Wednesday, 31 January 2007

The Enchanted Forest of Kampong Phlouk

Seeing that my task here in Cambodia is to research how tourism can benefit more Cambodians and what can be done to keep tourists a bit longer than two nights and three days in Siem Reap - and actually have them discover different parts of the country, I investigated some of the nearby options once you get sick of temples...

A 20 minute drive from Siem Reap, the floating village of Chong Kneas on the Tonlé Sap (South-East Asia's biggest lake) is definitely an option. The village has everything from floating stores, to a floating gas station and a floating school - including two gymnasiums for kids to play soccer or basketball.

And for those who need their little prayer every day, there's even a floating church. It's unusual, but actually very interesting and wonderful for sunset. Unfortunately, it's not really off the beaten track. Quite the contrary, nowadays it seems to be a "must see" on every Angkor tour, drawing between 2000 and 3000 tourists every single day... bumper to bumper boat...

The enchanted forest of Kampong Phlouk is more difficult to reach, but much more rewarding. After a two hour rocky boat trip on the Tonlé Sap, we get a first glimpse of the tiny fishing village. The village is entirely build on stilts - about 6 to 7 meters high - as the Tonlé Sap can rise up to 10 meters during the wet season.

Right now, it's the dry season - so the village looks a bit surreal. The wooden houses, perched up high, are empty these days, as all the action of day to day living such as cooking and socializing happens underneath the houses - or along the dusty main road. From November to April the fishing season is slower. Over this time villagers repair the fishing boats or work on their nets.

In the dry season, raising crocodiles in cages along the shore is a very lucrative business (that only rich families can afford). A nice big crocodile can be sold for almost $2,000. Drying shrimps in the middle of the village road is also an option, albeit not as financially rewarding...

On the village's one and only main road playing volleyball is very popular.

And then there's also the Ecotourism project that was set up in Kampong Phluk by UNDP and other NGOS a few months ago. But after having had lunch there, I spoke to the villagers and soon realised that the so-called "community based tourism project" does not really benefit the wider community, as the team-leader was claiming in an interview just minutes before. It seems only a few women, from selected families, have so far been asked to cook onboard the floating tourist restaurant. But maybe this will change in the future? It maybe too soon to judge as the project only started three months ago.

My day ended with a magnificent paddle tour through the flooded forest of Kampong Phlouk. A local fisherman took me on his traditional wooden (and very shaky) boat. Why do the people here call it the "enchanted forest"? If you ever come to Kampong Phlouk... you will find out why!

Monday, 29 January 2007

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

5.45 AM

The place is already packed with tourists.

Everyone is eagerly awaiting the sunrise... flashs are going off everywhere... the Japanese tourists are overly represented here this morning. My guide Mr Sorn says this is normal Japanese just simply love the sunrise at Angkor Wat - Cambodians prefer the sunset, he tells me. It's all a question of taste.

6.15 AM

7.10 AM

7.25 AM

I'm off to the Temple of Ta Prom. But I'll definitely come back, as I have to check out the sunset.

Cambodian 101

Heute habe ich meinen Kambodschanischen Wortschatz erweitert:

Tschom Reap Sour - Hallo!
Sus Dei - Guten Tag!
Knom Schmor Barbara - Ich heiße Barbara
Okun (Tschea) - Danke (sehr)
Tschom Reap Lear - Tschüß!

Kilim und Perser kriegen Konkurrenz

Kilim und Perser - klar alles wunderschöne Teppiche aus dem Iran, Afghanistan und anderen Ländern aus dem Mittleren Osten. Aber schon was vom "Kandal" gehört? Wohl noch nicht, aber das könnte sich bald ändern... denn die deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) hat vor kurzem in der Kandal-Region, nordwestlich von Phnom Penh, ein neues Entwicklungsprojekt gestartet.

Worum geht's?

Um diesen typischen kambodschanischen gewebten Teppich - auch "Kandal" genannt. In der Kandal-Region weben Frauen, getreu einer alten Tradition, diese farbenfrohen Teppiche. Für viele dieser Weberinnen und ihre Familien ist es die einzige Einnahmequelle.

Am Tag weben die Frauen im Durchschnitt drei solche Teppiche. Ihr Lohn dafür ist selten mehr als ein Dollar.

