Sunday, November 16, 2008

Forgotten for 400 years, Angkor is a tribute to civilization and nature

Story and Photos by ELLEN CREAGER
FREE PRESS TRAVEL WRITER

SIEM REAP, Cambodia -- For something so ancient, the rock face looked as content as a man who's just eaten a big slice of peach pie.

"Who made you?" I whispered. "Were you lonely when nobody came to visit for 400 years?"

No answer. Just a smile.

That is the fascination of Angkor, the mysterious temple complex of Cambodia. As at the pyramids of Egypt or the temples of the Maya, visitors here must infer the nature of a civilization from the astounding architecture left behind.

A stunner in the jungle

Angkor, located in the city of Siem Reap in central Cambodia, probably should have been a winner in last year's New Seven Wonders of the World contest.

In scope and beauty, it easily beats Mexico's Chichen Itza and possibly even Peru's Machu Picchu. It likely lost because fewer people have seen it than the other attractions.

Although 2 million tourists a year visit Angkor now, the site was basically covered by the jungle from 1500 to 1900, then off-limits to visitors due to war and political instability in Cambodia from the 1960s to 1998. Its masterpiece is Angkor Wat, a funky temple built in the 12th Century in honor of the Hindu god Vishnu.

Stunningly original, the temple's five towers were built using porous clay foundations and sandstone exteriors. Put together with an unknown mortar, stones were stacked like a Jenga puzzle, each piece fitting atop the other into tall spires.

Yet Angkor Wat is only one of 72 major temples, and the Angkor ruins area is more than 1,000 miles square.

There are ways to tour Angkor responsibly, says the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property. Don't touch and don't take anything except photographs. Wear soft-soled shoes so sharp heels don't leave marks. Don't brush backpacks or bags against the monuments. Avoid climbing on them except where allowed. Don't leave graffiti or litter, and talk softly.

Especially, I'd add, when talking to the carvings.

Riches to ruins

The rise-and-fall story of Angkor is dramatic enough to fill 10 history books.

Between the 12th and 15th centuries, the great Khmer Empire spread over what are now parts of Laos and Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. Its center was Angkor, the home of the kings, temples, fountains and gold.

A series of attacks by the Siamese and exhaustion of the land by overfarming led to the abandonment of the city in the early 15th Century, historians believe.

That's when most of Angkor fell victim to the jungle for 400 years. There it sat, while nations rose and fell, while America was discovered, while Shakespeare wrote "Hamlet."

When French archaeologists in the late 19th Century rediscovered Angkor and started pulling the vines away and looking at what remained, they were astonished. We still are.

Ancient art gallery

It takes all day for even a bare-bones tour. You can start before sunrise and watch the sun come up over the towers of Angkor Wat, stay all day, then watch the sun go down from a hill nearby.

Some of the ruins have been sufficiently restored so that you can wander the halls and climb the steps. Yet most are only partly put back together, giving the ruins a tumbledown feel, as if you'd just stopped by after an earthquake.

Angkor Wat, built in the early 12th Century by King Suryavarman II, is the star of Angkor. But I preferred the Bayon, a nearby temple with 49 towers emblazoned with nearly 200 huge carved images of a pleasantly smiling face. Historians believe the images represent either King Jayavarman VII, who built the temple in the late 12th Century, or the Buddhist "compassionate being" Lokesvara, or both.

Yet, the Bayon is not just a happy-face ruin. It's also an ancient art gallery, with wonderful bas-relief murals depicting the ordinary life of the Angkor people -- gambling, in childbirth, dancing, cooking, playing, hunting and fishing. These murals not only are a kind of Facebook posting of daily life back then, they illuminate the high standard of living at Angkor in its heyday, when people had enough to eat, safety, leisure and time to create such art.

Locals and tourists

You don't need a guide to visit the Angkor complex, but I would recommend it. The complex is so huge that it helps to have someone show you high points you might miss on your own.

Many tourists get around by tuk-tuk, a cart with an awning pulled by a motorcycle driver. Other sightseers visit by car, van, tour bus, bicycle or even by elephant, depending on what kind of tour they book.

Inside the complex, it's not just sightseers. Local people gather sheaves of rattan, the reed used to weave baskets. Cattle wander amid the chaos. An ice cream truck parks in a field. At most of the popular temples and sites, persistent children sell sticky rice, baskets, scarves, bracelets, guidebooks, bananas, pineapple chunks and Fanta Orange.

The average tourist needs at least two days to see Angkor, but archaeology buffs will want to stay longer.

One of the most photo-friendly sites is Ta Prohm, a temple-monastery. Today, visitors can see the temple much as it was found in the early 1900s, with giant kapok tree roots winding through the doors and windows, so that the stone temple appears to be part of the natural landscape. Also lovely is Neak Pean, a pond with a fountain as elegant as anything you'd find at Versailles.

Too popular?

Today, the Angkor Wat complex is in no danger of fading away. Huge luxury hotels have opened pell-mell outside the park just in the last three years. About 3,000 new hotel rooms are about to be added to the 7,000 already here.

Naturally, environmentalists aren't happy about the unregulated hustle and bustle right next to a UNESCO World Heritage site. They worry about the water table under Angkor being sucked dry by hotel wells. They worry that the site's fragile ruins can't handle the traffic.

Still, I keep thinking that the kings who built Angkor would probably love all the attention.

From the 1960s to 1998, Cambodia was either at war, crippled by the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime or unstable. Now, the fledgling democratic nation is trying to make up for lost time in expanding tourism at a frenetic pace in Siem Reap/Angkor, the destination for half of all tourists to Cambodia.

Ready or not, Tourism Cambodia expects up to 3 million tourists at Angkor by 2010.

Cambodian property values dropping by 25%

Cambodia's land prices have fallen by up to 25 per cent from a historic peak in June amid the global financial crisis and a border dispute with Thailand that scared off investors.

President of National Valuers Association of Cambodia, Sung Bonna, says the land prices countrywide dropped between 20 to 25 per cent by early November.

Prices reached as high as $US5,000 per square metre in June in prime locations in the capital Phnom Penh but the boom started to collapse as the country prepared for July elections.

The government is considering allowing foreign ownership of property such as apartments and office buildings to boost the country's economic growth.

Cambodian FM names 9 new ambassadors

PHNOM PENH, Nov. 15 (Xinhua) -- Foreign Minister Hor Namhong has named new ambassadors to nine countries, including Kuwait, which is to receive Cambodia's first diplomatic posting there, and Japan, where the minister's son Hor Moniroath is expected to head the Cambodian mission, state media reported Saturday.

    The Japanese government had been notified of the appointment, which is awaiting the approval of the Cambodian and Japanese governments, Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong was quoted by the Cambodia Daily as saying.

    "We have notified the Japanese government but we haven't received any response yet. We need the agreement of the host country first before sending the new ambassador," he said.

