Wednesday, April 28, 2010

End of the line for Cambodia's bamboo trains

By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times

Updated: 8:57 AM 4/27/2010
Villagers ride on a 'norry' in Kompong Chhnang province, northwest of Phnom Penh. Cambodia is planning an ambitious overhail of its rail network.
Reporting from Battambang, Cambodia-- It rattles along at 20 miles an hour, swaying back and forth on uneven rails, the engine so loud it makes your teeth hurt. Then, rather unceremoniously, it runs out of gas and dies.

And you find yourself stranded in the middle of Cambodia on a handmade "norry" train, feeling a bit exposed on a 25-square-foot platform made of bamboo and scrap metal attached to wheels salvaged from old tanks.

Picture one of those hand-pump rail cars depicted in old Westerns, and you're close. It's powered (when it has gas) by a converted outboard engine. The brakes (when it has gas and you need brakes) are a wooden board pushed against the wheels. No seats.

All this bamboo and scrap metal give it a makeshift appearance, and appearances do not deceive. Pretty soon, driver Path Chanthorn starts pushing the disabled norry with hands that are missing a few fingers from a run-in with a water buffalo — "a strong cow," he mutters.

Another norry approaches from the opposite direction, every inch of its platform covered by a dozen people headed for a festival. With a single track to ride on, etiquette dictates that the norry with the lighter load be taken apart so the other can pass. So Chanthorn and his assistant quickly dismantle their vehicle and let the other one by, then put theirs back together again, all within minutes.

And you are on your way.

Now a government plan to upgrade the country's rail system may end up forever stranding the norry, an ingenious response to the decades of war, destruction and dire poverty that have afflicted Cambodia.

Under the Khmer Rouge in the mid-1970s, as the country descended into civil war and mass murder, 2 million people perished. And in leader Pol Pot's quest to reach "Year Zero," Cambodia also saw most of its roads destroyed, its trucks blown up, its locomotives charred.

By the early 1980s, as Cambodia started to emerge from the nightmare, people remembered the small vehicles used by rail workers in the 1960s to repair the tracks and started building their own. The norry, a name some say is derived from a mispronunciation of "lorry," was born.

The humble norry is a reminder of how much Cambodians lost, but it also speaks to their persevering spirit. All but left for dead under Pol Pot's genocidal regime, they defied the odds to rebuild, sometimes literally: Witness the land mine victims who picked up their lives by crafting homemade wooden limbs.

"It shows how ingenious people can be," says Ith Sorn, 55, who's been driving norries for three decades. "Cambodians came up with this when they had almost nothing."

The unique mode of transportation saw its heyday in the 1980s when other vehicles were scarce. "There were bombs and mines everywhere, roads were destroyed and rail cars a shambles," says Kot Sareurn, 50, a union leader for 23 norry drivers in Battambang, a picturesque provincial capital along the tranquil Sangker River. "Norries helped a lot of people survive, get to hospitals, get food."

Initially operators "rowed" the norries with poles, gondola-style, carrying loads of up to 40 people, eight cows or three tons of rice. After a few years, small gasoline engines were added.

Drivers said that at the peak, thousands of norries operated throughout Cambodia, charging villagers only a few cents for a ride but still making a decent living with so many people and possessions jammed aboard.

These days, the few hundred remaining norries are relegated to short distances in a few provinces, more an oddity for tourists than the lifeblood they once represented, as trucks, public buses and motorbikes fill the gap. They're still privately owned, but nowadays companies sometimes own several of them, splitting the profits with drivers.

Safety? Not a problem, Sorn says: "I've never had a bad accident. Only occasionally, if it's overloaded, we'll break down and some goats tumble off."

They've clung to life thanks to the tourists and Cambodia's catatonic rail system. The last train anyone saw around Battambang's Odombang station lumbered through more than a year ago. The norry drivers have since taken over the tiny station, sleeping in hammocks on the platform, littering its dirt floor with their cigarette wrappers.

