Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Just how ready to fight are the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces?

Written by Brendan Brady and Thet Sambath   

The recent border standoff over Preah Vihear temple threw a spotlight on RCAF by beaming around the world images of flip-flop-wearing Cambodian soldiers with rusty guns 

Cambodian soldiers sit in a hut near Preah Vihear temple with their somewhat rusty AK-47 weapons in July this year. Military experts say the RCAF is woefully unprepared to fight.


Tanks T-55 tanks and PT-79 light amphibious tanks from Russia, Type 50 tanks and Type 62/63 light tanks from China, and AMX-13 light tanks from France. Aircraft No fighters, no ground attack aircraft, a few former Eastern block transport helicopters, around a dozen MI-17s and MI-8 planes. Light arms Howitzers from Russia and the US, shoulder-fired SAM-7 rockets. Lacks medium and long range offensive support weapons (artillery).

WITH coverage of the Preah Vihear dispute beaming images of soldiers with rusted AK-47s and rubber-band-bound grenades worldwide, questions are being raised about just how prepared the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) would be if called upon to fight. 

"[RCAF is] woefully unprepared [and] poorly equipped across the board," one military analyst, who declined to be named as he still works with RCAF, told the Post. 

No recent figures were available, but a 2002 report put defence spending at more than half of the national budget. 

Yet most of RCAF's equipment is outdated kit left over from the Cold War. Soldiers are poorly trained, and discipline is low, with many troops simply refusing to show up for duty.

Analysts say the country needs a well-equiped and organised military to protect national sovereignty and participate in peacekeeping.  

"We want to develop and modernise as a state, and defence is part of that," said Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan. "But [our military will develop] with an orientation towards ... peacekeeping work since we have an obligation to help others achieve peace." 

Cleaning off the rust 

Cambodia's military leadership claims the battlehardy RCAF troops more than make up for their rusting weaponry.

"Don't worry about their weapons, the Cambodian soldiers' strength is their experience as they've been in wars for decades," said Dien Den, a former military general who served under Lon Nol from 1970 to 1975. 

But observers wonder how much of these proclamations on the prowess of Cambodian troops is hot air to compensate for poor organisation and low morale.

Due to the imminent possiblilty of combat, soldiers have only now started turning up to work, said Uth Sakada, a military engineer officer based along the border with Thailand in Battambang. 

Before the border standoff emerged in July, "less than a third of us were at our base at any given time". Now, the base's personnel are all present, on permanent standby, he said. 

Moreover, things that should be routine - such as cleaning weapons - have only been carried out after the Preah Vihear skirmish broke out, said Ros Bun Hem, an artillery commander also stationed in Battambang. 

The border standoff has focused attention on the condition of weapons, he said, with soldiers now prepping their instruments "to make sure they would fire well".  


How well equipped? 
Cambodian soldiers in a trench with a rusty artillery piece in Preah Vihear earlier this year. RCAF lacks medium- and long-range offensive support weapons.
RCAF is not short of manpower or light arms but as the military analyst said, "small arms are small arms".
Up-to-date estimates of RCAF troop figures were not available but the government in 2001 estimated it has some 140,000 soldiers. 

"It would be in the area of offensive support weapons (artillery) and air support that the Thais would completely outclass RCAF," he said. 

The air force's "fleet" stationed in the capital amounts to about a dozen Russian-made MIGs whose flat tyres and dented panels can be seen when landing at the commercial airport. 

It might also have several planes at air bases in Battambang and Sisophon. 

But things may be changing. According to a high-ranking military official based in Phnom Penh who declined to be named, Cambodia will receive shortly a shipment of "modern fighter planes". 

He would not specify the number or type of planes, or where they were coming from.  "We currently have peace but when our country faces a threat, new and modern aircraft fighters are needed for national defense," he said.  

Another senior army official based in the capital claimed a large shipment of "modern equipment" - including guns and artillery - would be received at the end of October. 

"We are not competing with other countries for weapons, but without them we could become a victim," he said. 


The bulk of Cambodia's current military stocks come from China and Russia, with a few also coming from the United States and France. 

An estimated several hundred post-WWII-issue tanks  compose Cambodia's limited ground arsenal, of which only about half are believed to be functional. 

Cambodia's artillery is compromises an array of old howitzers from Russia and the US, while shoulder-fired SAM-7 rockets are its most formidable anti-aircraft defence. And the handful of serviceable helicopters from France are only enough for shuttling around generals. 

Just 15 years ago the beneficiary of what was at the time the UN's largest peace keeping commission, Cambodia has begun to offer limited military services abroad, providing deminers in peacekeeping missions in Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan.       "[We] are especially pleased to see them participating in peacekeeping missions when just a few short years ago they were beneficiaries of such forces," said US embassy spokesman John Johnson.    

China has stepped up its military assistance to Cambodia in recent years, most notably providing the Kingdom's nearly non-existent navy with five warships in 2005 and nine patrol boats in November 2007. 

The development has increased questions about how superpowers will compete for influence. 

Just earlier this month, the US treated Cambodian government and military officials to a rare tour of one of its aircraft carriers when it sailed through the region on its way home from Iraq. 

The first tour by Cambodian officials of a US aircraft carrier, the Cambodian officials were dazzled by what they had seen previously only on television.  The US embassy called the junket "another step in the growing military-to-military relationship" between the two countries.

Shopping around

While Western countries, notably Australia, have expanded aid to Cambodian law enforcement for combating the trafficking of people and narcotics as well as for monitoring potential terrorist activity, they have been hesitant to supply lethal materiel.  Last year the US lifted a ban on military aid to Cambodia, but has only provided non-lethal assistance. 

Asked about the future of military-to-military ties between the US and Cambodia during his visit earlier this month to Phnom Penh, US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte mentioned only non-combat related cooperation. 

Even if boosted by a couple new shipments of materiel, what CPP parliamentarian Cheam Yeap described as "the many guerrilla strategies of Cambodia's troops who have fought in many battles" may be insufficient to compensate for poor resources. 

"These are modern times, most countries use computers and advanced systems," said SRP parliamentarian and former chairman of the National Assembly's defense committee Yim Sovann, who said corruption over military spending plagued an already rag-tag group. 

"Yes, Cambodian troops have experience, but without resources, without salaries they can survive on, they can't do much. This is not an army for modern times."

Cambodia wins support for oil, not rights


October 1, 2008

After Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte's recent visit to Cambodia, he told the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong: As Cambodia "works to strengthen democracy, improve public health, and increase respect for human rights, Cambodia can count on our support."

While in Cambodia, Negroponte announced the U.S. initial contribution of $1.8 million to fund the Khmer Rouge tribunal. He viewed the decline in violence in Cambodia's four national elections since 1993 as a "very positive development."

A day after his speech, the Voice of America reported State Department spokesman Sean McCormack' remarks: "We believe that the court (KR tribunal) is now capable of meeting international standards of justice, and ... the court has the capacity to respond effectively and appropriately" to allegations of corruption.

Two days before Negroponte's Hong Kong speech, the United Nations Human Rights Council, which held its 9th session in Geneva, reviewed on Sept. 15 the "Mandate of Special Representative of the (United Nations) Secretary-General on Human Rights Situation in Cambodia." Special Representative Yash Ghai wasn't present, but his written statement was read by Sima Samar, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Sudan.

In my Sept. 17 column, "Human rights, development should be balanced," I wrote that U.N. Special Representative Ghai observed the "scant respect for the rule of law," shown by state authorities and those "well connected" with the regime, and that Cambodia's courts and the legal profession "have failed the people of Cambodia woefully." I noted Premier Sen's government wanted Ghai fired, and failing that, declined all cooperation with Ghai, and menaced to close down the human rights office in Cambodia.