    Hor Namhong's son Hor Nambora is currently serving as Cambodia's ambassador to the United Kingdom, making Hor Moniroath's appointment the second top diplomatic posting in the minister's family.

    Japan is Cambodia's largest bilateral aid donor, according to the Cambodia Daily. 

Friday, November 14, 2008

Forbes: Cambodia's Gold Coast?

Forbes.com


Companies, People, Ideas
Gold Coast?
Ron Gluckman 11.24.08

Martin Kaye has a name for the barren beaches and empty tropical islands that line the Cambodian and western Vietnamese coast. He touts this 125-mile stretch as the Indochine Riviera and envisions a sun-drenched playground for jet-setters and holidaymakers from around the world. "Just look across the border in Thailand, at Phuket and Ko Samui," he says. "It's not a question of if, but when." The Hong Kong real estate investor plans on being right in the middle of all this construction: He could be the Donald Trump of Asia's next great resort strip.

Kaye has lots of company. Investment groups from Malaysia, Hong Kong, Russia and France have raced to stake claims in what has become a gold rush. Over the past two years nearly all of Cambodia's five dozen islands have been leased, and much of the shoreline has been carved up for huge concessions. Property values have boomed around Kep, a seaside destination for the French through the 1960s, before the rise of the Khmer Rouge riddled the charming seaside villas with bullet holes that are still visible. Bigger gains are reported around Sihanoukville, the site of several beach resorts and the country's main port, after a $30 million revamp of the airport two years ago. "That was the trigger to all the growth," says Matthew Rendall, partner at the Phnom Penh law firm of Sciaroni & Associates and the country's leading land lawyer. "After that, the entire coast really took off."

(Saigon Charlie's Comments: Please read "Cambodian Oil Security" for a different take on this....)

Not that you could tell by looking around. Sihanoukville remains a grungy coastal town with a slew of casinos and only one high-end hotel. Yet billboards heralding planned villa projects run for miles up and down the coast.


In the past year Kaye has won the right to build vast resort communities on the two biggest chunks of this coast, though he also hasn't built anything yet. But in the Ho Chi Minh City office of Kaye's company, the Millennium Group, there are lots of plans being drawn up. Don Taylor, who designed many of Phuket's resorts, shows off the master plan for Dai Beach: 1,500 condominiums, 700 luxury villas, two golf courses, 20 hotels and resorts, a marina and lots of shops, all sprawling across 1,335 acres at the northern end of Phu Quoc. Part of Vietnam, Phu Quoc is the largest island in the Gulf of Thailand. Kaye sealed the deal for the project in April after years of discussion and plenty of local liquor consumed with the island's village chiefs.

At the time, investors were focused on Phu Quoc after Vietnam unveiled new policies to promote foreign land ownership and promised to expand the airport for international use. But the expansion has been delayed, along with many of the plans for resorts. "Until the infrastructure is in place, especially the new airport, I am happy to sit," says John Goodyear, who runs a boutique resort in Tasmania and has leased land for another on Phu Quoc. Indeed, with the recent slowing of the Vietnamese economy, money is now moving across the border into Cambodia, says Bernard Lang, of First Indochina Group, a Vietnam consultancy. "Cambodia offers a fantastic investment environment."

Kaye's other site is in Cambodia, so he has horses in both races. He found it quite by accident. Parked on a deserted beach in Phu Quoc in October of last year, he was enjoying a surfing break after winning the initial agreement for the land. But like any Hong Kong wheeler-dealer on holiday, he couldn't resist thinking ahead to the next deal. Soon he was browsing the Web.

 Using Google Earth, he spied an island only 40 miles away, big as Hong Kong island, but a place he'd never heard of or seen on maps. Chartering a helicopter, Kaye was soon circling above Koh Rung, Cambodia's biggest island, his eyes bugging out of his head. Even now his pulse accelerates as he describes how he soaked up the sight of Koh Rung's emerald hills, teeming jungle and mile after mile of crystalline white beaches. "This was uncharted territory," he recalls. "Totally pristine." (Saigon Charlie's Comments: Read a short story with place names and photos of this amazing island that I 'discovered' many years ago...)

But not for long. In September Kaye won a commitment from the Cambodian government for a project that makes his gargantuan Phu Quoc development seem minuscule. He now controls the entire island and plans luxury resorts by the score, an airport, parks, even a university. The total investment could top $12 billion and play out over decades. "This is the chance to do Phuket or Ko Samui all over again, but do it right this time," says Kaye, sweating profusely between cigarette breaks at his office in Phnom Penh. "This is a chance to do something truly special."

Kaye is scurrying to find $200 million in financing to start on Koh Rung, but he's running headfirst into the global credit crunch. "Real estate debt financing has dried up," he says. He's focusing his fundraising in the Middle East, but it's proving a tough slog. His Cambodian partner for the project, Phnom Penh tycoon Kith Meng, says there's interest in Kuwait, Dubai and Qatar, and Kaye says there's also interest from Chinese and Japanese investors and British funds. "People will come to Cambodia because this is where you can double, even triple, your money," says Kith, whose Royal Group is involved in hotels, telecoms, banking and development.

Kaye says the financial crisis could set the project back by six to nine months. For now he expects to start clearing the site by the third quarter of next year, "but if it drifts into 2010, that's no problem; this is a 20-year project and we want to do it right." He doesn't think the crisis will have a long-term impact on his two Indochine projects: "Tourism growth has been phenomenal, and that will continue."

The 41-year-old Kaye comes from a real estate family. Born in Hong Kong, he grew up yachting: "That where the concept of mixing real estate and my love of sailing really started me with resorts," he says. After climbing the ladder as a young sales agent, he set off on his own in 1999, forming his Hong Kong firm, and became involved in several projects on Phuket.

As Kaye gears up to develop his islands, other projects are springing up along the coast. In September the Sokha Hotel Co., which runs Sihanoukville's only five-star hotel, the Sokha Beach Hotel, broke ground on a 500-room resort on the town's Ochheuteal Beach. Sokha is also behind the $1 billion renovation of the Bokor Mountain Lodge, which will add a pair of golf courses and five-star resorts to an old French colonial hill station overlooking the coast.

Sidebar:
Land Grabs Growing In Cambodia


Seng Enterprises, a Cambodian construction and real estate company, plans a 2,500-unit development along four miles of coastline that would double the size of Kep, says financial director Vantha Seng. Features would include Cambodia's first light-rail system and underground roads to ease congestion. That's not yet a worry because there are no cars; in fact, no land, either. The entire project is offshore, on 1,000 acres of landfill that has yet to be poured. Still, that hasn't discouraged speculators. A small group of lots--actually ocean plots--were sold for $180,000 each in the first half of the year, she says, and already have doubled in value.

Indeed, land prices along the Cambodian coast have been soaring. When word leaked out two years ago that the Sihanoukville airport would be upgraded to allow regional flights, property prices shot up 400% to 500% overnight, according to Rendall, the Phnom Penh lawyer. "Some areas jumped ten times."