Mit dem "Kandal"-Projekt wollen die Experten der GTZ helfen, die Qualität dieser Teppiche und ihre Vermarktung - auch nach Europa - zu verbessern, und so die Einkommen der angesprochenen Familien anzuheben.

Anfang Januar ist die erste Phase der Projektes angelaufen: im Entwicklungsjargon heißt sie "Analyse der Wertschöpfungskette", das heißt die verschiedenen beteiligten Akteure werden von GTZ-Mitarbeitern interviewt.

So sollen Schwachstellen identifiziert werden, aber auch Potentiale. Die beteiligten Akteure sind in diesem Fall:

1. Die Bauern, die die Seggen produzieren aus denen die Teppiche gewebt werden

2. Die Frauen und Weberinnen

3. Die Händler, von denen die Frauen meist abhängig sind, denn diese stellen ihnen häufig die Seggen für die Produktion der Teppiche zu Verfügung und auch die Webkämme und anderen Geräte, die sie zum Weben benötigen. Auf die Preise haben die Frauen in den seltensten Fällen wirklichen Einfluss.

4. Die Verkäufer, die die Teppiche in größere Provinzstädte oder nach Phnom Penh auf den Markt bringen.

Ein wichtiges Anliegen des Projektes ist, die Weberinnen und Händler zu motivieren, sich in Genossenschaften zusammenzuschließen und ihre Interessen gemeinsam zu vertreten. Diese Phase jedoch, so schätzten die Mitarbeiter der GTZ, dürfte besonders schwer sein. Zu groß ist die Angst vor Kooperativen, zu stark die Skepsis gegenüber jeglicher Authorität. Zu tief sitzt das Misstrauen aus der Vergangenheit - besonders seit den dunklen Jahren der Khmer Rouge Terrorherrschaft.

Doch die GTZ ist zuversichtlich: das Projekt birgt großes Potential. Mit dem "Kandal" könnte der Durchbruch auf den internationalen Markt gelingen - und wer weiss, vielleicht gehört der "Kandal"-Teppich in Zukunft genauso in das Ikea-Repertoire wie der "Poäng"-Stuhl oder der "Pax"-Schrank...

Saturday, 27 January 2007

First Field Trip

I've been in touch with the German Development Agency GTZ since my arrival in Phnom Penh. They suggested I join two of their teams for a field trip to get a first impression of rural life in Cambodia and to visit their latest private sector promotion project involving the "Kandal" carpet. But before getting into the nitty gritty of this Cambodian woven carpet -- here are a few snapshots of my first ferry trip:

Crossing the Tonlé Sap River.

Do I need to say anything? Trust me, I tried to hitch a ride with them! It's the cheapest way to get around in Cambodia... I guess it's much the same for these poor ducks:

They're still alive... though probably somewhat dizzy...

Thursday, 25 January 2007

How do I get to 39 street 528?

Or, how to make it on time for an interview appointment in Phnom Penh rush hour...

It's mad, really mad! No matter what mode of transport you choose. With a 4WD and a driver, a well paid expat might be comfy and cool but your car is way too big to push through the crazy rush hour traffic pouring onto the streets of Phnom Penh shortly after 5pm.

The Tuk Tuk has charm, but even this mode of locomotion is too big to sneak right, left and center of the bumper to bumper cars.

So there's still the choice between a cyclo and a moto - I've done the cyclo once and felt terribly bad, that a skinny Khmer driver half my size (and weight) would have to peddal hard to get me to my destination - my choice of transport is the moto.

It's quick, cheap, and whilst sometimes lifethreatening always an adventure. Turning left onto a main boulevard one first drives on the wrong side because there's no way to cross the three lanes to the other side in one go - and waiting is never an option, even not at most red lights... motos are coming from all sides, overtaking from left and right, squeezing through any tiny spot between cars, trucks and busses. Entire families, colourful bulky goods or life stocks are transported this way. I even spotted a party of five. Wearing a mask is not unusual... it first made me think of SARS, but when the pollution hits you it actually makes sense.