But there's movement down the line. The government plans to revamp the nation's two modest state-owned rail lines — a 230-mile stretch from Phnom Penh to the border with Thailand completed by the French in 1942, and a 150-mile stretch from the capital to the southwestern Sihanoukville port finished with help from China and Germany in 1969. Government officials envision turning the system over to private operators by early 2012.

This would almost certainly see the go-cart-like norries muscled aside by "real" trains.

"Norries are dangerous, shabby-looking and won't last in the 21st high-tech century," says Touch Chankosal, an official with the Ministry of Public Works and Transport. "Real trains going at over 30 miles per hour would run right over them. The drivers' lives are worth more than preserving norries."

Union leader Sareurn has little nostalgia for the contraptions that have earned his keep for decades. "If the government provides compensation, we'll all stop the next day," he says.

Others aren't quite so sanguine. "I'm worried, but what can you do?" says Chanthorn, 37, who's been driving since he was 10. "The rails belong to the government. We're just borrowing them."

During the Khmer Rouge days, there were no norries, only endless walking by starving people, Sorn says in his house beside the tracks made of beams and tin. His wife, Dorn Mao, 50, shows where she was hacked with a machete by a Khmer Rouge fighter for taking a few bananas. "It's hard to think about," she says.

Recently, more foreigners have been riding his norry, Sorn says, including three with big bellies who initially balked, thinking it too flimsy to support them.

"They worried that the bamboo would break, but bamboo is very strong," he says. "If I can carry eight cows, I can certainly carry a few fat foreigners."

mark.magnier@latimes.com

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Cambodia Betting Houses

There is an appealing history to the Cambodia gambling dens that lie just over the national boundaries from neighboring Thailand, where gambling establishment betting is illegal. 8 casinos are located in the fairly tiny area in the city of Poipet in Cambodia. This area of Cambodia bettings houses is inside a perfect place, a 3 to 4 drive from Bangkok and Macao, the 2 biggest betting centers in Asia. Cambodia bettings houses do a thriving business with Thai workers and guests from Malaysia, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore, with only extremely couple of Westerners. The extraordinary earnings gained from the casinos ranges from $7.5 million to over 12.5 million, and there are couple of restrictions or registration requirements for betting house ownership. Ownership is assumed to be mostly Thai; nevertheless, investment sources are vague. The borders are formally open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and though visas are allegedly required to cross, you can find techniques to circumspect this, as is true of most border crossings.

The initial Cambodia gambling establishments opened in Phnom Penh in ‘94, except were pressured to close in 98, leaving only one gambling den in the capital, the Naga Resort. The Naga, a fixed boat betting house, functions one hundred and fifty slot machines and 60 table games. The Naga gambling den is open round the clock with 42 tables of mini-baccarat, four tables of pontoon, 10 of roulette, two of Caribbean Stud Poker, and one each of Pai gow and Tai-Sai.

The initial gambling establishment in Poipet, the Holiday Palace, opened in 1999 and the Golden Crown soon followed. There are one hundred and fifty slot machines and 5 table games at the Golden Crown and 104 slot machine games and sixty-eight table games at the Holiday Palace. The newer Holiday Palace Casino and Resort features three hundred slot machine games and 70 table games and the Princess Hotel and Gambling den, also in Poipet, has one hundred and sixty-six slot machine games and ninety-six gaming tables, including eighty seven baccarat chemin de fer (the most well-liked casino game), Fan Tan, and Double-hand. Furthermore, there could be the Gambling den Tropicana, with one hundred and thirty five slot machines and sixty-six of the familiar table games, as well as one table of Gambling establishment Stud Poker. An additional one of the eight casinos in Poipet, also in a hotel, is the Princess Betting house with one hundred and sixty-six slot machine games and 97 games. The Star Vegas Gambling den is part of an international resort and hotel complex that characteristics a number of amenities additionally to the gambling den, which has 10,000 square feet of 130 slot machine games and eighty eight table games.