Many liken the Indochine Riviera land grab to the Monopoly board game, where the goal is to grab property as quickly as possible. "It's like a big pyramid scheme," says Alexis de Suremain, owner of the Pavilion and other boutique hotels in Phnom Penh, as well as several plots on the coast. "Everyone in Cambodia is buying land because they hear their neighbors have done so and made lots of money. But it's a balloon that could burst." So far there's no sign of that, even as the financial turmoil hits property markets elsewhere around the world. "We don't see any cooling. If anything, things are still picking up," says Sung Bonna, head of Bonna Realty, the country's largest property appraiser.

The boom naturally raises the questions, Why Cambodia? And why now? Tourism has boomed for decades across Southeast Asia, and Cambodia is catching up with a fury. Last year tourism topped 2 million visitors, and officials predict 4 million visitors by the end of the decade. But as one of the country's three key industries, after textiles and agriculture, tourism has been largely one-dimensional. Most visitors fly to Siem Reap, look at the Angkor temples, then jet off to beaches in Thailand. The average stay remains under two nights. "That's why the opening of the airport [in Sihanoukville] has been so critical," says Etienne Chenevier, Asia director of French developer CityStar, which has been buying property around Sihanoukville and on nearby islands. "There needs to be a good way to move around Cambodia, from the temples to the beaches."

Prime Minister Hun Sen changed the equation in January 2007, when he approved plans to lease the coastal islands, unleashing the frenzy. A new constitution in 2006 and elections in July that gave him a landslide mandate added a sense of stability that has spurred land sales. The Web site private-islands.blogspot.com, called Cambodia "Asia's newest island hot spot."

A key attraction is Cambodia's investor-friendly land laws. It offers some of the best leases in the region, says Rendall, with terms of up to 99 years. In Thailand, foreign developers must resort to dodgy legal maneuvers to get even 30-year leases. Last year Cambodia passed laws allowing the registration of leases, and there has been talk of allowing foreigners to own 100% of a property, while Thailand and most of Asia doesn't allow foreigners to own land. Cambodia already allows 100% foreign ownership of a business. Increased border access also could speed development along the coast. Cambodia and Thailand offer visas on arrival, and Vietnam has announced plans for a ferry linking Phu Quoc to the Cambodian coast, 9 miles away.

All is speculation, but a test case for the appeal of the Indochine Riviera is shaping up on two isles near Kaye's Ko Rung. Rory and Mel Hunter, an Australian couple, were on a boat tour of the area when they spied what locals call the Sweetheart Islands. The Hunters run Brocon, a firm that renovates and manages apartments in Phnom Penh. They claimed the country's second island lease and launched Song Saa Resort.

Designed by Bangkok über-architect Bill Bensley--who has worked for Four Seasons, Marriott and Anantara--a collection of villas built over the sea will follow the Maldives model, with rates of $1,000 a night. Villas in the $30 million resort will be sold as investments but will be managed and let by the resort. "The opportunities in Cambodia are phenomenal," says Rory Hunter, steering his speedboat around a rock outcropping 20 minutes from Sihanoukville, then along a sweep of perfect white sand that seems endless. If only the development path were as smooth. "The hardest part is figuring out how everything is done, since there really is no set process."

Kaye sees a time when the rich crisscross the Gulf of Thailand islands in their yachts, and he recalls when Phuket was less developed than the Cambodian coast. "Nobody went there, but now everyone wants a piece of Phuket," he says. Supply and demand are the driving forces of his Indochine Riviera. "Everyone wants an ocean view," he says. "This is my ultimate dream, a whole island and 6 kilometers of west-facing beach in turquoise waters. I'm looking forward to this for the next 20 years. Regardless of the current economic situation, you will see me here on the beach developing resorts in Asia."

Sidebar:
Land Grabs Growing In Cambodia


Saigon Charlie's Comments: Go to my Blog at http://cambodiatonight.blogspot.com/ for more photos and news about the above.

The end of an NGO era in Cambodia

By Craig Guthrie 

PHNOM PENH - With an overwhelming electoral mandate, robust economy and a potential bounty of oil and gas revenues, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen feels in a strong enough position to move against the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) which have been a perennial thorn in the strongman's side since he took power more than two decades ago. 

In late September he called for the revival of a controversial law which would require the country's more than 2,000 associations and NGOs to complete a complex registration process and submit to stringent financial reporting requirements. The draft law is expected to be passed by Hun Sen’s Cambodia People's Party (CPP)-dominated National Assembly in the coming months. 

"Cambodia has been heaven for NGOs for too long," he said in a

   

speech broadcast on national radio on September 26, adding that he had given up hope of reading any positive reports written by international or local NGOs. "The NGOs are out of control ... they insult the government just to ensure their financial survival." 

By enacting the law, Hun Sen could recalibrate the government's terms of engagement with the Western-led aid community, on which his government has heavily relied for decades to finance its budget. The move comes as private-led foreign investment has fueled the country's economic rise, led in the main by China and South Korea. 

"Many of the services provided by NGOs today will one day either be privatized or the revenues of the government will grow to such an extent that the functions currently being done by NGOs will be taken over by the government," said Brett Sciaroni, chairman of Cambodia's International Business Association. 

The NGO law's enactment would be a symbolic power shift between Hun Sen's CPP-led government, further emboldened by its landslide victory in this year's general election, and the Western-backed NGOs which have long chastised it over human-rights abuses and corruption allegations. 

International aid agencies have for decades held the purse strings on the aid which has sustained the national economy since it emerged from the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, the ultra-Maoist regime which systematically attempted to transform Cambodia into an agricultural utopia between 1975 and 1979, and a subsequent decade-plus of civil war. 

Some contend it was the Khmer Rouge's economic failures, including a devastating countrywide famine that killed many and stalked the regime's traumatized survivors, which set the stage for Cambodia's now decades-long dependence on foreign aid. 

The British aid agency Oxfam began programs soon after the Khmer Rouge's 1979 ouster, despite incurring the wrath of the United States and the United Kingdom governments for helping the Hanoi-sponsored regime put in place by the invading Vietnamese. 

Jacques Beaumont from the United Nations Children's Fund, and Francois Bugnion from the International Red Cross (IRC), who both arrived in Phnom Penh in 1979, were pivotal players in that humanitarian effort. They finally persuaded the IRC, which was fearful of being seen as compromising its political neutrality, into launching what turned into its most significant relief operation since World War II. 

But the comprehensive aid experiment did not begin in earnest until after the signing of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords, which by and large ended the country's debilitating civil war. Since then myriad NGOs have come to Cambodia to work on everything from demining to microfinance, orphanages to agri-business, public health issues to snaring globe-trotting pedophiles. 