So, I had my interview appointment at 5.30. Half an hour earlier and Phnom Penh not being really big I thought half an hour would get me there way too early... My driver didn't really know where street 528 was, but he seemed confident - and so was I. After all, I thought, numbering the streets instead of having names was pretty straight forward. Well, think again, we're not in the US here... every district has its own numbers - and I had no clue in which district Dr. Koma was waiting for me. Too bad, we ended up at one end of Phnom Penh, unfortunately the wrong one. For a change my mobile was not working, so I had to borrow one from a little girl, soon drawing the attention (and laughter) of a dozen people as I unpacked my laptop to extract Dr. Koma's mobile number... grhhhh... he was waiting for me at the other end of town. So I hopped back on the moto -- off into another round traffic nightmare. I did end up getting to 39 street 528 half an hour late... the tour was all the bit worthwhile, as I learnt everything about agriculture and rice production. And why Cambodian farmers take it easier than their Vietamese neighbours. But more about that another day!

Why "Fish Amok"? Cambodians would know...

My first "working" day in Cambodia had to end with Fish Amok - the country's popular national dish and my all time Khmer favourite. Back in Germany a few months ago I had disastrously failed to cook it for some friends, dropping the fish and the coconut concoction in the boiling water of the bain marie... In future, I promised myself I would only have the "real stuff"...

So, tonight I caught a moto to Café Amok on 2 street 278. If anyone, they should get it right. Amok here refers to the specific Khmer way of cooking with curry sauce and has nothing to do with fish running wild - though your taste buds might!

The cook in the kitchen refused to share her secrets with me, but waiter Chay did:

- choose a nice freshwater fish filet
- marinate in coconut curry sauce
- add limes leaves and sweet basil
- wrap in banana leaf or coconut
- boil in a bain marie until it's ready to melt in your mouth

This Fish Amok was good, but I missed the banana leaf and it could have been a wee bit more spicey.

** out of *****. For me the verdict is still out.

So, what's my plan?

Why am I spending six weeks in Cambodia? The average tourist spends 3.2 days in Cambodia - that's much less than in neighbouring Thailand, Vietnam and even Laos. I'm interested to find out what is being done to change this. Can the entire country benefit from the rising numbers of tourists and not only the popular destinations of Angkor Wat?

More than 1,5 Million tourists visited the historic Khmer temples last year, and yet Siem Reap is still the third poorest region of Cambodia. Fruits and vegetables consumed in Siem Reap's many hotels and most handicraft bought by tourists are not produced locally but imported from neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam. What is being done to change that? What positive potentials does Cambodia's booming tourism industry have? But also, what are its dangers? How can Cambodia develop a sustainable, environment and social friendly tourism that benefits a large segment of its population? Those are some of the questions I would like to address on the road that will take me from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, Kompong Thom, Ratanakiri, Mondulkiri and Sihanoukville.

Welcome to Phnom Penh

It's my second trip to Cambodia. Last year I was well organised and had arranged my visa in advance with the Cambodian embassy in Berlin. This time I thought I'd get it at the airport.

With no special "VISA" signs and no one really speaking English I figured I'd stand in line with most of the other foreigners... A grim looking officer took my passport and pointed towards the left... I was not quite sure what he was trying to tell me or what I was supposed to do, so I waited with a few other startled tourists... five minutes later and 20 meters further down another officer suddenly waved my passport into the air with one hand, holding the other one out in return for cash. Still no spoken word.

At the passport control same speechless procedure. The purpose of my trip is to research tourism development in Cambodia. The welcome at the airport has certainly room for improvement. But having picked up my luggage and made it past another round of grumpy customs officials - I saw a huge sign saying GRUBER and my driver "James Bond" boasting the biggest smile. Welcome to the land of the smile!

Wednesday, 10 January 2007

Searching for the island's missing

Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when Turkey sent troops to the North of the country following an attempted coup backed by the Greek government. Some 2,000 Cypriots on both sides are still officially registered as missing as a result of the inter-communal troubles dating back to the early 1960s.

For more than 30 years, the issue of missing persons has been highly politicized in Cyprus. Each side blames the other for lack of cooperation and effective investigation. During this time, the families of the missing have lived in doubt about the fate of their loved ones.

But now, both communities are cooperating in excavating mass graves and returning the remains to the victims' families. A team of forensic scientists is working in a prefabricated UN laboratory built in the buffer zone that still divides Cyprus.

According to anthropologist Oran Finnegan, the main priority is identifying the skeletal remains. He said they have to be put together like a jigsaw puzzle.

"We begin to look for features that will assist us: age range, whether male or female, did this person have an old fracture?" Finnegan said. "We look for specific dental work -- gold fillings or crowns -- and then we can look at the ante mortem date we receive from the families."