Across the Cambodian border at Asmech/Surin is one betting house, the Gambling establishment O Samet, with a hundred slot machine games and fifty tables of baccarat chemin de fer. In addition, the Koh Kong Betting house, in the province of Trat, is open every day from nine a.m. to 10:00 p.m., with a hundred slots and 4 table games. A smaller betting house, Le Macau Gambling establishment and Hotel, opened not too long ago at Bavet on the Vietnamese border.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

BHP faces investigation into $2.7m Cambodia graft claim

Matt Chambers and Matthew Stevens

BHP Billiton yesterday joined Rio Tinto in battling graft allegations, saying it had uncovered evidence of possible corruption by employees on an overseas project.

The Australian understands the conduct, now under investigation by the powerful Securities and Exchange Commission in the US, relates to a bauxite exploration project in Cambodia.

BHP has admitted making a $US2.5 million ($2.7m) payment to the community near the bauxite project, in the northeastern Cambodian province of Mondulkiri, near the Vietnamese border.

A Cambodian government minister described the payment as "tea money", a local term for unofficial payments to government officials.

BHP has rejected this, saying the money was put into a development fund investing in local social welfare programs. The company said it had paid $US1m in September 2006 to the Cambodia government for bauxite exploration rights.

BHP yesterday declined to reveal where the alleged corruption occurred, stressing only that it was not China. It would not comment on what the behaviour involved and whether employees had stood down or been fired but it said the activities involved mineral exploration, not marketing its products.

Last month, Rio sacked four workers, including Australian Stern Hu, after they were convicted of bribery and stealing commercial secrets related to deals to sell iron ore to Chinese steel mills. Rio has introduced sweeping changes to its Chinese operation and is conducting a review to avoid a repeat of the scandal.

Yesterday, BHP said the alleged corruption was uncovered after the SEC queried it during an investigation into mineral exploration projects.

"The company has disclosed to relevant authorities evidence it has uncovered regarding possible violations of applicable anti-corruption laws involving interactions with government officials," BHP said yesterday in a statement.

According to a report in The Cambodia Daily in July 2007, the nation's National Assembly was told BHP had paid $US2.5m to the government to secure exploration rights to a bauxite deposit in Mondulkiri with Japanese industrial giant Mitsubishi.

The claim was made by the then water minister, who described the payment as "tea money".

The minister's comments informed a report into Cambodian corruption by the non-government organisation Global Witness. The report, Country for Sale, details the claims and BHP's rejection of them.

Global Witness wrote to BHP in October 2008 requesting details of any and all payments made to the Cambodian government.

BHP responded saying it had put $US2.5m into a development fund and it had paid $US1m in September 2006 to the government for bauxite exploration.

"BHP Billiton has never made a payment to a Cambodian government official or representative, and we reject any assertion that the payment under the minerals exploration agreement is, or amounts contributed to the Social Development Projects Fund are, `tea money'," the miner said.

While Global Witness did not draw any negative conclusions about the management of the development fund, it did identify an issue with the $US1m payment to government, although one outside the control of BHP.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Dancing in the New Year


Dancers toss flower petals toward the crowd during last year’s Cambodian New Year Celebration at Clark College. (Photo by Steven Lane)
The Cambodian New Year Celebration at Clark College this weekend will feature elaborate costumes. (By Troy Wayrynen, The Columbian)
Jennifer Kourn, then 6, from Vancouver, peeked through the stage curtain to check the crowd before dancing at last year’s Cambodian New Year Celebration. This year Jennifer, now 7, will dance again. (By Steven Lane, The Columbian)
If you go
  • What: Cambodian New Year Celebration, feting the year of the tiger with traditional dance and music.
  • When: 6:30-11:30 p.m. April 10. 6:30-7:30 p.m. is a social hour, followed by a performance by the Khmer Angkor Dance Troupe from 7:30-8:45 and a social dance from 8:45-11:30.
  • Where: Clark College’s Gaiser Student Center, 1933 Fort Vancouver Way, Vancouver.
  • Cost: $14, free for children 12 and younger. Refreshments will be available for purchase.
  • Information: 360-944-9025 or 360-882-3646.
Cambodian-American troupe continues local celebration