The demining NGOs in particular made great progress, clearing an estimated 25,000 hectares of mined territory between 1992-2003. Cambodia has also been hailed as a global success story in fighting HIV/AIDs transmission, led by NGO-organized education programs and health aid. Prevalence rates have fallen by nearly half, from 3% in 1997 to 1.6% in 2006. 

Fractious relations
But Hun Sen's government's relationship with NGOs and international aid agencies has often been fractious, epitomized by its tumultuous interactions with the environmental watchdog Global Witness over its consistent accusations of high-level government links to illegal logging, and with the UK-based rights lobby Amnesty International for its criticism of state-sponsored forced evictions across the country. 

The World Bank also suspended US$11.9 million in funds in 2006 for seven sanitation projects when it found evidence of rampant extortion, bribe-taking, bid-rigging and procurement manipulation, leading Hun Sen to claim the multilateral lender was trying to tarnish his government's credibility. The bank only agreed to unfreeze the projects' funding in 2007 after the government promised to strengthen anti-corruption measures. 

Despite Cambodia's recent economic boom, including a skyrocketing average 11% gross domestic product (GDP) growth over the past three years, a sizable portion of the nation's real income still derives directly from donor nations in amounts wrangled out each year at annual Consultative Group meetings. 

The meetings were for years characterized by vague promises from the Cambodian government in response to weak demands by donors for reform, including the long-delayed adoption of an anti-corruption law. But in the past two years these demands have become less relevant with the surge in aid from China, which typically has less good governance or transparency conditions attached. 

While Chinese aid is generally funneled through vast infrastructure projects - including hydropower and road projects - usually contracted to Chinese companies, Western nations' share of the average US$600 million in annual aid arrives through international aid agencies and NGOs. The process has been widely cast as a corrupt, inefficient gravy train, giving some traction to Hun Sen's complaints. 

"In the 1980s, there was a popular T-shirt satirizing US Army recruitment commercials with the slogan, 'Join the army. Travel to exotic, distant lands. Meet exciting, unusual people. And kill them'," Brad Adams, executive director for Human Rights Watch's Asia Program, was quoted saying to Action Aid in 2005. "In the new millennium, it could be rephrased, 'Join the aid community. Travel to exotic, distant lands. Meet exciting, unusual people. And make a killing'." 

This is still the case in Cambodia, Adams told Asia Times Online. "You can start with all the foreign consultants making more than $10,000 per month, almost always tax free. This is a huge drain on the aid budget for Cambodia and in many cases the consultants produce nothing of value for the country." 

Many analysts and expatriates agree that NGOs and their workers suffer from an image crisis among the Cambodian public, partly due to their comparatively high salaries and lifestyles, which are far adrift from the 35% of the population which lives on less than $0.50 a day. 

Country directors for prominent international aid agencies typically receive a $250,000 annual package, which includes a spacious villa in the capital's upmarket "NGO-ville" area, a four-wheel-drive vehicle - usually emblazoned with the logo of their donor agency or charity - and fees paid for the capital's better international schools. 

The aid watchdog Action Aid estimated in 2005 that the 700 or so international consultants working for NGOs in the country earned more than Cambodia's 160,000 civil servants put together. "In 1993, yes, 99% of foreign consultants were justified; now, 5% are justifiable. The others are embedding and enabling the mentality of dependency," Center of Social Development director Theary Seng said in June. 

Arne Sahlen, a founding member of the Cambodia Support Group, a 25-year-old volunteer organization, echoes Hun Sen's comments that fundraising has overtaken the focus on the actual progress of several NGO projects. According to Sahlen, "vast" resources are being swallowed up on pursuing donors that could be invested on direct project needs. "The need to please donors has warped the focus to not necessarily what is best for the project but what may look best on an application," said Sahlen. 

Others contend that several NGOs are actually impeding the development of a self-sustaining private sector, mainly through the alleged abuse of their not-for-profit status to pursue business opportunities. That status helps them avoid taxes and other unofficial costs that private businesses pay, giving non-profit an unfair competitive advantage in the market, they say. 

Cambodians now understand the word NGO, especially in the local context, to be a for-profit enterprise, said Sophal Ear, the author of The Political Economy of Cambodia, Aid and Governance. "It's all a business and this is just another way to avoid taxes," he said. "When not covered by donors, capital costs for NGOs have largely been privatized, through an extensive network of 'donations' to the ruling party by Oknhas [politically connected tycoons] politicians, and civil servants." 

Discretionary powers
The NGO law, known formally as the Law on Organizations, was first written over a decade ago and aims to address such complaints. It would require NGOs to submit for government approval documents detailing their structure, goals, funding resources, properties and even logos. It also entails fines and imprisonment for any NGO which fails to submit annual reports to the Ministry of Economy and Finance. 

Many fear the discretionary powers the law will give the government in monitoring and sanctioning NGOs - rather than vice versa. Hun Sen no doubt had his one good eye on the anticipated bounty of future oil and gas revenues when calling for the controversial law's revival. Chevron, the US energy giant, discovered oil off Cambodia southwestern coast in 2005 and analysts have predicted the find could generate anywhere between $200 million and $2 billion in annual revenues for the government when full-scale production begins in 2010. 

The government is still awaiting a key assessment from Chevron of the supposed find, and both sides have more recently played down expectations. Nonetheless, NGOS are already warning of a possible "resource curse" similar to places like Nigeria, where corrupt governments pilfered and wasted earnings derived from energy exports. 

"NGOs are trying to tell us how to use the oil money, but this is of no interest to us. What is important is how to make our resources profitable," Hun Sen said in a recent radio broadcast speech. 

Despite his criticisms, there are reasons for concern. A new NGO coalition has begun work to oversee the transparency of the management of future oil funds. Led by the NGO Forum, it has given little information on its structure, but has said it plans to ensure the potential financial benefits from the windfall are managed in a socially responsible manner, and that benefits filter down to the impoverished grassroots. 

The World Bank, which also aims to monitor the government's oil revenue management, noted in May that international aid is often poorly managed in key sectors, with the problem of "fragmented" assistance especially acute in health and education. 

In the health sector, 22 donors are currently working with over 100 NGOs to deliver $110 million in Official Development Assistance (ODA) per year through 109 projects - yet use of the national system remains at just between 13% to 18%, said the bank. The vast majority of rural Cambodians are forced to use an expensive yet rudimentary private healthcare system which is more reminiscent of poorer African than neighboring Asian nations. 

The education system is also beset by severe underfunding, with thousands of graduates churned out from poorly regulated "international" universities with degrees that often leave them ill-prepared to enter the job market. Until now, the only paying option for many graduates was to work in donor agencies and international NGOs. But if Chinese and South Korean private investment flows hold up and the country's hoped-for energy bonanza is realized, that may all soon change if Hun Sen has his NGO-curbing way. 

Craig Guthrie is a former reporter for the Mekong Times newspaper in Phnom Penh. He has covered Cambodian affairs since 2004. 

