across the Lake could become Ride Across the Lake (there is a road of sorts!). Well, if that does happen we are in some serious trouble, but at least it'll cut down on the travel time between Siem Reap and Pursat.
Anyway, as it is now June the lake is, albeit slowly, showing signs of rising. The boats of Chong Khneas should any day now float once again and the horrible sewage problem will sort itself out. Those who contemplated motorbike trips between previously inaccessible villages will have to wait another year. And the legend of the ancient road has been laid to rest, perhaps to be replaced by a future legend... like remember back in 2004 when we rode our bikes onto the lake?
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In July 2003 as Thailand and Cambodia were trying to restore bilateral relations again, one measure was to form the Thailand Cambodia Joint Cultural Association which would serve to generate mutual understanding and appreciation of the similarities and differences between the two nations and help avoid further conflict.
As quoted in a Singapore Straits-Times report, "The positive results of our cooperation will contribute to peace, prosperity and progress not only for our two countries but also for the region and the world," - Sorn Samnang, Cambodian co-chairman of the Thailand Cambodia Cultural Association.
"Our task is not to rewrite history, but to draw valuable lessons from and build upon the past in order to work towards laying a sound foundation for our relations in the future," - Tej Bunnag, Thai co-chairman.
Shortly before the Association was preparing for their first meeting, a four-day summit that began on May 18, another disturbing situation arose in Phnom Penh that exemplifies how desperately these problems need to be resolved. A mini-riot of sorts developed at a Phnom Penh garment factory over rumors that a visiting Thai inspector claimed 'Angkor Wat belongs to Thailand' (sound familiar?).
By all accounts what happened is that a Thai quality control executive was inspecting the Singapore-owned Suntex Pte Ltd factory when she allegedly spotted a poster of Angkor Wat that bore the caption 'People in this world know that Angkor Wat belongs to Cambodia, except Siam.' The inspector took offense, though whether it's because she believes Angkor Wat belongs to Thailand or that she found the poster to be insulting - which many would say it is - is not clear in any reports, though the latter explanation makes a lot more sense. As there is some ambiguity and inconsistency in the reports it is not clear whether she requested removal of the poster or that management volunteered to remove it.
In any event, regardless of whether it was removed voluntarily or that the inspector requested the poster's removal, a rumor spread quickly that she said, 'Angkor Wat belongs to Thailand' and 400 of the 4200 garment workers walked out and staged a protest. The women fled and a second Thai executive read an apology in Khmer and the protest was resolved a few hours later.
Personally, I have never seen such a poster and I'd be curious to know its origins. It also makes me wonder about a certain political figure who's been a champion of the garment workers and has also been one to push the cause of nationalism at the expense of Cambodia's neighbors. Well, that's just speculation...
Anyway, it bears repeating how important greater understanding and respect between the two nations is needed. Thais must begin to recognize the influence of the Khmer culture on their own and unambiguously respect what Angkor Wat represents to the Khmer people and Khmers must stop using their neighbors as political footballs as well as realize that if they want the world to hear their complaints, and they do have valid ones, then education and change would go a whole lot further than rioting and looting. The world doesn't know it's a 1000-year-old problem, the world only knows what lands in their newspapers in the morning.
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The question is often asked, do news media organizations report news or do they make news? (And how do you define news in the first place?).
Case in point. Every now and then, but more often now than then, a long since washed up British rocker turns up in Cambodia and there's a media feeding frenzy over his presence. Why is he here? Why was he deported before? What will they do with him? Where is he?
At least that's how it is outside of Cambodia, inside Cambodia, nobody gives a toss about this individual. Nobody. And if you were in Cambodia and asked some resident expat, "Hey, is <name of washed up British rocker deleted to protect the fact that he hasn't been convicted of any crimes in Cambodia nor do any of us care to hear the name ever again!> in Cambodia?" You'd probably be rewarded with a chunk of vomit landing on your shoes.
See, here's the problem. The person were talking about is a convicted sex offender (possession of child pornography) in the UK and yeah, his presence here probably doesn't do the country any favors, but Cambodia is full of sex offenders. We know this and we would like to be rid of them, yet, these people come and go every day and nobody pays any mind until one is actually arrested in Cambodia for committing a crime. So why then does a second-rate rocker deserve to be treated any differently?