Friday, April 9, 2010
By Mary Ann Albright
Columbian staff writer (Washington State, USA)


Organizing the community’s Cambodian New Year festivities runs in the family for Connie Mom-Chhing. Her late mother, Vann Hem, once a member of the Cambodian Royal Ballet and founder of the Khmer Angkor Dance Troupe in Vancouver, began putting together local Cambodian New Year events in 1987. Now, oversight for the annual celebration, as well as the dance troupe, has fallen to Mom-Chhing. It’s a way of helping the area’s small but growing Cambodian-American community keep traditions alive.

This weekend will mark the third year Mom-Chhing’s volunteer-run Cambodian New Year Celebration has taken place at Clark College. The Khmer Angkor Dance Troupe will perform a new routine, as well as revive a dance shelved for the past two decades. The event will feature classical and folk Cambodian dance demonstrations, social dance time, music and traditional Cambodian foods as it celebrates the year of the tiger.

The Chinese New Year goes by the lunisolar calendar, so the date varies from year to year. The Cambodian, Thai and Laotian New Years are always celebrated for three days on April 13, 14 and 15, said Mom-Chhing. But really, the entire month of April is a celebratory time, added the 40-year-old Vancouver resident, administrator for the Clark County Regional Support Network.

Dance is an important part of the celebration. Khmer, or Cambodian, classical dance is an art form dating back 2,000 years and was traditionally performed in the royal court and at sacred rituals as a sacrifice to gods, goddesses and spirits of dance teachers departed. The dance uses highly stylized hand movements to tell a story.

Women perform classical Cambodian dances, taking on the male and female roles. Both men and women participate in Cambodian folk dances.

Mom-Chhing’s been dancing since age 9 and teaches Cambodian dance at Firstenburg Community Center through Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation.

She will solo Saturday in Robam Apsara, or Celestial Dance, which she hasn’t performed in more than 20 years. The dance, which also features four of Mom-Chhing’s advanced students, is a classical routine inspired by the more than 1,500 apsara, or celestial dancers, carved throughout Angkor Wat, a Cambodian temple complex built in the 12th century.

Another classical dance the Khmer Angkor Dance Troupe will perform is Robam Boung Soung, or Pray Dance.

“It’s asking for peace, happiness and prosperity for the upcoming New Year,” Mom-Chhing said.

Five of Mom-Chhing’s young students, including her 7-year-old daughter, Charmony Chhing, will perform Robam Chhma — Cat Dance — for the first time this weekend.

“It’s depicting a group of cats chasing a mouse, and at the end, they catch it,” Mom-Chhing said.

In addition to children’s and classical dances, the New Year Celebration will include the Cambodian folk dance Robam Koah Trah Lauk, the Coconut Shell Dance.

This playful, flirtatious dance features 10 performers and “is very fast-paced, very rhythmic,” Mom-Chhing said.

The dance makes use of actual coconut shells, which the troupe imported from Cambodia.

Beyond dance, the April 10 event will feature traditional Cambodian wedding songs, both sung and played on the tro sau, a two-stringed instrument.

After the performances, a disc jockey from All-Star Music & Events will kick off the social dance portion of the evening. There will be karaoke, as well as several different styles of Cambodian social dance.

Continuing the immersion into various aspects of Cambodian culture, volunteers are preparing traditional dishes for sale at the event. Items available will include papaya salad, beef satay, egg rolls, a Cambodian version of pad Thai and a dessert made from sweetened sticky rice, Mom-Chhing said.