Thursday, November 13, 2008

In Cambodia: Officials Get Practical Advice to Face Global Financial Crisis

By Véronique Salze-Lozac’h

Veronique Salze-Lozac’h is the Regional Director for Economic Programs in Cambodia. She can be reached at vsalze-lozach@asiafound.org.

“We feel that too often, we are floating with the tide, but we want to be more active, we actually want to learn how to swim,” explained H.E. Ung Huot, Chairman of the Cambodian Senate’s Commission on Economy, Planning, Investment and Environment.

In the midst of what we can now call an international financial and economic crisis, more than 140 Cambodian senators, parliamentarians, and Government officials — but also students and businesspeople — gathered in Phnom Penh to discuss economic policy reforms and learn from the experience of their neighbor, South Korea.  They gathered at a seminar organized by the Cambodian Senate and The Asia Foundation on November 6th in Phnom Penh.

Worried about the impact of the crisis on the country’s economic development and keen to learn more about potential measures and reforms to support growth in Cambodia, they were attentive to Dr. Kwon Okyu’s (Korea’s former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy) presentation.  On his first trip to Cambodia, Dr. Kwon Okyu did not offer any magic formula but rather common sense and practical advice for Cambodian policy-makers. Stressing that the Government and the National Assembly must jointly establish an efficient policy-making procedure, he used  Korea’s unique experience to draw a few key lessons for constructive, coordinated actions. Two of these lessons are especially relevant in this time of economic uncertainly.

The first, which Cambodia has already begun to implement is the necessity of engaging in international trade by developing free trade agreements and entering trade alliances, as the World Trade Organization (WTO).  Memberships offer market opportunities, but also opportunities to implement reforms essential for economic growth.  Currently, Cambodia is creating the legal framework expected by international trade organizations by drafting and passing more than 40 new laws.  To fulfill their role in passing the laws, the Parliament and the Senate must develop a better understanding of why their participation is necessary and what is at stake.  The message is strong: the current international crisis is not a time for defaulting to protectionism, but rather a time to be serious about economic reforms and international cooperation.

The second, Cambodia has to prepare for potential conflicts of interest that may arise among the many different players involved in economic reform. Policy changes, such as markets opening for agricultural products, decentralization, or labor-management relations, can have very sensitive political implications, especially in a climate of increased competition among exporters and decreasing demand from importers. The Government may push for reform, while some of  the National Assembly’s constituents maybe harmed by it. In this climate, more transparency and dialogue is needed to help make reform acceptable. Dr. Kwon Okyu encouraged the Cambodian parliamentarians to engage in close consultation with government think tanks, academia, businesses, and various interest groups.  The Korean Government method has been to use special committees to build consensus around particularly important policy issues and to build common ground for policy reform. A culture of transparency and research, and clear communication, are key elements for consensus–building on policy reforms.

Korea has moved, in less than half a century, from one of the poorest countries to the 13th largest economy in the world. Dr. Okyu’s advice was well received by his Cambodian audience. Korean investors have been among the most active foreign investors in Cambodia, Korean tourists flock to Angkor Wat, and Korean-Cambodian trade is rapidly developing. At a time when too many banks, insurance companies, or enterprises are drowning in an uncontrollable ocean of globalized risks, there may be opportunities for Cambodia and other developing countries to check their lifebuoys and learn how to swim.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Russia could write off Cambodia's $1.5 bln debt





MOSCOW, November 10 (RIA Novosti) - Russia is discussing with the Cambodian leadership the possibility of writing off most of Cambodia's debt, which stands at around $1.5 billion, a senior Russian lawmaker said on Monday.

"Russia and Cambodia are holding talks to write off Cambodia's debt of around $1.5 billion. The principal sum (about 70%) of the debt could be written off as part of Russia's participation in the Paris Club of Creditor Nations," said Valery Yazev, deputy speaker of the lower house of Russia's parliament, after a trip to Cambodia and Laos.

Yazev said the debt's outstanding part could be divided into two and settled at concessional interest rates.

The vice-speaker said the next round of negotiations on settling Cambodia's debt to Russia would be held early next year in Moscow.

Vietnam-Cambodia visa exemption pact to take effect next month

Relevant Vietnamese agencies are preparing for the planned visa exemption pact between Vietnam and Cambodia to go into force on December 4, the consular department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said yesterday.

According to the agreement which was signed in Hanoi on November 4, citizens of both countries with ordinary passports valid for at least six months can transit or stay in the other country for up to 14 days without having to get a visa.

With this agreement, Vietnamese citizens can now visit all ASEAN member nations, except Myanmar, without a visa.

Cambodian government mourns police chief's death

International Herald Tribune
The Associated Press
Monday, November 10, 2008

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia: Cambodia's government began preparations Monday for the funeral of the country's controversial national police chief, a close ally of Prime Minister Hun Sen who was killed in a helicopter crash.

Police Commissioner-General Hok Lundy, 51, died Sunday night when the helicopter he was traveling in crashed in Svay Rieng province in southeastern Cambodia, apparently because of bad weather.

Hok Lundy had a reputation for ruthlessness as well as loyalty to Hun Sen, whose son is married to the late police chief's daughter.

"His death is bound to be a significant loss to Prime Minister Hun Sen" with whom he had both good working and personal relationships, said Lao Monghay, a senior researcher of Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission.

Police Lt. Gen. Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police force, described Hok Lundy's death as "a great national loss and a profound sorrow for the police force."

Last year, the New York-based group Human Rights Watch urged the U.S. government to cancel a visa issued to Hok Lundy to attend an FBI-sponsored conference on human trafficking, accusing him of having ordered an extrajudicial killing and involvement in drug smuggling and human trafficking.

Cambodian government officials dismissed the Human Rights Watch allegations as nonsense.

Hok Lundy attended the conference, though the U.S. had denied him a visa in early 2006 for reasons never made public.

Hok Lundy's helicopter lost contact with air controllers about 15 minutes after it took off from the capital, Phnom Penh, on Sunday, Khieu Sopheak said. He said bad weather was likely responsible, but an investigation is under way.

It's time to holiday in Cambodia

It's no longer easy to purchase AK-47 assault weapons here. Vendors have stopped selling marijuana in public markets, and fun-seekers can no longer lob live grenades behind the military compound outside of town.

Pavilion Hotel

The Pavilion is a quiet retreat in a colonial mansion, in a city that has reinvented itself from haven for outlaws and sex tourists to the region's burgeoning luxury tourism hostspot.

Once famous for being the most lawless city in Asia - a wild west frontier of ex-soldiers, drug addicts and criminals - Phnom Penh is rapidly becoming the latest Asian tourist playground of spas, handbag dealers and boutique hotels.

Many in the city's hardened expatriate community don't like the changes, saying they've eroded much of the sense of adventure the capital once had. 