In Ghai's statement, Ghai canceled his trip to Cambodia to review the human rights situation and to consult on the future of the mandate of the Special Representative in Cambodia.

The statement spoke of Ghai's warning in his last report, "there had been serious deficiencies in the general elections in July this year. Little progress had been made in other areas where human rights continued to be violated. Allegations of further irregularities in the management of the extraordinary chambers continued to undermine the good work of the prosecutors and judges."

Ghai's "reports, advice and recommendations over the past year" produced no "change for the better," and this "state of affairs might raise a question as to whether there was any point in the extension of the mandate" of the Special Representative.

Yet, Ghai urged the Council to extend the mandate, and "it would be very important" that his successor "should have the full support of the Council, the United Nations family and the international community," which in his statement Ghai said he could not claim to have received.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had not come to Ghai's defense, the statement charged. Thus, as read by Samar, Ghai "had tendered his resignation from the position of Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the situation of human rights in Cambodia."

On the same day, Sept. 17, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, called on the Human Rights Council to extend the mandate, and observed, "The systematic lack of protection of human rights in Cambodia is a consequence of impunity, the absence of the rule of law and the seriously stunted legal and judicial reform. The government -- through inaction -- continues to demonstrate its unwillingness to seriously address human rights."

Amnesty and HRW remind it was the 1991 Paris Peace Accords signed by the U.N. and 19 member states that recommended the Special Representative to protect and promote human rights. They say, "While Cambodia has experienced significant economic growth during the past 15 years, the government has rejected a rights-based approach to development. As stipulated in the Paris Peace Accords, economic development must go hand in hand with respect for human rights."

On the same page?

Can it be that the Cambodia described by Negoponte and the Cambodia described by Ghai and rights groups, are the same country? Opposition leader Sam Rainsy sees Ghai's departure as a loss to victims of human rights violations. Khieu Kanharith, the Cambodian Minister of Information, charges, "The accusation made by Mr. Yash Ghai is only aimed at creating animosity ... and this shows his despicable attitude and manner are unfit for the high role given to him by the UN."

I lamented the disconnect between governments preaching human rights and freedom and their actual support for authoritarian rules that suppress them. On Sept. 17, the VOA broadcast that Sen said he was "satisfied" with Ghai's resignation: "I have no need to curse him anymore."

Perhaps, here's something to reflect on: Are China, the U.S. and other countries drawn to supporting the Hun Sen government, which controls Cambodia's potential oil fields in the Gulf of Thailand and onshore deposits of minerals? Will oil bring wealth for the poor people, 35 percent of whom live on less than 50 cents a day, or a curse, if the 2007 95-page "Global Witness Cambodia's Family Trees," the Transparency International survey on global corruption, among others, are guides?

Cambodia golf courses aim to hit tourists

Phnom Penh (dpa) - Cambodia's efforts to attract high-end tourists by developing a world class golfing scene in the space of just a few years appears to have paid off, with a major regional golf tour company preparing to showcase the courses in Europe.

Golfasian, which is based in Thailand, said it would promote Cambodia alongside neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam at the International Golf Travel Market in Marbella, Spain from November 11-14.

Cambodia will be marketed as an exciting new regional golf destination at the event, billed as the world's premier golf travel expo and credited with making or breaking emerging hot destinations, it said.

At last year's event, neighbouring Vietnam won the International Association of Golf Tour Operators' World's Best Up-and-Coming Golf Destination award and has since reaped plenty in golfing tourism dollars. Cambodia is in the midst of a tourism boom and is keen to earn similar recognition in the lucrative golf tourism market.

"Golf holidays in Cambodia are a new introduction, yet pioneering golfers are finding it a fascinating country in which to play a few rounds," Golfasian says on its website.

"Cambodia doubled its number of luxury golf courses last year to four and hopes to have eight by 2010 in a bid to lure more high-end tourism from the fast-growing sport in Asia."

Golfing legend Nick Faldo's company designed a PGA-standard course in Siem Reap, the country's tourist hub about 300 kilometres north of the capital, where golfers are offered the chance to tour the world-famous Angkor Wat temple complex between rounds.

And Arnold Palmer Design Company, named after its famous founder, is currently building a 36-hole course for a new billion-dollar five-star resort in Bokor, 200 kilometre

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Cambodia: Prince Gets Royal Pardon

September 26, 2008


King Norodom Sihamoni of Cambodia has pardoned his half brother, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who was convicted last year of embezzling $3.6 million from his own political party, Funcinpec, by selling the party’s headquarters. Prince Ranariddh was co-prime minister until he was ousted in a coup in 1997 by Hun Sen, the other co-prime minister, who is now prime minister. The pardon allows Prince Ranariddh to return home from Malaysia, where he has been living to avoid an 18-month prison term. He now heads a new party, the Norodom Ranariddh Party, which won two seats in this year’s parliamentary election. King Sihamoni and Prince Ranariddh are sons of Norodom Sihanouk, who retired as king in 2004.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Cambodian commercial banks told to triple capital

PHNOM PENH, Sept. 23 (Xinhua) -- The National Bank of Cambodia (NBC) has tripled the minimum capital requirement for commercial banks in the Kingdom in an effort to tighten and strengthen the banking sector, national media reported Tuesday.

    According to a copy of an NBC directive, commercial banks in Cambodia are now requiring to have a minimum capital of 150 billion riel (about 36.5 million U.S. dollars), the Cambodia Daily newspaper said.

    Commercial banks will be allowed to maintain the current capital requirement of 50 billion riel (about 12 million U.S. dollars) if they have an influential shareholder that is a bank or financial institution with an investment grade rating from a reputable rating agency, the directive said.

    While the Cambodia's four main banks - Acleda, ANZ Royal, Canadia and the Cambodian Public Bank - are likely to be unaffected by the change in conditions, it remains to be seen how many of the country's 17 other commercial banks will measure up tothe new rules, the newspaper said.

    In addition, the country's six specialized banks, which only make loans and do not take deposits, must also increase their minimum capital to 30 billion riel (about 7.3 million U.S. dollars) unless they have a bank or financial institution influential shareholder with an investment grade rating, according to the NBC directive.

    All existing banks have until 2010 to meet the new requirements, the directive states.

    NBC Director General Tal Nai Im said that the new commercial bank requirements are aimed at making it more difficult for prospective banks to enter the sector in Cambodia.

    "Some banks that don't have the minimum might have to withdraw," she was quoted as saying.  


South Korean investment changes Cambodia

By Raphael Minder

Published: September 22 2008 17:34 | Last updated: September 22 2008 17:34

A young Cambodian couple smile for David Kim, the South Korean photographer, as he takes their wedding pictures.

Last November Mr Kim moved with his wife to Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, using the proceeds from the sale of his photo shop in Seoul to open Luk Studio. The business has made “a really good start” as more and more Cambodians turn to professionals to capture their union, he says.

Although his business is still in its infancy, Mr Kim has already hired three people to help manage bookings and photo shoots.

“I had my company in Korea for three years, but demand wasn’t growing any more and there was simply too much competition,” says the 32-year-old. “I can already say that I am the number one here because nobody was really offering this [service] professionally.”

Mr Kim is making a grassroots contribution to a much more substantial flow of South Korean money and expertise entering Cambodia.

Last year South Korean investments there grew fivefold, making Cambodia the second-biggest recipient of Korean investment after China, according to the Korean International Trade Association. South Korea briefly overtook China two years ago as the biggest source of foreign direct investment, accounting for 23 per cent of projects approved by Cambodian authorities that year. Although China regained its leadership, several large-scale Korean projects are in the pipeline, in sectors including construction and finance.