In addition, the scientists take a bone sample for a DNA lab to complete the final stage of identification. Finnegan said the families have high expectations and his team has to be certain that it will return the right remains to the right family.

"I'm still holding on to hope."

Agni Hadjinicolaou has been waiting for more than 30 years. The 67-year-old energetic woman still recalls very clearly the day her husband Christos was arrested by three Turkish men from a neighboring village. He and eight other men were put in a bus and have never been seen again. Agni said she first thought it was a routine interrogation, and that her husband would be back soon.

"For quite some years, I hoped he might be alive somewhere," she said. "But after over 30 years, it's not humanly possible. I'm still holding on to hope, though, and I will until I see evidence that he's dead."

Christos Hadjinicolaou was a judge and went missing at the age of 35. His son Spyros is now 37 and a lawyer. He took up his own investigation, speaking to government officials and making inquiries in the North of Cyprus, near the village where his father was arrested.

Spyros said he knows his father is dead. But now that he might get the remains back, he has mixed feelings.

"It's something I don't know how to handle, particularly when you know you will get the remains of someone younger than you are," Spyros said. "So it's quite bizarre. On the other hand, it will be a relief."

Families are waiting for the uncertainty to end

On the other side of the UN buffer zone or "Green Line" that divides Cyprus, the story is much the same. Emine Degirmencioglu was 23 years old when Greek Cypriot fighters attacked her village in the winter of 1963. The family fled in panic and her husband Munir disappeared, never to return.

"I never lost my hope until the borders opened in 2003 and Turkish and Greek Cypriots could cross to the other side," Emine said. At that time, she went to see the Committee of Missing Persons (CMP), where she was told soldiers had killed her husband.

The CMP was established in 1981 and operates under the auspices of the United Nations. Its aim is determining the fate of missing persons by establishing a complete list of victims, identifying burial sites, debriefing witnesses and exchanging information between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.

Today, all Emine has left of Munir is a black-and-white photograph of their wedding day. She said it's important to her to get his remains back for a proper religious burial. Like Agni and Spyros in southern Cyprus, members of Emine's family have provided DNA samples. They are now hoping that the decades of waiting to find Munir will finally come to an end.

Working together helps break down barriers

The Committee's UN member Christophe Girod said things were finally moving after many years with little progress. He said there were many encouraging signs.

"It's a small island, and even though it's more than 30 years later, the witnesses have not all passed away," Girod said. "The more the project goes on, the more witnesses come out."

Out of the 200 sites that have been identified so far across the island, forensic teams have investigated eight and recovered the remains of around 100 missing persons.

At every site, Greek and Turkish scientists work together with the UN forensic specialists. Gulden Plumer Kucuk, the Turkish member on the CMP, said she had her doubts whether all the missing persons could be returned to their families. Still, she said this work was essential.

"This project is not only going to serve missing persons' families, but will also help reconciliation," Kucuk said. "When I watch the bi-communal teams collecting remains together, I can see that they realize what a big mistake it was to fight with one another."

Chris Anthe, a Greek Cypriot archeologist from the exhumation team, said this project would also eventually improve relations between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. For her, it had been a very meaningful experience. For the first time, she had had real contact with Turkish Cypriot people, she said.

"It has killed a lot of the prejudices that I had," Anthe said.

Demet Karcula, a Turkish Cypriot archeologist, said she enjoyed working in a bi-communal team. She said it was difficult at the beginning to exhume bodies that had been missing for 30 or 40 years. But she felt it was part of the healing process. Greek and Turkish remains are not separated.

"I am a Turkish Cypriot, but I feel the same when I find Greek Cypriot bodies," Karcula said. "We are all Cypriots."

Families would like an apology

Spyros Hadjinicolaou said he expected to get the remains of his father back next year. Only then would it be time to think about justice. The CMP was not mandated to investigate the causes of death, or to take legal steps, but only to return the remains to their families.

The need for justice existed, though, and was legitimate, Spyros said. He would prefer a process where the guilty come forward, admit their crimes and apologize, rather than pursuing lengthy criminal litigations in court. Considering the age of many involved, that would be pointless, he said.

For the time being, returning the remains of the more than 2,000 missing people continues to be the highest priority. Like Spyros and Agni, some cling to the hope of receiving their loved ones next year. For some, the process could take up to five years -- while others may never be found.

Searching for missing persons in Cyprus by barb

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