But for visitors and for some newly wealthy Cambodians, Phnom Penh has become a more inviting place, retaining its Buddhist temples, wide avenues and French villas even as it pushes seedier elements underground. Before, high-end tourists only went to Angkor Wat, Cambodia's renowned temple complex. Now, they're stopping off in Phnom Penh, too.

View The Wall Street Journal's Phnom Penh slideshow.

The transformation was long in coming. After Cambodia won independence from France in the 1950s, Phnom Penh was one of the most popular cities in Asia: a miniature Paris in Indochina, with cafés, ornate lampposts lining the riverfront and landmarks of the nation's rich history including the Royal Palace, a compound of extravagant yellow and white buildings that included a pagoda with a floor covered in silver tiles.

But the Vietnam War brought chaos to Cambodia. The Maoist Khmer Rouge rebels overran Phnom Penh, forcing all its residents into the countryside and turning the once-vibrant city into a ghost town. When Vietnamese soldiers ousted the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s, Cambodia fell into years of chaos and civil war.

The city's rowdy reputation only grew after the 1998 publication of Amit Gilboa's Off the Rails in Phnom Penh, a Hunter S. Thompson-style tour of the city, which it called an "anarchic festival of cheap prostitutes, cheap drugs, and frequent violence." Gilboa described a public market selling AK-47s for $100 and Chinese land mines for $15.

As for tourism, aside from the posh Hotel Le Royal, established in the 1920s, many of the other hotels were seedy guesthouses. Recommended restaurants served Cambodian fare (which is similar to Thai cuisine) uninspiringly, with a focus on cheap, stringy meat.

Today, Phnom Penh still has plenty of rough edges and crime. At certain places, visitors can still order "happy pizza," or pizza with marijuana topping. But in other ways, it's a different city entirely.

The Government, which is tightly controlled by Khmer Rouge defector Hun Sen, has destroyed 200,000 or more firearms through a program in which citizens voluntarily lay down their guns. It has also shut down the military-hardware market and closed some of the most infamous brothels. (In June, aggrieved sex workers even gathered at a local temple to pray to Lord Buddha for relief from the crackdowns.)

Foreign cash is pouring in, with some investors calling Phnom Penh the new Ho Chi Minh City, after the city that's Vietnam's emerging center of consumption. Property values have soared and Phnom Penh is getting its first skyscrapers. One Cambodian developer even wants to dredge the Mekong River all the way to Vietnam, about 100km south, to create a deepwater megaport, and other financiers are planning a satellite city with offices and malls.

All that activity has brought more well-heeled visitors and more hotels. The Quay Hotel along the riverfront opened earlier this year, which calls itself Phnom Penh's first "carbon-friendly" hotel (it measures carbon emissions and then buys "offsets" through carbon-reduction programs) and features minimalist décor of the 2001: A Space Odyssey variety, spaces "infused with aromatherapy" and a rooftop wine bar. Other new hotels include the Pavilion, an elegant boutique property in a colonial mansion hidden behind the Royal Palace.

The palace itself remains the city's top draw. Besides the silver-floored pagoda, this compound for Cambodia's largely symbolic royal family includes a throne hall and collections of royal regalia and artifacts. A bigger artefact collection - the country's largest - is in the National Museum, one of the city's most impressive Cambodia-style buildings. 

Phnom Penh tourism is quickly moving upscale. Of the two main sites commemorating the Khmer Rouge genocide, the Tuol Sleng museum is far more informative. It was a former school that became a prison and torture center and now includes powerful displays including photographs of people murdered by the Khmer Rouge. The Killing Fields, outside of town, is one of the many known mass graves for victims. (That site gave its name to Hollywood's grim 1984 Oscar-winning epic about the Cambodian massacres.)

A visit to one of these sober places makes a striking contrast with the vibrant life growing outside. One example: the small but growing shopping district centred on a road named Street 240, with a wine bar, a shop selling homemade chocolates and bonbons and boutiques selling $40 handbags and pillows. (Visitors to Spa Bliss can get a carrot-and-pineapple skin wrap.)

Another contrast to the past - new high-end eateries like the Quay Hotel's slick Asian fusion restaurant Chow, where the specials include fresh lotus-root salad with caramelised suckling pig, or soba noodles with marinated roasted snapper and crushed peanuts, all served with a backdrop of thumping club music. Van's, a French restaurant in a towering colonial mansion, serves fried beef wrapped in coffee and Cambodian pepper crumbs as well as stuffed pigeon.

But a backlash is brewing, especially among expatriates, many of whom came to Cambodia to escape such luxuries.

"I don't know if I would have stayed here if I came here now," says Pierre Yves Clais, a former soldier from France who worked with a United Nations-supervised force that operated in Cambodian conflict zones in the early 1990s. "Back then, it was an adventure," he says, with guns, wild bars and lots of dangerous characters. Now, he runs a provincial hotel and calls himself "bourgeois." At least "you can make more money" now, he says.

Residents have other complaints. Tuk-tuks, the ramshackle taxis used for short trips around town, now sometimes cost $2 instead of $1. Rents have soared. And precious little money is filtering down to everyday Cambodians, whose incomes remain among the lowest in Asia.

All the spending at new cafés and boutiques is "so strange," says San Sovannara, a 24-year-old Cambodian driver and boxer. At the Chow restaurant, he says, "people spend so much money for food - the same as my monthly salary!" Still, his earnings come mainly from the tourist trade. He hopes to run a hotel someday.

WHAT TO DO

Aside from the Royal PalaceNational Museum and the institutions remembering the Khmer Rouge genocide, Phnom Penh has other major attractions:

Markets include Central Market, in an Art Deco building, and the Russian Market (named after the Russians that shopped there in the 1980s), known for its puppets and silk cloths.

Wat Phnom: A hilltop temple complex good for escaping traffic and for people-watching. Visitors can sometimes take an elephant ride at the base.

Boat Cruises: Guests can charter boats along the riverfront for a half-hour cruise up the Tonle Sap River and into the Mekong, with views of the city.

Shooting Range: A bit of wild Phnom Penh survives at the city's main shooting range, on a military base near the international airport. Employees say they've run out of the grenades once sold to eager tourists. While it's still possible to fire automatic weapons there (about $1 per bullet), the old pastime of shooting live rounds at cows and other animals is forbidden.

WHERE TO STAY

Quay Hotel: Futuristic hotel with minimalist décor and a hip clientele. Some standard rooms are small and dark, but deluxe rooms are large with great river views. (Rooms start at $80 per night;www.thequayhotel.com)

The Pavilion: A quiet retreat in a colonial mansion with ample gardens and a pool, in the center of the city. (Rooms start at $50 per night; www.pavilion-cambodia.com)

Amanjaya: A graceful boutique hotel with hardwood floors and unusually large rooms with balconies overlooking the waterfront. (Rooms start at about $100 per night; +855-23-214-747)

Hotel Le Royal: The standard for colonial luxury, with European-style rooms and a posh spa. (Rooms start at $240 per night; www.raffles.com)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Cambodian gov't rejects IMF s gloomy economic report

PHNOM PENH, Nov. 10 (Xinhua) -- Cambodian government officials have rebuffed a gloomy economic forecast by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), saying the Kingdom's predicted growth slowdown would not be as dire as the world body suggests, national media reported Monday.