Observers find it hard to explain exactly why Koreans have zoomed in on a country that is not particularly close to them, either geographically or culturally. “A lot of Korean businessmen are looking to invest abroad and somehow Cambodia seems to be now better known, particularly among small and medium-sized businesses, than other countries,” says Anh Ho-young, South Korean deputy trade minister.

One suggestion is that the historic disconnect between the countries has helped. Decades of war have fuelled a profound distrust in Cambodia of its neighbours.

Also, “Koreans are Asia’s most adventurous frontier market investors right now”, says Douglas Clayton, who has been investing in south-east Asia for two decades and manages Leopard Capital, a Cambodian fund.

“They understand how Korea itself was rapidly developed from a frontier market into a developed society and see the possibilities to repeat that process in transitional economies like Cambodia.

“For historical reasons, Koreans are not eager to place all their bets on China, so they are interested in alternative low-cost production centres,” he adds.

The most visible sign of South Korean investment in Cambodia is the redrawing of Phnom Penh’s skyline. Two Korean construction companies are erecting skyscrapers that will be the city’s tallest buildings.

Meanwhile, a joint venture between Korean and Cambodian companies is developing a satellite city, appropriately named Camko City. The $2bn (€1.4bn, £1bn) project is financed by Shinhan, a Korean bank, and is also due to house Cambodia’s future bourse – again with financial as well as training assistance from the Korean stock exchange.

In the six years since he arrived in Cambodia, Won Jong-min estimates the Korean community has grown from less than 500 to about 10,000. He settled there “not because of business but because I fell in love with the beautiful nature” around the temples of Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s cultural treasure.

Mr Won has since founded K-Channel, a Korean-language broadcaster that is expanding rapidly and is expected to break even after just two years on the air.

His success owes much to the fact that Koreans remain close-knit and rarely learn Khmer, even though many marry Cambodians or form property partnerships with locals to circumvent restrictions on foreign land ownership.

“Demand for more Korean [TV] content and entertainment is very strong,” says Mr Won.

Some pundits date the flourishing of business ties between the two countries to a state visit by Roh Moo-hyun, the former South Korean president, in late 2006, accompanied by a cohort of Korean executives.

Hun Sen, Cambodia’s long-standing prime minister, has also encouraged an open door policy. Last year, when a Cambodian chartered aircraft crashed on a domestic flight with 13 Koreans among its 22 passengers, he headed the search-and-rescue team, a gesture that did not go unnoticed in Seoul.

“It’s very rare for any prime minister to lead this kind of rescue, and I think it shows just how close this prime minister feels to Korea,” says Mr Anh.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Cambodia's Koh Kong casino enclave

Thai tourists are being reminded that the Cambodian border province of Koh Kong offers much more than just the casinos for which it is famous.

Mayuda Mang, deputy chief of the Tourism Department of Koh Kong, said at the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) workshop on biodiversity conservation and tourism development in Bangkok that the 11,000 sq km province has a wide variety of tourist attractions.

"Koh Kong is home to the country's largest mangrove areas and we still have several small pristine islands eligible for ecotourism development," said Ms Mayuda.

She said that no matter how volatile relations between the two countries have been in recent months, Koh Kong and the opposite province of Trat have remained on good neighbourly terms.

Trat has sent experts to help Koh Kong villagers preserve mangrove forests, said Ms Mayuda, adding: "We appreciate that cooperation and would like to see deepened collaboration on nature conservation in our country."

However, she conceded that Road No 48, which was jointly opened by then-deputy prime minister Somchai Wongsawat and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, with a bridge linking the Thai border to Koh Kong and on to Phnom Penh, would inevitably attract all kinds of investors, traders and gamblers to Cambodia.

The Thai government gave financial support to build the road.

It takes about one hour to drive from Trat to Koh Kong and another three hours to go on to the capital Phnom Penh.

The owners of the casino projects are Thais and Cambodians and gamblers come not only from Thailand, but also from China and Taiwan, as well as a few locals.

Asked how much progress Thailand's former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra had made in his reported investment in Koh Kong, Ms Mayuda said he had taken 10 interested parties to meet Hun Sen last April, but none of them, including Mr Thaksin, had yet confirmed they had initiated any projects.

"The picture will become clearer after Hun Sen's new government is up and running. Until that time, probably only two or three investors might seriously want to pursue business in Koh Kong," Ms Mayuda said.

Mr Thaksin has shown interest in leasing Koh Kong Khrao, an 80 sq km island off Koh Kong, to develop an entertainment complex, but she did not know how negotiations were progressing.

She also said that a South Korean company had been given a 99-year lease to develop hotel, entertainment and eco-tourism businesses on Koh Yo, another small island off Koh Kong.

And a Kuwaiti investor has pledged US$15 million (511 million baht) to help transform Cambodia into an agro-business hub.

Koh Kong's efforts to lure different kinds of tourists is part of Cambodia's wider strategy to develop the industry nationwide so that the impoverished country will not continue to rely on its top drawing card, Angkor Wat.

Anne-Maria Makela, senior tourism adviser for the Netherlands Development Organisation, said at the workshop that too much focus has been placed on Angkor Wat and Siem Reap, and the country should bring more communities into the tourism picture.

Cambodia to host travel mart in Siem Reap in December

Cambodia announces AITEX2009

During last night's dinner reception at the Falaknuma Palace it filtered through that there are some 1,200 delegates attending PATA Travel Mart (PTM) in Hyderabad during September 16-19.

The Falaknuma Palace is regtarded as one of the most magnificent palaces in the whole of India and overlooks the busy city of Hyderabad. It was built by Vikar-ul-Umra in the late 19th century, when India was a British colony. The former "Maharadscha" palace is a treasure trove of art and architecture and is now a part of the Taj Group, which will soon convert it into a super deluxe hotel.

Among the many invited guests at the entertaining dinner party were some people from the Kingdom of Cambodia, who announced that Cambodia will have its own travel mart again in Siem Reap on December 4-6, 2009.

This announcement was confirmed today (September 17) at the booth from the Ministry of Tourism in Cambodia and was given out in print. Thus, the event will be the 3rd Angkor International Tourism Exchange (AITEX), which was canncelled this year accordingly.

Cambodia is one of the 6 countries of the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) that is promoting its tourist attractions heavily. Among them is the sacred temple of Preah Vihear which became the newest UNESCO World Heritage Site recently.

For interested parties, please contact the Ministry of Tourism in Cambodia by Tel. (855-23) 720100, Fax (855-23) 720101, E-mail aitexcambodia@mot.gov.kh or go to: www.aitexcambodia.com

Tonight's reception at PTM features "Andhra Pradesh Tourism Evening & Dinner hosted by Sri P. Ramakanth Reddy, Chief Secretary to the Government of Andhra Pradesh, India. The venue will be at Novotel Hyderabad.

URL : http://www.etravelblackboard.com/index.asp?id=82359

Cambodia's Kampot Cemet to invest $200 million USD

Nguon Sovan

$200m investment hoped to decrease Cambodia's reliance on expensive imported construction materials, as building boom continues to create demand

KAMPOT Cement plans to invest US$200 million into production in order to triple its output by the end of next year as a local construction boom continues to push demand for cement, according to one of the firm's top officials.

Khaou Phallaboth, president of the firm's Cambodian minority stakeholder, told the Post that Kampot Cement would increase its current production from one million tonnes to three million tonnes by the end of 2009 on predictions that total domestic demand will rise over the next five years from three million to seven million tonnes, as heavy foreign investment fuels a surge in construction.

He also said the company has its sights set on the export market down the road if international prices remain high.

Kampot Cement launched in January of this year as a $127 million joint venture with Thailand's largest industrial conglomerate, Siam Cement Group (SCG), controlling a 90 percent share, and Cambodia's Khaou Chuly Group holding the remainder. Khaou Phallaboth said the Cambodian partner's share would double to 20 percent by next year.