Mary Ann Albright: maryann.albright@columbian.com, 360-735-4507.

The strange Banyan trees of Cambodia

By CECILIA S. ANGELES

April 10, 2010, 4:06pm
Banyan trees are very sacred among the Hindus.  Their colors and textures are far different from the true trunk and branches. (Photo by CECILIA S. ANGELES)
Banyan trees are very sacred among the Hindus. Their colors and textures are far different from the true trunk and branches. (Photo by CECILIA S. ANGELES)

Amazed at the weird trees literally clawing ancient temples, buildings, architectural structures, I asked our tour guide, Mr. Tann Bunto, to identify the tree during our tour at Siem Reap City. “Banyen tree,” he wrote on my notebook. I verified it in the dictionary and my encyclopedia. Both books gave banyan, both vowels marked short. I am amused no end at the growth of its roots which appear as extra trunks. Their colors and textures are far different from the true trunk and branches. The encyclopedia describes them as secondary trunks or branches. Banyan trees are very sacred among the Hindus. They also grow in Florida, Guam, Mexico, South America, and other warm regions. The Philippines is a warm country. Do banyan trees grow here also? I have not seen one growing in our country, or perhaps I have not been quite observant. Is the tall tree fronting the walls of Fort Santiago parking area in Intramuros a bayan tree? Some people claim it to be balete. Is balete also the banyan tree?

Roots (?) or branches protrude downward from their upper horizontal trunks and settle their lower ends in the soil or the structure beside them. I am amused no end at this strange tree. Some roots glide horizontally across roofs or facade walls of temples. The same structures penetrate easily to any nearby elements—whether growing or lifeless like bricks or stones. Others with no obstruction shoot vertically downward and bury their lower ends underground. Some creep about the ground forming graceful long lines which can cause amblers to trip if they do not notice the growth.

Banyan trees are native of the lower slopes of the Himalayas. They have large thick leaves and cherry-like fruit. Perhaps dropped by birds, their seeds are capable of sprouting even on branches of other trees where they happen to settle. The young banyan sprouts many roots in the air which bend downward perhaps because of gravity. These become the new trunks of banyan. Because a number of them grow in the same area, they grow in groves. Usually the host tree dies because the new groves consume the nutrients due the host tree. A banyan tree may produce as many as 3,000 trunks.

This tree is just like some people who grab what other people have. Despite its weird existence and unwelcomed habits, I enjoyed capturing banyan trees in Siem Reap City in Cambodia.

(Cecilia S. Angeles is a college professor and a regular lecturer at the Photography Workshop sponsored by FPPF at Fort Santiago, Intramuros, Manila. Email: csa_palay@palay.com )

Mekong could be in danger


Children swim in the Mekong River in Phnom Penh this week. A report released Wednesday says that upstream dams – including one to be constructed in Kratie province – pose a significant threat to the livelihoods of millions who are dependent on the river. (Photo by: AFP)

Thursday, 08 April 2010
Steve Hirsch Washington
The Phnom Penh Post


Report calls dam to be built in Kratie a threat to food security.

A MASSIVE dam slated to be built on the Mekong River in Kratie province is one of two projects that pose an even greater threat to human and food security and livelihoods than similar projects in China, according to a new report that calls for a moratorium on dams along the river.

The report, released Wednesday afternoon in Washington by the Henry L Stimson Centre, a nonpartisan think tank promoting international peace and security, raises an alarm about the US$5 billion Sambor Rapids dam as well as the US$300 million Don Sahong dam project in Laos, even as, in the aftermath of this week’s Mekong River Commission summit, international attention has been focused on the potential harm caused to the river by Chinese-built dams.

“These two dams, more than others planned further north, threaten critical migratory paths for 70 percent of the most commercially valuable species of wild fish,” states the report, titled Mekong Tipping Point: Hydropower Dams, Human Security and Regional Stability.