    At the culmination of a two-week mission Friday, the IMF announced that lower foreign investment, as well as runoff effects from the global financial crisis, would push Cambodia's economic growth down to 4.8 percent in 2009, from a previously predicted rate of nine percent.

    But in a prepared speech Sunday for the 55th anniversary of Independence Day, Prime Minister Hun Sen said he was confident the government's strong economic record protected it against such a depreciative outlook, according to the Phnom Penh Post.

    "During the last four years, Cambodia has maintained an economic growth of two digits," he was quoted as saying.

    "In the fourth mandate, the government will ensure the achievement of economic growth of around seven percent a year and pull down the inflation rate to one digit," he added.

    Cambodian Finance Minister Keat Chhon told the Post last week that economic growth would be no lower than 6.5 percent for 2009.

Cambodia: Police Chief Killed In Helicopter Crash


PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA: Cambodia's national police chief, a close ally of Prime Minister Hun Sen, was killed Sunday (9 Nov) in a helicopter crash, government officials said.

Gen. Hok Lundy, the police commissioner-general, died when the helicopter in which he was traveling went down in Svay Rieng province in the country's southeast, said Information Minister Khieu Kanharith.

Three other people _ the pilot, co-pilot and a military general _ were also killed, said police Lt. Gen. Khieu Sopheak, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police force. 

Cambodia probes chopper crash that killed police chief

Chief of police Hok Lundy died along with deputy army commander Sok Sa Em and two pilots on Sunday evening when their chopper went down in bad weather shortly after taking off from Phnom Penh airport.

"There will be an immediate investigation of the cause of the crash," government spokesman Khieu Kanharith told AFP, without providing further details.

Ministry of interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak said that "in general, the crash was caused by bad weather" but there were witness reports that the tail of the helicopter may have hit something on its way down and caught fire.

"According to eyewitnesses, there was a fire on the tail of the helicopter before the crash, but this is not the official reason for the crash," Khieu Sopheak said.

Hok Lundy had been a close associate of Prime Minister Hun Sen for nearly three decades, and one of his daughters is married to one of the premier's sons.

Born in 1950 and a former governor of southeastern Svay Rieng province, where the crash occurred, Hok Lundy was appointed national police chief in 1994.

He was routinely criticised by international organisations for alleged human rights abuses and corruption within his force, and last year Human Rights Watch said Hok Lundy "represents the absolute worst that Cambodia has to offer."

The police chief was accused of involvement in drug trafficking and politically motivated killings, including a 1997 grenade attack against anti-government demonstrators that killed at least 19 people and wounded more than 120 others.

However, he was also praised by US officials for cooperation in counter-terrorism.

Human rights groups protested a decision to allow him a visa to the United States last year for counter-terrorism talks with the FBI.

The State Department had refused him a visa in 2006 due to allegations he was involved in trafficking prostitutes.

Before leaving for his trip last year, Hok Lundy said the allegations against him were cooked up by his political opponents.

"The US government thinks that I am a good law enforcement leader," he told local media.

Cambodia seals rice export deal in Senegal

CAMBODIA plans to sell 120,000 tonnes of rice to Senegal in 2009 - the first time it will export rice to Africa since the 1960s, officials said on Sunday.

"Africa is a potential market for Cambodian rice because it demands a lower quality than Western countries," said Tes Ethda, president of the National Rice Millers Association of Cambodia (NRMAC), representing nine rice-producing  provinces.

"We made an agreement with Senegal to supply 10,000 tonnes a month for one year, but we are currently sending rice samples to be inspected, hoping that the export process will begin next year," said Tes Ethda.

The UN Development Program, Francophone countries, the international trade centre and the Ministry of Commerce are encouraging NRMAC to export rice, in part to cut illegal rice exports, believed to amount to hundreds of thousand of tonnes a year.

According to the Ministry of Commerce, Cambodia has illegally exported about 100,000 tonnes of so-called "hush" rice to Vietnam.

Mao Thora, a secretary of state at the  Commerce Ministry, said Friday that Senegal needs about 900,000 tonnes of rice a year because local production meets less than a third of demand.

"We will unilaterally push for greater rice exports with the support of international organisations, as we want to diversify our exports rather than depend on neighbouring markets," said Mao Thora.

Cambodia expects to have a surplus of 2.6 million tonnes of rice this year, up from about two million tonnes in 2007, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

In 2006, Prime Minister Hun Sen recommended establishing an association of rice-exporting countries based on the oil cartel model of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, but his idea was delayed because of the military coup in Thailand that ousted then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. 

Yaing Sang Koma, president of the Cambodian Centre for Study and Development in Agriculture, applauded the announcement, but added that he is worried that the exports could lead to a local deficit.

"We have to understand local production capacity and the real amount of local consumption, and the amount of rice being traded along the border before exporting if we want to avoid a shortfall," he said.

Song Hong, vice president of the Cambodian Rice Millers Association in Battambang, said exports must be a government priority.

"We will be able to use husks [from exported rice] as a source of energy in place of wood. We can also use it as animal food, and provide about 3,000 jobs to local people with these rice exports," Song Hong said.
 

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Cambodia: the hard path to Angkor

Beauty, tragedy, fried spiders and jungle adventure: you can pack a lot into a week in Cambodia

Pochentong airport, Phnom Penh. Outside the terminal, the warm night air carries the scent of jasmine and open drains; from somewhere beyond the trees comes the sound of traditional Khmer music, rhythmic and exotic, and now a man is approaching us, holding out his finger-less hands, asking for money. Of course, a landmine victim; it’s hard to refuse him. Cambodia has rather a lot of them, a legacy of the Vietnam war and the dark days of the Khmer Rouge.

For independent travellers like myself and my companion James, arriving here can be an assault on the senses, but, as we soon discovered, Cambodia is also a country on the rebound, a land of gentle beauty, culture and warmth, despite its terrible recent past. Through darkened streets unlit by streetlamps, the taxi whisked us to our almost embarrassingly grand hotel: the Raffles Hotel Le Royal, a palatial relic of the French colonial era, lovingly restored. Where once war correspondents tapped out dispatches, now white-tunicked waiters scurried discreetly across its polished teak floors, and in the Elephant Bar, still famed for its happy hour, we ordered Singapore slings over a game of pool.

As w breakfasted on fresh croissants, a man coughed discreetly behind us: “Monsieur, your taxi is ready.” With just two days in the capital, and me in a wheelchair from gunshot wounds sustained in the course of my Middle East reporting for the BBC four years ago, we had decided that hiring a car and a driver for £18 a day was the most efficient way to get around.