While the plant's current production of one million tonnes a year represents nearly half of all domestic production, the company has to import from Thailand another half million tonnes at increasingly unfavorable prices in order to fill local orders, Khaou Phallaboth said.

He said that despite the growth in local demand for cement, Cambodia's exorbitantly high energy costs, which are three times higher than those in neighboring Vietnam and Thailand, continue to pose a major obstacle to the industry's expansion.

"So once we increase our production, we will switch from using heavy fuel to a coal-fired power plant," he said. "It will cost us $70 to $80 million at first, but it will save us several million dollars in energy costs every year after that."

Opposition party lawmaker Yim Sovann said that he supports industrial self-sufficiency, but expressed concerns over the effects on the surrounding communities of a coal-fired plant, which he said would "seriously damage the environment and health of local people if it is not built according to international standards".

Others, however, played down the potential effects of the plant, while saying Cambodia was too reliant on imported construction materials.

"It will be very good to reduce our reliance on imports from foreign countries, and we should support the use of local products," said Ith Priang, secretary of state at the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy.

"Oil has been really expensive, so a clean-coal power plant is a good, cheaper alternative.... There should not be any concern over the environmental effects because we will thoroughly inspect the plant to make sure it is in compliance."

How to discover–and relish–Angkor Wat

By Virgil Calaguian
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Posted date: September 21, 2008

MANILA, Philippines—After decades of neglect, the world is rediscovering the glories of the fabled Khmer Empire.

I first visited Siem Reap (pronounced See-um Ree-up) in December 2006. Since then I have been back four times, and each time the place looks different.

In less than two years, the town has changed tremendously, turning from a dusty, sleepy settlement into a modern city of increasing sophistication.

Buildings are sprouting all over. Where once there was none, there are now Internet cafés and ATM machines and even that ubiquitous feature of modern cities—a fast-food joint.

Air-conditioned malls are being constructed and soon, we are told, the Old Market will be moved to a new development outside town, while the present site is converted into a modern retail complex.

The town’s fast transformation is fueled by only one thing—tourism.

Last year Siem Reap had around a million visitors; this year that figure is expected to double.

Throughout the world there is reawakened interest in Angkor Wat and the magnificent monuments of the ancient Khmer Empire. These World Heritage sites are clustered around Siem Reap. It is anticipated that in the next decade Siem Reap will become the next major destination in Asia, second only to neighboring Thailand.

In the first half of 20th century, Angkor Wat drew such celebrities as Charlie Chaplin, Jacqueline Kennedy and French President Charles de Gaulle, but the country was closed to travelers during and in the aftermath of the tragic years under the murderous Khmer Rouge. We got an inkling of the utter horror of that dark era from the Hollywood movie, “The Killing Fields.”

It has only been in the last five years that visitors have started to come back in large numbers. Hopefully the tragic past is now securely behind as the country strives to catch up with the rest of the developed world.

Getting there

Filipinos are not required to have visas (Malaysia is the only other country that enjoys this privilege); everybody else has to cue up upon arrival to have their pictures taken and their visas issued.

There are no direct flights from Manila to either Phnom Penh or Siem Reap, but there are alternative routes. A fun way is via Bangkok (Cebu Pacific flies nightly, arriving around midnight). You can then travel to Siem Reap by either air or overland.

The trouble with the first is that Bangkok Airways, which has a monopoly on the Bangkok-Siem Reap route, charges astronomical fares. You could take an Air Asia flight to Phnom Penh and from there hire a taxi to Phnom Penh, and you’d still end up paying less than the Bangkok Airways fare to Siem Reap.

Most visitors fly to the capital, stay there for a couple of days, then join fellow tourists on the boat to Siem Reap. It’s a six-hour journey on the Tonle Sap River (which turns into Tonle Sap Lake near Siem Reap), but it’s an adventure worth experiencing at least once, and a good introduction to Cambodia’s bucolic countryside.

To relieve the tedium of the trip, many passengers clamber up to the roof to sit in the sunlight (the trip sets off early in the morning) and take in the scenic view as the boat goes past villages, rice fields and patches of lush tropical growth

If you have the stamina and patience for a long haul, take the bus from Bangkok to Siem Reap, which costs only $10 per person.

Leaving Bangkok early in the morning, a four-hour drive on a big air-conditioned bus will take you to the last town on the Thai side.

From there, take a tuk-tuk to the border itself, go through Thai immigrations, after which you walk through a concentration of neon-lit casinos, a curious sight, like a mini Las Vegas in the dusty tropics.

After completing the formalities at Cambodian immigrations, you step into Cambodian territory, where another bus will take you to Siem Reap. You should hit town by late afternoon or early evening.

There are other possible routes—via Hanoi or Saigon, Kuala Lumpur and even Singapore, both on regular airlines like Philippine Airlines and on budget carriers such as Air Asia and Jetstar. Check out their websites for flight details.

(Rowena Coloma of Travel Specialist Ventures, tel. 9287487 or 9255383, handles tours to Cambodia and other Southeast Asian destinations.)

Moving around town

Siem Reap is quite small, with the area around the Old Market (Psar Chas) as the sole hub of activity. Except when they go out of town to archeological sites, visitors hardly ever venture from the area demarcated by Sivatha Boulevard, Pokambor Avenue and National Road No 6.

Sivatha Boulevard is the town’s main street, lined on both sides with shops and commercial establishments.

Following the wooded banks of Siem Reap River, Pokambor Avenue, which becomes Charles de Gaulle Boulevard after it crosses National Road No. 6, goes past five major landmarks of the city—the Old Market; the Royal Residence (quite modest, nothing imposing); the lovely Royal Gardens; the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor (this looks more palatial than the actual Royal Residence); and the radiant National Angkor Museum.

National Road No. 6, also known as Airport Road, leads to Siem Reap International Airport and is where many of the big brand-new hotels are located. It might be helpful to note that the new Angkor International Hospital and smaller clinics catering to foreigners are on this road.

The town sprawls out on the eastern side of the river, but these are residential and new shopping areas where mostly local folk go. There is a big Divisoria-like market in the area and, further afield, a kind of people’s park (it’s actually just an open field) where locals come to enjoy the evening, seated on rented mats spread on the ground, drinking beer and eating barbecue, balut (yes, they have balut) and all sorts of snacks in movable stalls.

There are no taxis in Siem Reap, but a car or van with driver can be rented on a daily basis. On our first visit we hired a van for two days, costing only $30-$40 per day.

Later we found out a far better alternative is to hire a tuk-tuk. Not only is it cheaper ($12-$15 for a whole day; $2 for short rides around town) but it’s actually more fun.

Unlike our tricycles, which are supremely uncomfortable, Cambodian tuk-tuks have the motorbike and driver out front, pulling the cab along. It’s like riding a horse carriage. “I feel like Prince Philip,” Peter said as we proceeded in stately fashion along the tree-lined roads of the Angkor Archeological Park.

Now, if you’re traveling on a shoestring, a moto would be your chosen mode of transport. A moto, short for motorcycle or motorbike, is exactly just that—a motorbike that takes a passenger on the back seat for $1 a ride. No need for a helmet and other safety measures. Just jump on the seat and fling your arms around the driver. Don’t ask me what happens when it rains.

What to see

One of mankind’s greatest achievements, Angkor Wat marks the pinnacle of ancient Khmer civilization. It is for this world-renowned artistic and architectural masterpiece that most visitors come to Siem Reap, and as such it tops any list of must-visit places. It certainly lives up to the hype, and takes your breath away each time you see those five majestic corncob-shaped towers.