Richard Cronin, the report’s lead author and a senior associate and director of the Stimson Centre’s Southeast Asia programme, raised similar concerns about the Sambor Rapids project during testimony before the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission in February, saying it would “create a total barrier to the spawning migration” of fish that travel through the Hou Sahong channel in the Khone Falls area of southern Laos.

In a prepared statement, Cronin said the Hou Sahong channel is “the only one of 18 channels that allows unimpeded year-round spawning migration by hundreds of fish species that are worth as much as $9 billion or more annually, and which supply up to 80 percent of the animal protein of as many as 60 million people”.

Carl Middleton, Mekong programme coordinator for the International Rivers organisation, emphasised similar points on Wednesday, saying: “The Don Sahong and Sambor dams would block the major fish migrations that provide food security and livelihoods for millions of people who live alongside the Tonle Sap Lake and Mekong River.”

According to International Rivers, the Cambodian government in 2006 granted permission for the China Southern Power Grid Company to prepare a feasibility study for the dam, which it states will have a capacity of 3,300 megawatts and be completed by 2030 at the earliest. About 70 percent of the electricity generated by the dam is expected to be exported to Vietnam.

In comparison, the Don Sahong project, to be developed in southern Laos by the Malaysian company MegaFirst Corporation Berhad, is expected to be completed by 2015 and generate between 240 and 360MW, much of which is expected to go to Thailand.

Call for moratorium
The report says that Mekong River Commission countries – Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam – should impose a moratorium on dam construction on the Mekong and on tributaries that are important for fish reproduction.

That moratorium, it states, should remain in effect until standards are established for environmental and socioeconomic impact studies and cost-benefit analyses of dam proposals, as well as for plans to cope with threats to livelihoods resulting from the projects.

Along with eight dams planned for China’s Yunnan province, the report says, as many as 13 dams planned on the Lower Mekong in Laos, Thailand and Cambodia would “have an incalculable impact on human and food security and livelihoods in the whole Mekong Basin”.

“Incredibly,” it says, “there is no evidence that any country planning to build mainstream dams has made any provisions for alternative livelihoods or new sources of food security.”

Though the harmful effects of the dams – particularly with respect to wild fish stocks – are likely to materialise quickly, the development of alternative employment options will take years, the report states.

In both Laos and Cambodia, it says, power generated by downstream dams will likely aid the industrialisation of Thailand, while Laotians and Cambodians will be forced to either work across the border or find new ways to earn a living.

“These projects also pose a direct threat to the hard earned peace and stability of the Mekong Region and mainland Southeast Asia,” the report states.

Pich Dun, secretary general of the Cambodia National Mekong River Commission, on Wednesday rejected the idea that the dam projects could lead to regional tension.

“It’s impossible to have any conflicts between the countries in the Mekong region,” he said. “The MRC members have the right to develop dams, but in this regard there should be discussions before any building can take place.”

He also said he was not concerned that the Sambor Rapids dam or any other proposed projects for the Lower Mekong would result in undue hardship for those who depend on the river for survival.

“Whenever there is development there will be some damage.... We’ll need to discuss how to minimise the effect,” he said.

Asked about plans to mitigate the effects of the Sambor Rapids project, he said he could not comment on them in detail because he had not seen “the technical documents of the plan”.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY WILL BAXTER AND THARUM BUN

Cameroonian detained for smuggling Khmer gold to Thailand


Milol Francis, Thailand

A Cameroon man was abruptly detained with smuggled gold by Thai officials at the Aranyaprathet district immigration checkpoint after having crossed the border from Poi Pet in Cambodia to Thai territory.

Arrested while carrying wheeled baggage, the man was asked to be searched, as said by officials, for he was deemed suspicious.

Grains of gold weighing some 1,250 grammes were found packed in a plastic bag hidden in the suitcase without legal documentation permitting the importing of gold.