Phnom Penh is a peaceful, low-rise city with wide, tree-lined boulevards, where whole families ride past on a single motorbike, their smiles natural and infectious. In the cavernous Central Market, we came upon “the Spider Woman”, a lady selling no less than six bowls of assorted creepy-crawlies. There were giant spiders, glazed black and shiny, their bristly legs protruding over the sides of the bowl; smooth green beetles, mustard-coloured crickets and a pile of something I am fairly certain was fried cockroaches. “If this is Cambodian cuisine,” James said, “I’m sticking with the croissants.”

We were in for a pleasant surprise, though: at the Romdeng restaurant, an enterprise staffed entirely by trainee student cooks, Jamie Oliver-style, we feasted on grilled beef brochettes marinated in lemon grass, Khmer beef and peanut curry, then rice-flour crepes filled with caramelised banana topped with coco-nut ice cream, for £7 a head.

We certainly needed fortifying for what was ahead. Off a nondescript side street called Monivong Boulevard stood what was once a three-storey schoolhouse. It looked like any other high school in Asia: bare, concrete walls, flat roofs, palm trees in the courtyard. For four years in the 1970s, though, it became the Khmer Rouge’s most secretive detention centre, known as S-21, and the Cambodian government has since preserved it intact as the national Genocide Museum.

While Pol Pot’s fanatical cadres were busy expelling entire urban populations into the countryside, where more than a million perished, those deemed “enemies of the revolution” were brought here for imprisonment, interrogation and execution. In silence, we sat on the iron bedsteads in solitary cells where prisoners went through unspeakable tortures.

In bare, whitewashed rooms, I lost count of the thousands of black-and-white photographs of inmates who stared out, confused, terrified, probably at a loss as to why they were there. But the one that stays in my mind is that of the Australian tourist who sailed his yacht too close to the Cambodian shore, and was captured by Khmer Rouge gunboats and taken to Phnom Penh. His nationality did not save him; he, too, was tortured and killed.

This may sound a pretty grisly form of tourism, and I think it was one of the least enjoyable afternoons I have ever spent, but for Cambodians the genocide of the recent past is a key part of their history, and they want visitors to know about it. At the infamous “Killing Fields”, just outside the city, where a tall stupa has been erected containing countless skulls unearthed from mass graves, an inscription said it all: “The Khmer Rouge have the human form but their hearts are demons’ hearts.” MERCIFULLY, the Khmer Rouge is now history, and, after that, a visit to Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace was like a soothing lotion. Amid immaculate lawns and well-watered flowers, we strolled in the afternoon heat, gazing at the ornate red-tiled pagodas, with the capital’s traffic a world away beyond the high walls. Our guide led us to the Silver Pagoda, with its huge Italian marble staircase and 5,000 silver tiles, each weighing a kilogram.

It was time to head upcountry, to Tonle Sap, the largest lake in Indochina, via a short flight by turboprop plane in a monsoon downpour to the provincial town of Siem Reap. There, from the “achingly hip” Hôtel de la Paix, we rented a 4WD jeep and a guide who barely glanced at my wheelchair. “You want to go out on a boat and visit a fishing village on stilts? No problem.”

I liked that about Cambodians: perhaps because they have so many landmine victims of their own, they seemed to view the fact I could not walk not as an obstacle, but as a challenge.

In the relatively remote village of Kampong Khleang, two fishermen heaved me effortlessly into their boat for a chug round their world of stilted wooden huts, where life is lived 20ft above the waters of the lake. Then we shook off our shoes and sank into hammocks while rice and chilli were prepared for lunch, and the fishermen’s children took turns around the hut in my wheelchair.

It was a welcome glimpse of rural Cambodia, but the next day we had some serious sightseeing to do. Angkor Wat is not just Cambodia’s principal attraction, it’s the world’s largest religious building. It is actually one of a complex of huge stone temples dotted around the province and dating back as far as AD800, remnants of a once glorious empire and a city that housed a million people. Some, like the main lake-side temple of Angkor Wat itself, are neatly preserved, fringed by cut grass or coated in wooden scaffolding. Other, more remote, temples are shrouded in foliage, humming with mosquitoes.

The all-powerful jungle has all but reclaimed them.

Curbing our temptation to head straight for the jungle, we trekked round the more familiar sites: the magnificent stone faces of the Bayon, the carved heads that guard the gateway to Angkor Thom and the exquisite stonework of Banteay Srei, so fine, it was said to be carved by women rather than men. But at last, almost as a reward, we allowed ourselves the final day to wander unhurried over the crumbling ruins of Ta Prohm, among the most mysterious, enigmatic and atmospheric of all Angkor’s temples.

Angelina Jolie’s producers knew they were onto a good thing when they filmed part of the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider film here. So enveloped was this temple by the lush forest, entire trees were growing on top of the ruins, giant, serpentine roots snaking down over the lichen-covered stone, as if slowly squeezing the life out of them. When we arrived, the place was overrun by a coachload of Korean tourists, but by sunset silence had descended, broken only by the raucous squawk of parakeets high in the treetops.

As the shadows lengthened over the tumble of fallen stones, the secretive archways and passages, the crumbling walls held up by jungle roots, I half-closed my eyes and tried to think back to a time, 800 years ago, when there were said to be 80,000 people tending to this temple, including hundreds of dancers. Then a whine in my ear brought me back to the present: mosquitoes, in the jungle, at dusk. Not a good combination.

It was time to head back to the Hôtel de la Paix and the evening’s tasting menu, eaten stretched out on hanging couches suspended from the ceiling. Across the courtyard, the moon rose, and a chorus of frogs rang out. From somewhere came the sound of Khmer music, and for a moment, I could have sworn I could smell jasmine.

- Frank Gardner is the BBC’s security correspondent

TRAVEL BRIEF 
Getting there: there are no direct flights from the UK to Cambodia. Returns via Bangkok to Phnom Penh or Siem Reapstart at about £600with Trailfinders (0845 050 5889,www.trailfinders.com ) or Flight Centre (0870 499 0046,www.flightcentre.co.uk ).

Where to stay: Raffles Hotel Le Royal (00 855-23 981888,www.phnompenh.raffles.com ; doubles from £150), is the poshest in Phnom Penh; or try the Himawari (www.himawarihotel.com ; doubles from £80). The Hôtel de la Paix (63 966000,hoteldelapaixangkor.com ), in Siem Reap, has doubles from £160.

Tour operators: with Cox & Kings (020 7873 5000, www.coxandkings.co.uk), nine nights, staying in five-star hotels, start at £2,750pp, B&B, including flights, car and driver. Or try Silver Bird (020 8875 9090, www.silverbird.co.uk ) or Somak (020 8423 3000, www.somak.com ).