Inside are walls and walls of superb bas reliefs depicting epic battles from the Rayamana and other icons and episodes in Hindu-Buddhist mythology, including the oft replicated and reproduced Churning of the Sea of Milk, a cosmic tug-of-war between gods and demons.

Angkor Wat, according to historians and scholars, took 30 years to construct. It was built in the reign of Suryavarman II (1113-1150 AD).

It marks the zenith of Khmer civilization, though the golden age of temple building came later, under Jayavarman VII (1181-1220 AD), who, as if to make up for the fact that he didn’t build Angkor Wat, launched a construction frenzy that saw the completion of Angkor Thom (his walled city which contains the Terrace of the Leper King); Bayon (his royal temple); Ta Prohm (dedicated to his mother); Preah Khan (dedicated to his father); and innumerable hospitals and rest houses for the poor.

All those places are worth visiting, particularly Angkor Thom (it gives you a sense of what it might have been like to live at the time); Bayon (famous for the gigantic faces oriented toward the four cardinal points); and Ta Prohm (where the ruins are being strangled by the roots of gigantic trees that start life as a parasite then kill the host tree).

Located outside the Angkor Wat/Angkor Thom complex, the exquisite Banteay Srei, with its profusion of delicate carvings, is also worth a visit, and so is the pyramidal Prasat Ta Keo.

Angkor Thom was sacked in 1431 by invading armies from Siam (Siem Reap actually means Siam Defeated, referring to an earlier Khmer victory), from which the empire never again fully recovered, though the Khmer kingdom endured until the end of the 16th century.

All those sites mentioned above are located within the Angkor Archeological Park, also known as Angkor National Park. A one-day pass is available, but this is hardly enough to cover all major sights. A much better deal is to buy a two-day or three-day pass, which allows you explore the sites at leisurely pace.

After temple overdose

The temples are magnificent, but after a while it is possible to suffer from temple overdose. If and when that happens, head for the Old Market and lose yourself in the maze of shops selling traditional Cambodian arts and crafts—silk, wood and stone carvings, and silverware.

It’s a fascinating experience, and bargaining is part of the fun. You can indulge in light-hearted banter with the pretty sales ladies, and they don’t seem to mind if you don’t buy in the end.

The Central Market is not far from the Old Market, but it’s new and less interesting. After dark, the Night Market gets its share of browsers and buyers, though it’s somewhat lacking in local flavor and was obviously set up for tourists.

A morning excursion on the Tonle Sap Lake is another viable option when you’ve had too much temple-trekking. This body of water is so huge that you can’t see the shores when you’re somewhere in the middle. People live in houses on stilts along the shore as well as on huts floating on the water. You can either pay the official rate of $12 per head for a half-day tour or do your own negotiations with a boat operator.

To get to the lake, hire a tuk-tuk in town, but negotiate the price with the driver beforehand (for your own convenience you might want to also arrange for a return journey).

If you’re interested in finding out how silk is produced and woven, set aside half a day for a visit to the Angkor Silk Farm, some 16 km west of the town proper. The centuries-old craft was all but lost during the troubled years under the Khmer Rouge but is undergoing a rebirth.

For decades there was no repository for the astonishing array of treasures that have survived from the ancient Khmer civilization. Prized for their artistry and delicacy, Khmer sculptures have been a much sought after booty in an illegal international trade, often ending up in private collections in Europe and the United States.

Happily the newly constructed National Angkor Museum will now rectify this problem, with its state-of-the-art storage and display facilities. Using easy-to-follow visual aids and high-tech exhibition methods, the museum offers plenty to interest the visitor, including an awe-inspiring room containing 1,000 Buddhas. A trip to Siem Reap would not be complete without a visit to the museum.

To get the full flavor of your encounters with ancient Khmer civilization, you might want to hire a licensed tour guide. These can be identified at the sites by their uniform—brown trousers, beige shirt and name badge. Guides are available for virtually any of the world’s major languages, and you can easily hire one through your hotel or guesthouse. The going rate was $20 for a whole day more than a year ago; most likely that has increased since then.

Regular guided tours are also conducted by Virgo Travel, but this group of young Filipinos, among them Cathy Pamintuan and Jerome Rivera, offers more than that, aiming to promote greater understanding of local culture. Visit the group’s website at www.virgotravelcambodia.com.

Where to stay

The hotel industry in Siem Reap has witnessed a building boom in recent years, funded in large part by Korean investors. Some of the huge hotels on the Airport Road are Korean-owned.

A very reliable choice on the strip is the comfortable Monoreach Angkor Hotel (www.monoreach.com), managed by Annie Rivera, a Filipina, the only woman GM in the hotel industry in Cambodia. Annie has a way of putting people at ease, and under her supervision the hotel staff is invariably helpful and friendly toward guests.

Slightly off the main drag is the Angkor Palace Resort & Spa (www.angkorpalaceresort.com), set amid sprawling gardens.

If you have money to spare, the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor (www.raffles.com, part of the renowned Raffles chain) and Amansara (www.amansara.com, of the equally famed Aman group) are obvious choices, but the pleasure of staying in either place comes with a steep price—$300-$400 for the cheapest single at the Raffles and $700 at Amansara.

I have stayed at the Raffles and can certainly say that it lives up to its billing as a grand hotel. Everything is orchestrated to make you feel like you have stepped back to the time when travel to exotic places was an exclusive privilege of the rich. One almost expects the bellboys to pull out Louis Vuitton trunks and valises from the authentic cage elevator.

Other five-star hotels include the Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Golf & Spa Resort (www.sofitel.com); Sokha Angkor Resort & Spa (www.sokhahotels.com); La Residence d’Angkor (www.residencedangkor.com); and Le Meridien Angkor (www.lemeridien.com/angkor).

Friday, September 19, 2008

Drought over in Cambodia, enough rain to plant rice

September 19, 2008 4:53 pm by pna 

PHNOM PENH, Sept. 19 — Rains across Cambodia are bringing relief to farmers in areas that were suffering from drought, allowing them to start planting rice, national media reported Friday, citing government officials.

The drought in Cambodia was over and all farmers had enough water to plant rice, Chan Sarun, Minister of Agriculture, was quoted by the Cambodia Daily newspaper as saying.

Nine provinces have completed about 90 percent of the planting work and nine others 80 percent.

He said his ministry had distributed more than 100 tons of rice seed in four provinces to support farmers hit by drought.

According to a report by the Ministry of Agriculture's Statistic Department, the total area under cultivation stood at two million hectares this week, up from about 1.6 million hectares in late August.

However, the current cultivated area is still about seven percent less than the total area under cultivation in mid- September 2007. (PNA/Xinhua)

Golfonomics: The ball game that became the richest sport on earth


Even in the turbocharged world of 21st-century sport, where footballers change hands for £30m, tennis stars can win £700,000 with a single shot, and Formula One is a billion-pound industry, it's no contest. How did a game originating in medieval Scotland become the most lucrative of them all? As the Ryder Cup tees off, Jonathan Brown takes stock of a global phenomenon

Friday, 19 September 2008

Golfers have long sought to explain exactly what it is about hitting a small ball around a field with a long stick that proves quite so compelling, why it arouses such strong passions. As far back as 1916, just two decades after the inaugural 18-hole regulation course opened in the United States, and as the game was poised on the brink of its first wave of popularity, it fell to the leader writers of the notoriously sober and high-minded New York Tribune to explain what all the fuss was about.

"Golf," thundered the newspaper that once claimed Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels as its European correspondents, "is, in part, a game; but only in part. It is also in part a religion, a fever, a vice, a mirage, a frenzy, a fear, an abscess, a joy, a thrill, a pest, a disease, an uplift, a brooding, a melancholy, a dream of yesterday, and a hope for tomorrow."