Obviously then, it's not the presence of a convicted sex offender that makes the news but the fact that this person has celebrity status. Therefore, because there's a name attached we now have a news story. Marvelous. Why not drag this man's name through the mud if and when the time comes that he is arrested for a sex crime in Cambodia? Meanwhile, why don't the news organizations leave the man alone and devote their resources to reporting such issues as why pedophilia remains rampant here? What are the conditions that see children being offered up for sex and what can be done to alleviate them? Why is trafficking still so prevalent? Why are arrests of foreigners so much more common than arrests of Cambodians, when foreigners hardly make up the majority of offenders? Why have two men been arrested and convicted of sex crimes over what were essentially vendettas as neither one had committed a crime under the laws of Cambodia? Why are there NGOs manipulating witnesses to gain convictions (and funding!)? [Note: the Far Eastern Economic Review has already addressed the latter two questions in this story, registration required.]
However, the reality remains that some see fit to chase after a name rather than an issue, an action which regrettably results in a disservice to both.
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Okay, I got the airplane thing figured out. First Cambodia Airlines, which you can actually get some information about off the internet - but not from them, they have no website, fly three times a week each from Phnom Penh to Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, and Guangzhou on an Airbus A320. Maybe some day they'll buy some advertising...
The next airline on the scene is Royal Khmer Airlines which had their inaugural flight on April 24. They fly twice a day between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and use a real airplane. I think it's a Boeing. In the spirit of First Cambodia Airlines they've made no promotion of their recent launch, have no website, and have purchased little if not any advertising.
Perhaps these two airlines are recalling the fiasco of Mekong Airlines, which began operations a little more than a year a go with a lot of advance promotion and then immediately tanked. Lesson to be learned?
As I recently had the opportunity to use the Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport to fly to Bangkok I would like once again to bring to attention what a bunch of thieving scum SCA (the 70% French company that runs the two international airports) are. A $25 international departure tax and for what? I would suggest that all users of either international airport (Siem Reap or Phnom Penh) complain vociferously when paying this tax. And also ask why Cambodians get a reduced rate? If they can afford to fly they can afford to pay the tax. And yes, I know, the person collecting the money has nothing to do with it, but something has to be done about this ridiculous fee and it seems like as good a place as any to start.
Speaking of Siem Reap, beginning now, Malaysia Airlines is beginning three weekly flights between Kuala Lumpur and Siem Reap.
I can confirm as I stayed awake this time, the road between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh is almost done. Only a few sections in Siem Reap province still need attention.
Traffic improvements in Phnom Penh: Barriers have been placed down the center of a large swath of Monivong Blvd near Sihanouk Blvd to stop left turns and assumedly keep people on the right side of the road. Similar barriers have also been placed on Sihanouk Blvd near Monivong for essentially the same purpose.
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It sat for years moored near the Cambodiana Hotel. A nice-looking boat with nowhere to go and no way of getting there (the engines were removed), it justified its existence under the name Naga Casino and relieved many a gambler, mostly Asian (Chinese, Malaysian, Thai, etc) of their cash. Now it's gone, pushed out into the middle of the river.
It's replacement is the massive Naga Casino & Hotel, an enormous structure at the east end of Hun Sen Park and sitting next to of all places the, Buddhist Institute. An ironic juxtaposition it would seem. In any event, don't expect any firsthand reports any time soon as I'm not one to venture into casinos (well, not often and not lately, anyway).
You'll be forgiven for being as surprised as I but you know what I learned a couple of weeks ago? That making a map of Cambodia is illegal - unless you don't put a scale on it as then for whatever reason, it's no longer a map. This probably helps explain why Cambodia is overburdened with maps - mostly of the free variety that people hand you in airports and things - that lack for a scale leaving you hopelessly confused as to how far it is from Phnom Penh to Banlung or even from your hotel to the nearest bar.
Apparently it's over the issuance a few years ago of a map that made it clear in no uncertain terms that Phu Quoc Island is part of Vietnam (umm, err, which it is). But Cambodia claims sovereignty over the island and therefore considers any map not in accordance with this belief to be wrong. If you were to look at a map (apparently an illegal one) you will notice that the location of Phu Quoc does make one wonder why it's not part of Cambodia. But in the meantime, until Vietnam and Cambodia sort out who owns the island, which is probably going to take a few centuries at least, seeing as Vietnam has no issue over whose island it is, possession is generally nine-tenths of the law, and they've proved this point by building an airport and developing it as a beach resort, how about a compromise like one sees on maps of India in reference to the border of Kashmir? Perhaps something like: "The government of the Kingdom of Cambodia does not recognize Vietnam sovereignty of Phu Quoc Island. So there." And then everybody can make legal maps again and we can know far away it is to the nearest bar.
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It's about time I got back to this feature.
This is a useful portal site that offers a comprehensive list of links organized under a variety of topics as well as offering recent news stories and links to further information about these stories.