Milol Francis, 35, confessed to the Thai authorities he had travelled to Cambodia and bought the precious metal, which he said had been smuggled by various gold mines in Cambodia and later sold in Phnom Penh.

Milol said he had bought the gold for US$2,000 in order to resell it in Cameroon. Thai officials said the gold was seized and legal action will be taken against the suspect. (TNA)

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Angkor's Ancient Drought

By Art Chimes, VOA

Original report from Washington
06 April 2010

For hundreds of years the Khmer empire ruled in what is now Cambodia.

But in the 13th century, the capital city, Angkor, fell into ruin. A new scientific study indicates that climate, specifically decades of drought interspersed with intense monsoons, helped bring down the Khmer capital.

Brendan Buckley, the Columbia University scientist who led the study, says that in the ancient world, Angkor was known for its sophisticated water system.

"Well, Angkor was really the dominant civilization in that part of the world without any question. It was the center of their universe. And it was called the 'hydraulic city' because it had really remarkably massive arrays of barays, which are these giant water tanks and a series of canals and interconnected waterways that was really unparalleled in the ancient world in that part of the world."


Buckley isn't an archaeologist. He studies tree rings, which record the growth history of trees that can be hundreds of years old, or even older. A new ring is added every year, and thicker rings represent a kind of savings account, when the tree collects more nutrients than it can use. Thin rings show the tree is barely getting along, like during a drought year.

Using samples from around Southeast Asia, Buckley and his colleagues saw this pattern in tree rings from recent years, when he could corroborate the rings with other historical climate information. His newest tree ring samples, from [a rare cypress, Fokienia hodginsii, in] southern Vietnam, enabled him to take the climate record back much further.

"We realized we have trees that are more than 1,000 years old. And we started seeing these big, giant periods of drought that took place around that time. And as I started to get more interested in the history of Southeast Asia I realized that that was the time of the collapse of Angkor."

The research team used what are called core samples from hundreds of trees throughout Southeast Asia. Using a hollow tube, they drill into the tree and extract a 5-mm wide cylinder that shows each ring starting with the most recent, just under the bark.

By comparing rings from different trees and with other historical data, you can often identify particular rings with the exact calendar year that they grew.

"We were able to match up the narrow and wide rings exactly so that we can assign the exact calendar dates to the exact rings of every tree. In the tropics, a lot of tree species don't even form rings that we can see. So to be able to get a tree that, first of all, has very clear rings that we're able to visually match to each other and then go through and produce these long records was remarkable."

The rings tell a story of decades of drought, which dried up Angkor's extensive water works, followed by monsoons that overwhelmed the 'hydraulic city.'

But the climate shifts weren't the only factor at work in the decline of the Khmer capital, which was a long time coming. Buckley quotes his co-author, Daniel Penny, as saying the climate was the "final nail in a coffin that took about 200 years to build," as Angkor and the Khmer empire were being buffeted by political, social, and economic stress.

"The times were changing, [shifting] toward an economic system that was taking them more to the coastline so they could trade with Chinamore readily. I believe that drought was one of the things that piled onto the pile of things that were affecting the Angkorians at that time. And it may very well have provided that final impetus to really kind of kill off this inland agricultural system."

The idea of a civilization being pushed over the edge by climate change resonates in the modern world, of course, and Brendan Buckley says his research on 13th century Southeast Asia has some lessons for us today.

"We probably have more abilities to adapt than they did at the time. But one of our biggest problems is a very large agrarian based population in places like India or Southeast Asia. And it's very hard to adapt to that giant population being in an area that is likely to be hit by these kinds of problems. The other thing is that rising sea level, which we're already seeing the evidence of in places like Ho Chi Minh City is a great example. So this is becoming an actual problem that we can see in real time on the ground. I guess that remains to be seen how we're going to cope with it."

Prof. Brendan Buckley's paper on climate's contribution to the demise of Angkor in present-day Cambodia was published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.