Nearly a century on, with the game enjoying near-total global sporting dominance, a new accolade must be added to this list: golf is also big, big business.

This weekend, the old and the new golfing worlds square up to do battle at Valhalla Golf Club, in Louisville, for the 37th Ryder Cup. Appropriately enough, the psychodramas enacted on the manicured greens of Kentucky by the game's most gilded stars – excluding sport's soon-to-be first billionaire Tiger Woods, who is still recovering from a mid-season knee operation – will be taking place just a decent drive away from Fort Knox.

Yet, in one of the game's many sublime contradictions, this, perhaps the most keenly contested event in golf's modern sporting calendar, is being fought out for nothing more than national pride and the honour of holding aloft the trophy named after a long-dead seed salesman from Walton-le-Dale, Lancashire, who enjoyed hitting a ball in his spare time.

This weekend, the Americans will be trying to stave off a fourth successive defeat at the hands of a foe they once vanquished with embarrassing regularity in an event that became a potent symbol of American sporting power in the post-war world. The serial failures of recent years have left some wondering why it is that the American team, despite boasting two of the world's top three richest sportsmen among its number – Woods and Phil Mickelson – appear to have lost their grip.

One suggestion is that without the allure of a multimillion dollar purse, the incentive is simply not there. Considering the depth of national pride, that seems an unlikely explanation. Yet few would argue that, for those intending to spend the next few days slumped before the action unfolding on Sky Sports or the Golf Channel, to understand what modern golf is really about it is necessary to appreciate the sheer scale of what one economist has already labelled Golfonomics.

So, while the Americans might no longer be able to field a team of golfers with the requisite putting and driving skills to outplay an equivalent number of Europeans over a three-day period, the game in the United States remains an economic behemoth that dwarfs its Old World rival. According to the most recent valuation, golf grosses an annual $76bn (£42bn) for the US economy, which means that it outstrips both the film and the recorded music industries as well as all other major spectator sports – baseball, basketball and American football – combined.

About two million people are employed directly in the game, working at one of the 16,000 18-hole courses, one of the 1,900 driving ranges, one of the 1,392 mini-golf courses, or in related industries. Each year, Americans reach into their pockets to spend $6.2bn on a golf-related product, whether it be a $45,000 set of personalised gold and platinum-plated Honma clubs, or just to buy a new set of Titleist Pro V1 golf balls. They fork out $860m on golf magazines and $65m on books telling them how to improve their game. The total spend equals $25 for every man, woman and child from West Quoddy Head to Amatignak Island.

The game's overall contribution to the larger economy, when the "multiplier effect" of wages in related industries (including those beyond the traditional "golf cluster" of tourism, real estate and media) are included, is of an all together different magnitude – weighing in at an estimated $195bn a year, a sum greater than the gross domestic product of a small European country such as the Czech Republic.

But the first study of its kind, released this week by the KPMG Golf Advisory Practice, suggests that Europe is narrowing the gap, not just on the course but in economic terms too. "While our report shows that golf in the region is still smaller than America, the game is booming here, especially golf tourism and real estate," the report's author, Andrea Sartori, said yesterday. "You can look at it from many different angles, but ultimately one finding stands out – that one person in every thousand in Europe is employed in the golf economy," he added.

While still only one-third the total scale of the US market, golf in the European zone – which now includes Africa and the Middle East as well – is now worth €53bn ($42bn) each year, powered in part by the phenomenal growth in the value of the golf real-estate market, which has seen revenue from on-course homes now outstripping that brought in by conventional green and membership fees by five to one. In 2006, a total of 18,000 new golf villas, apartments and houses were completed, mainly on the sun-blessed Mediterranean fringes. Such property enjoys a 30 per cent premium compared to homes with no direct access to the first tee, even amid the credit crunch. In addition, 160 new courses and 100 major expansion programmes were finished.

Overall, the number of European courses and players, still overwhelmingly drawn from the high income brackets, has doubled since 1985. The PGA European Tour, which now plays everywhere from Kazakhstan to Abu Dhabi, is continuing to conquer new territory and spread the golfing gospel.

According to Guy Kinnings, European managing director of golf for IMG (the leading sports management company, representing golfers such as Tiger Woods), the game is defying the current mood of economic gloom.

"The figures that are competed for, and the figures that are involved within the golf business, have grown hugely and certainly golf itself is probably as strong as it has ever been as a global property," he told the BBC Radio 4 documentary Putting for Profit, which sought to explain the rapacious growth of the golf money-making machine.

In 1988, Curtis Strange of the USA became the first golfer to win $1m in a season. In 2007, 158 players did that – such is golf's trickle-down affect from the very top players. Their wealth reflects the growing value of the sport. The reasons, Kinnings says, are various – but helping it merrily along is the much-vaunted "Tiger factor".

The phenomenal success of the 32-year-old one-man brand from Cypress, California, real name Eldrick Tont Woods, has brought unprecedented new interest in the game and helped to shake off the old image of middle-aged white men in plus fours and diamond-patterned tank-tops clinching deals over drinks at the 19th hole.

So pervasive is Tiger's appeal that in the USA, the television ratings for Padraig Harrington's recent victory in the PGA Championship were 55 per cent down on the previous year, when Woods won it. His no-show at Valhalla is already worrying advertisers and TV companies who spent millions bidding to secure the latest round of broadcast rights for the major tournaments.

Shaun McGuckian is the editor of GolfPunk magazine, a publication that quickly identified the game's changing demographic, with its penchant for "bunker babes" and features on playing golf in war zones. He believes golf has successfully transformed itself over the past 15 years, turning from an atrophied extension of the old-boy network, which often deliberately excluded potential new players, into a game that has begun to think and act like a multinational business.

"What has changed is the cost – that is the bottom line," McGuckian says. "What you had in the early 1990s was an expensive sport. Starting from scratch, there were membership fees at a club, and a signing-on fee, whatever that was for. Then you needed your kit, which isn't cheap, and then lessons to get up to a certain standard. This could all easily add up to £2,000 or £3,000. Now, we are looking at a much more competitive market where the cost of getting started is much, much lower."

As a result, while golf was once something you took up when the siren call of middle age could no longer be ignored, today players are as likely as not to pick up a putter in their early twenties or even younger (children of six play at some private schools in London).

Events such as the World Series of Golf – modelled on poker, whereby the winner is decided not by completing 18 holes in the lowest number of strokes, but by winning bets on each hole in much the same way as poker players do– has helped to transform the stuffy image. "So many people insisted they would never like it," McGuckian says, "but once they have tried it, there they are, down the range with bleeding hands and seven missed calls on their phone. Our touchstone has always been to demonstrate how much fun golf can be."

Another key to golf's success has been opening the sport to women – sometimes achieved only by prizing the fingers of old bufferdom off the clubhouse door through the courts.

But it has borne fruit. This year's Women's British Open at Sunningdale enjoyed prime-time television coverage and attracted 144 players from around the world, looking for a share of the £1m prize fund. Not that there is any shortage of famous female role models currently working on their handicaps – not least Hawaiian-born Michelle Wie, who has blazed a trail by playing alongside men in professional tournaments. Halle Berry is a devotee, as are Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Alba. Even Pamela Anderson has hosted her own "bikini golf" charity tournament.

Looking good on the course has, of course, become as important as perfecting your swing. Traditional clothes manufacturers such as Pringle are more than happy to cater for changing tastes. Young men can now model themselves on Justin Timberlake, himself a keen golfer, while sporting Puma military-style golf caps, skinny ties and the latest in trendy golf shoes and accessories. "It has been really important to the young people who have taken up the game not to look like a camel on the golf course," McGuckian says. "Who wants to spend £1,000 and then go out and look like the beige monster has just thrown up on you?"