As with most sites of this sort, there are a few dead links and outdated sites, but the occasional lack of attention not withstanding (and like the toa website doesn't suffer some of the same ailments?), the site does get updated regularly. It's been my experience that any search for a lead to some bit of information often will not only help find me what I want, but inevitably will also turn up something else of interest entirely different from what I was looking for. And that's always a good thing.
We still don't have one. We almost thought we had one, but we don't. There are no deals. Hun Sen is playing golf and the other guys are apparently in France or somewhere. Life goes on. Sort of.
Stay tuned for the riveting non-details that will develop between now and forever.
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The 2004 Magic of Cambodia Day has been scheduled for Saturday
18 September at The Horton General Hospital, Banbury, Oxfordshire, England.
Although I have something to print this month, this may well be the end of this section of the column - or at least for as long as I maintain a discussion forum. As I said at the outset, beginning this month some of the items appearing in this column and all subsequent columns will also be posted to the forum so if you have something to say or care to see what others may or may not have to say, head on over.
From the virtual mailbag:
On my bit about the rise of nationalism:
An abbreviated version of my response to the writer is as follows:
The article did not seek to analyze the roots of ant-Vietnamese or anti-Thai sentiment, but rather was intended to be one, a superficial comment that as westerners in Cambodia, we are now for the first time, seeing Khmer nationalism in a negative, albeit small, manifestation geared towards us, and two, that I personally believe that nationalism in most forms is racist and therefore bad.
I am very familiar with the Thai/Cambodia situation and have written extensively on it on my website and did not feel the need to drag my regular readers through something they've read before.
I am also familiar with the Vietnamese situation. Maybe not as familiar as the Thai situation (I maintain residences in both Bangkok and Siem Reap), but still familiar - whether we are talking about who once possessed the lands of South Vietnam or the Vietnamese occupation of the 1980s, or the Vietnamization of the CPP government, Sokimex, etc. I've heard all the arguments and have my own opinions on these matters.
To be proud of one's nation, heritage, culture, etc is good.
To use this pride to hate or discriminate against others is wrong.
Cambodia is absolutely right to protect itself from illegal entry, from exploitation of its waters, forests, resources, etc - but this does not have to be transferred into general hatred against a nation or race. Didn't the Taiwanese exploit Cambodia through logging in Ratanakiri? Malaysians logging the Cardamoms? How about the foreign-owned garment factories? How about the US bombing and invasion of Cambodia? How about the French protectorate? Cambodia has been and still is exploited by more than just the Vietnamese and Thais. Rather than lash out at whole races of people, why not take the opportunity to exert self-determination? In the case of Preah Vihear we saw Cambodia finally create its own access to its own temple and say "there, it's ours and we are going to keep it and promote it as ours." No one was hurt, no one was discriminated against. It was simply a case of taking over what is rightfully theirs.
Cambodia and all its resources of course belong to the Khmer and rightfully so. However in the 21st century, we now live in a small world that sees an increase in international trade, contact, etc. Cambodia must decide for itself how it wants to align itself with the outside world in respect to trade, investment, tourism, residency, etc. and by default this must include Thailand and Vietnam. Obviously what Cambodia decides to do must be done with the best interests of Cambodia. But shouldn't this be done in a way that is pro-Khmer without being anti-foreigner?
City of Ghosts:
Err, yeah, that's it. Hmm... time to can Perspective and move it all to the discussion forum. Guess that means the following dies next month, too:
I continue to receive a few travelers' reports every month - but not so many as in the past which I think means people are finding the journeys less and less dramatic. Most of the stories detail experiences on the Poipet to Siem Reap road, but there are small sections for other roads and border crossings. They may be read at the Overland page. See the various Travelers' Reports pages. There are now seven of them.
There is also a Readers' Submissions section which is open to just about anything you want to say. Reader's Submissions will be published on any country and on most any topic. Visit the section for more information.
The offerings have changed and I've created a new page devoted exclusively to business and employment opportunities. Here it is.
Some say I'll live to regret it and at times I already do, but talesofasia offers a discussion forum now. Do register and join the discussion. Intelligence is a highly sought after commodity right now.
It's a done deal. I now have a Visa merchant's account and if you want to purchase a photograph from me you may now do so on this website using your Visa card. Go to the newly redesigned Photography section for more details.
I have published on this website a considerable-sized FAQ file, recently expanded to 138 questions and answers on a variety of Cambodia subjects that should answer a majority and then some of the questions tourists and would-be expats might have. While I welcome e-mail questions from readers and I try to answer them all promptly and properly, the answers you are looking for might be found in the FAQ file. Have a look. Four sections were updated this past week.
Siem Reap Guide
The latest version of my comprehensive guide to Siem Reap and Angkor went up on May 11. The section will be updated more or less on a monthly basis. Have a look.
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