But, as Europe expands, so the rest of the world is catching up fast. China, naturally enough, is leading the charge. Golf was officially scorned under Mao as bourgeois folly, but the Great Leader's successors – and, more importantly, the burgeoning middle classes they have created – are enjoying the first fruits of disposable income and growing leisure time and have taken to the game with typical zeal. Half a dozen Chinese golfers are now competing in the top flight. There are plans to build hundreds – possibly thousands – of golf courses in China over the next five years.

Taking pride of place just now is the Mission Hills complex in Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, where membership can set you back a staggering £187,000. It was opened in 1994 – 10 years after the first course opened in the country – and now boasts 12 layouts designed by the some of the world's greatest golfers, such as Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman and this year's captain of the European Ryder Cup team, Nick Faldo. The resort styles itself as the centre, not just of Chinese golf, but of world golf, and is being marketed as a prime holiday destination.

And here rests the other central plank of the game's phenomenal expansion. It is estimated that there are up to 20 million global golf tourists currently lugging their clubs through airport check-ins around the world. Some destinations have transformed themselves off the back of the game. Take Myrtle Beach in South Carolina; this sleepy former railroad town, blessed with a benevolent climate, sees its permanent population of 30,000 souls swollen each year by 13.8 million visitors lured there by the balmy autumn days and the 100 golf courses.

It estimated that there are 35,000 golf courses worldwide, a figure that's growing all the time, and in some remarkable places. In Cambodia, a country that's striving to shed its "killing fields" and sex tourism image, is the Angkor Golf Resort, where players can pay up to $380 a day to stay at a luxury colonial-style hotel and fire balls through the indigenous coconut groves alongside golfers such as the King of Malaysia, a regular on the Faldo-designed 18-hole course. When the allure of golf palls, you can visit the 12th-century Angkor Wat temples a few miles away. Four more clubs are due to be completed by 2010. In a sign of just how much has changed in the region, one straddles the border with former enemy Vietnam.

But, in the global dash to scoop up the $1.3trn of sports tourism dollars, nowhere can match what's going on in the oil-rich kingdoms of the Arabian Gulf. In Dubai – which already hosts two big international tournaments – golf is generating profits at three to four times the rate in Europe and the United States. Tiger Woods is building his first course there for a reported $40m fee, a figure that shrewdly includes a share of the return on the 197 palaces, mansions and villas surrounding the $1bn project. The course, with its 30,000 imported trees and grass specially grown to survive the desert heat, will be the centrepiece of a huge theme-park complex (known as Dubailand) being built on a stretch of barren land flanking the city.

Woods is not the first major player to seek out the millions on offer to those chosen to design courses in the region. An 18-hole course designed by Colin Montgomerie was launched in 2006, and another by Ernie Els opened earlier this year. Greg Norman, Sergio Garcia and Vijay Singh are all working on courses scheduled to open within the next 12 months, and so is Pete Dye, one of the most influential of golf course architects.

Yet, for all the sunshine on offer in the Middle East, the real honeypot for serious golf travellers remains the home of the sport itself – Scotland. There is some evidence that a similar game was played in 11th-century China and in the Netherlands, but golf as we know it took shape from the days of Mary Queen of Scots onwards, on the weather-lashed fairways at Musselburgh and, of course, at St Andrews, where early players first negotiated the treacherously undulating terrain of the now fabled links.

The allure of playing golf in its homeland – and the money it will make – has been recognised by the American tycoon Donald Trump, a man whose extravagant comb-over hairstyle has proved particularly hazardous while posing for pictures in the stiff North Sea breezes at the site of his planned course at Balmedie in Aberdeenshire.

But Trump's plans for the "world's greatest" golfing complex, complete with 18-hole links course, academy and – of course – 950 lucrative timeshare flats, hotel and chalets, all set along a three-mile stretch of high dunes and scrubland, have ignited one of the most explosive rows to hit Scotland in recent times. The project's future hangs in the balance.

The billionaire, who was expected to close a deal on a $28m course in New Jersey this month, has been playing hardball with the Scottish planning authorities, who have been considering objections to his scheme raised by the RSPCA and the Ramblers Association, among others. A month-long planning inquiry is due to report at the end of October.

The Australian entrepreneur Brian Keating, who has created a new links course on the Mull of Kintrye at Machrihanish, is no stranger to environmental demands. After a successful career as a telecoms executive, he decided to create a new £30m course on the west coast of Scotland. He plans to fly in guests from Glasgow – 25 minutes away by seaplane – and is expecting strong interest from Scandinavian golfers whose own courses are snowbound from October to April and who might enjoy the experience of close-season play alongside seas warmed by the Gulf Stream.

Keating has been required to comply with strict rules in order to get the go-ahead, as the area is protected as a site of special scientific interest, or SSSI. He must add no seed or turf and must "mow" the fairways by natural means, which in this case means grazing sheep.

But for him, it is all worth it. "There are millions of people travelling the world looking to play interesting courses. We call it discovery golf. For many players outside the UK, a links course is an exciting place to play – they have never seen yellow grass, a course with no trees or buggies, or a course which is totally different between morning and afternoon. There are too many golf courses at the moment, but put it this way – the world has all the chardonnay it can drink, but nowhere near enough of the finest champagne."

Golf in numbers

1744: first golf club founded, in Scotland

$76bn: gross annual value of golf in the USA each year

$6.2bn: sum Americans spend on

golf products each year

158: number of male pro golfers to win $1m or more in 2007

$769m: Tiger Woods's earnings in 10 years to 2007, according to 'Golf Digest' magazine

160: new golf courses in Europe in 2006

$45,000: cost of the world's most expensive set of golf clubs, in gold and platinum, by Honma of Japan

16,000: 18-hole courses in the USA

€53bn: annual value of golf in Europe (including Africa and Middle East)

35,000: golf courses in the world

$6.5m: Vijay Singh's 2008 winnings, top of the US PGA money list

18,000: new golf villas and apartments built in Europe in 2006

£1m: prize fund at 2008 Ricoh Women's British Open

36 hours in Phnom Penh

International Herald Tribune

Friday, September 19, 2008

THERE'S another revolution going on in Phnom Penh. Once home to the Communist Khmer Rouge, Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, now has its own KFC and other capitalist trappings. Skyscrapers are rising, and foreign money is pouring in. This may be your last chance to see Phnom Penh before this former village at the mouth of three mighty rivers, once called the Pearl of Asia, turns into a booming metropolis. Even today, the city seems to shimmer with the sense that its low-slung buildings, ambling cows and smiling monks are not long for this world.



Founded at a confluence of the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Tonle Bassac Rivers, Phnom Penh is a city of water. Some of its main streets were once canals, and there's no better way to honor Phnom Penh's riparian soul than with a sundowner at Maxine's (71 Tonle Sap Road, Chruoy Changva Peninsula; 855-12-200-617). In an old wooden house that is slouching into the river, Maxine's has a ramshackle authenticity that, at least for now, seems immune to the city's rapid modernization.


The French ruled Cambodia from 1864 until 1953, and whatever else you have to say about that legacy, they did leave behind good cheese. If you are in the mood to live large, go for the foie gras ($17) at the elegant La Résidence (22-24 Street 214; 85523-224-582; www.la-residence-restaurant.com). Otherwise, head to La Marmite (80 Street 108; 855-12-391-746; entrees $7 to $13), a scruffy bistro that offers better food than most of its more expensive cousins. (Note that prices in Cambodia are often quoted in dollars.) Afterward, if you happen to be in Phnom Penh on the first Friday of the month, follow the surreal swirl of drunken expatriates to Elsewhere (175 Street 51; 855-23-211-348), which has tables tucked into the trees around a small swimming pool. Or retire early. Cambodia, after all, is still a nation of peasants who rise at dawn.


8 a.m. 3) KNOW THE STORY

Five Khmer Rouge leaders are awaiting trial at a United Nations-backed tribunal in Phnom Penh. But this dark chapter is still so politically sensitive that it's barely discussed in Cambodian schools. All the more reason to grab an early tuk-tuk, a motorcycle-powered rickshaw, out to the Choeung Ek killing fields, about nine miles away via Monireth Boulevard (admission $2). Then swing by the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (Street 113 and Street 350; 855-12-457-677; $2), where at least 14,000 men, women and children were tortured. Tread softly: locals say the place is still haunted.


For solace, find your way to Friends (215 Street 13; 855-12 802-072; www.streetfriends.org) , where you can take comfort that your lunch is being served to you by rehabilitated street children. Despite the nation's galloping economy, about a third of Cambodians still live on under a dollar a day, the United Nations Development Program has said. The fruit shakes ($2.50 to $3.50) are fantastic, as are the tapas-style entrees, like grilled fish fillet with salsa verde ($3).


Bargains abound in Phnom Penh. Looking for affordable gems? Go to the backroom of Sit Down (116 CEO Sihanouk Boulevard; 855-12-805-4-28), where Hoeu Sareth's solid workmanship, simple designs and shiny Pailin rubies have enticed expatriates for years. For women's clothes, go to L'Armoire (126 Street 19; 855-23722-310), a sweet boutique that sells well-cut dresses from the designer and owner, Alexandra Barter. Ambre (37 Street 178; 855-23-722-310), housed in an old colonial mansion, carries men's suits and fancy dresses. And before lugging your bags back to the hotel, pick up at least one all-cotton krama, a traditional checkered scarf used for everything from holding babies to bathing. You'll find a great assortment (about $1.50) at Psar Tuol Tom Pong, a k a Russian Market, at the corner of Streets 440 and 163.


For a pampering facial, try the spa at Bliss (29 Street 240; 855-23-215-754; facials, $38 to $45), but if you want a massage, head to Health Care Center Master Kang (456 Monivong Boulevard; 85523-721-765), which has a utilitarian ambience but some of the best-trained masseuses in town. Start by sticking your feet in a pool of hot herbal water that looks like mud. The aromatherapy oil massage ($15 for one hour) involves piles of hot towels, up to 20, stacked on your aching back. The forceful foot massage ($10 for an hour) can't be beat.

6:30 p.m. 7) KHMER COOKING

Khmer cuisine is not for the squeamish: garlicky crickets, black beetles, crispy tarantula and chopped chicken bits with bone. Fear not: there's barbecue. At a curbside plastic chair at Sovanna Restaurant (2 Street 21; 855-12-840-055) order dishes, like fresh-grilled squid, shrimp, beef or pork (small plates, 8,000 riels, or $1.96 at 4,168 riels to the dollar; big plates, 16,000 riels).

8:30 p.m. 8) STAY HYDRATED

The respectable side of Phnom Penh's night life consists of drinking, drinking, and then drinking some more. Tourists flock to the Foreign Correspondents' Club (363 Sisowath Quay, 855-23-724-014; www.fcccambodia.com). Actual journalists tend to drown themselves in the strong margaritas at Cantina (347 Sisowath Quay; 855-23-222-502), a grungy Mexican joint on the river. For martinis, go to Metro (Sisowath Quay at Street 148; 855-23-222-275), a sleek, modern place with some of the best drinks in town. If you must dance, Riverhouse (6 Street 110; 855-23- 220-180) offers throbbing bass and a slightly ghetto vibe.


8:30 a.m. 9) SEE THE OLD CITY

One of the best ways to disentangle the city's torturous — and tortured — history is to study its old buildings. Settle into a cyclo, a kind of bicycle-powered rickshaw, for a three-hour tour of the city's architecture with Khmer Architecture Tours (855-92-870-005; www.ka-tours.org; the tours meet at the Phnom Penh Post Office, at Streets 13 and 102), a nonprofit group with very informative guides. Although the city has been shaped by waves of French and Chinese, you'd never find that old Chinese temple (now inhabited by squatters) or that defunct Citroën factory without help. Also, don't miss the work of Cambodia's most celebrated modern architect, Vann Molyvann, whose midcentury modern buildings are disappearing fast. Two have been torn down this year alone. Group tours ($5 to $12) are given every other Sunday; private tours are also available (about $40 for three hours).


If you can't make it to Angkor Wat, check out the collection of Angkorian artifacts at the National Museum (corner of Street 13 and Street 184; 855-23-211-753). An open-air pavilion built around a lush garden fountain, it's one of the calmest places in the city, despite the occasional bat flying overhead. For something more modern, head around the corner to the Reyum Institute of Arts and Culture (47 Street 178; 855- 23-217-149; www.reyum.org), run by Ly Daravuth, a French-educated curator and cultural historian whose past exhibits have included wat paintings and sculptures made from everyday objects. Reyum also publishes a collection of books on Cambodian culture that you won't find elsewhere.

2 p.m. 11) TASTE THE PAST

Cambodia was once famous for its peppercorns, which look innocuous enough but pack significant heat. Kampot, a sleepy river town about three hours south of Phnom Penh, was once the center of Cambodia's peppercorn farms. Today, nonprofit groups are working to revive the trade. The sweetest way to savor this history is at the Chocolate Shop, the city's first and only chocolate boutique (35, Street 240; 855-23-998 6-38). Order a palm-sized slab of dark chocolate encrusted with crushed Kampot pepper ($5). It is as sweet and as hot as the tropics themselves.

The Basics

Most flights between the United States and Phnom Penh require a connection. Korean Air (www.koreanair.com) flies from Kennedy Airport to Phnom Penh, via Seoul, South Korea, starting at $1,645, a recent online search showed. Cheaper flights can sometimes be found on EVA Air of Taiwan (www.evaair.com), which flies from Newark to Phnom Penh via Taipei. A recent online search found fares starting at about $1,200. A taxi from the airport to Phnom Penh center is about $10 with tip.

The Raffles Hotel Le Royal (92 Rukhak Vithei Daun Penh;, 855-23-981-888; www.phnompenh.raffles.com) is where journalists camped out in 1975 on the eve of the Khmer Rouge's takeover. Today, the historic hotel still draws dignitaries and foreigners, with stately rooms starting at $300.

The year-old Villa Langka (14 Street 282; 855-23-726-771; www.villalangka.com) is a welcome addition to the city's small but growing list of boutique hotels. There's a dark-tiled pool, a peaceful garden and tastefully designed rooms from $35 to $100.


Most flights between the United States and Phnom Penh require a connection. Korean Air (www.koreanair.com) flies from Kennedy Airport to Phnom Penh, via Seoul, South Korea, starting at $1,645, a recent online search showed. Cheaper flights can sometimes be found on EVA Air of Taiwan (www.evaair.com), which flies from Newark to Phnom Penh via Taipei. A recent online search found fares starting at about $1,200. A taxi from the airport to Phnom Penh center is about $10 with tip.

The Raffles Hotel Le Royal (92 Rukhak Vithei Daun Penh;, 855-23-981-888; www.phnompenh.raffles.com) is where journalists camped out in 1975 on the eve of the Khmer Rouge's takeover. Today, the historic hotel still draws dignitaries and foreigners, with stately rooms starting at $300.

The year-old Villa Langka (14 Street 282; 855-23-726-771; www.villalangka.com) is a welcome addition to the city's small but growing list of boutique hotels. There's a dark-tiled pool, a peaceful garden and tastefully designed rooms from $35 to $100.