Monday, 12 May 2008
Al Jazeera's correspondent in Myanmar reports from devastated town of Bogolay, where locals say the death toll from Cyclone Nargis could reach above 70,000.
Myanmar is one of the world's most secretive nations, making it difficult to get information on what's really going on inside.Zeina Awad looks at how the country's own state media are censoring the aftermath of a devastating cyclone.
It is still unclear how much of Burma's production will be affected. The five hardest-hit Burmese states account for 65 percent of the country's rice output.(RANGOON, Myanmar) - Damage from Cyclone Nargis may spread beyond Burma in the form of higher food costs throughout Asia and the rest of the world, experts say.
World rice prices, which have nearly tripled since the start of the year, could be pushed up further as aid agencies scramble for emergency supplies to replace Burma's lost crops.
Industry analysts have suggested that the loss of Burma's rice exports from the world market is too small to make a major impact on prices, which have already hit record highs. Before the cyclone, Burma was expected to export only about 600,000 tons this year, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said.
But experts told Radio Free Asia that any loss of supplies will add pressure on prices in a world market where only 30 million tons of rice are traded internationally. Supplies are already tight because producing nations including India, China and Cambodia have imposed export restrictions in an effort to keep prices from climbing further at home.
"When Asian countries encounter natural disasters and have to turn to the market ... it can produce a further price shock because the international market is so thin," said Robert Paarlberg, an agriculture expert and political science professor at Wellesley College.
Drop export bans
U.N. and World Bank officials have urged rice producing countries to open their borders and drop export bans to ease the world price spike. The cost of Thai B-grade has soared from about $365 per ton in January to $940 per ton this week.
Some 26 countries have curbed exports so far, according to the World Bank.
Paarlberg said that governments are feeling pressure due to inflation in prices of fuel as well as food. But world rice production is estimated to reach 425 million tons this year. That amount could meet world demand if the markets open up, he said.
It is still unclear how much of Burma's production will be affected. The five hardest-hit Burmese states account for 65 percent of the country's rice output, according to the FAO.
Some crops in the Irrawaddy delta may be damaged by salt water, the agency said.
Nicholas Minot, senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, said the disaster is likely to increase price pressures in other countries even if relief agencies meet Burma's emergency needs.
"This will create a tighter situation in terms of tradeable rice supply on the world market, and it's very likely that there will be a need for food aid and rice imports into Burma," said Minot. "That will put an additional burden on both the budgets of the World Food Program and other food agencies, but also on the rice markets themselves."
Supplies likely to shrink
Minot said available rice supplies are likely to shrink even if governments donate food to Burma.
"There's really no way to isolate the effect from the market," he said. "Even if countries are able to provide rice out of their existing stocks and don't have to purchase it, traders are monitoring stocks, and if they see that the stocks are going down, that has a direct effect on prices."
World rice prices have declined slightly from a high of about $1,000 per ton after the Philippines cancelled an auction on May 5 due to a lack of competitive bids. The government decided to rely on its domestic stocks after a Vietnamese supplier reportedly sought a price of $1,200 per ton.
Minot said the resistance shows that importers fear they will be unable to sell rice at such high prices, but even in the best case, he sees little chance that prices will return to levels of a year ago. Paarlberg said rice costs are rising beyond the reach of the poor.
Restrictions make the situation worse
"When the price of food goes up as much as it has on top of the price of fuel, their disposable income goes to nothing," Paarlberg said.
While natural disasters and world demand have influenced prices, government export restrictions have been blamed for making the situation worse.
On April 30th, Thailand's prime minister, Samak Sundaravej, suggested that his country should join forces with Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma and Laos to form a rice cartel that would coordinate exports, influence prices and help stabilize the market. The plan won support from Cambodia, but it was widely criticized as a scheme to keep prices high.
Paarlberg said a rice cartel is unlikely to work because cooperation among exporters is hard to enforce. Minot agreed, saying that calls for price-setting cartels usually come when commodity prices are low, not high. "I don't think that is what's really called for right now," Minot said.
Monday May 12, 2008
Noppadon denies compromise
Thailand will not compromise with Cambodia in negotiations over land around Preah Vihear temple, which Phnom Penh wants to register as a Unesco World Heritage Site, Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama said yesterday.
''I [as foreign minister] will not let this country give up a square inch of territory to Cambodia,'' Mr Noppadon said.
The ancient Khmer temple, which is on the border in Si Sa Ket province, was ruled by the International Court of Justice to belong to Cambodia in 1962.
The area around the temple remains in dispute, with the two countries' claims overlapping.
To register the temple, known as Khao Phra Viharn in Thai, as a World Heritage Site might require Thailand giving up some disputed land to Cambodia.
Mr Noppadon's strong statement came amid rumours Thailand might compromise in exchange for benefits for some politicians, including petroleum concessions in other disputed areas.
The reports follow the minister's recent sudden transfer of Virachai Plasai, director-general of the Treaties and Legal Affairs Department and head of the negotiation team, to an inactive post.
Mr Virachai is seen by senior officials at the ministry as the most capable person for the job.
Mr Noppadon yesterday strongly denied the speculation. He said the issue of Preah Vihear had nothing to do with a petroleum agreement.
The World Heritage issue was sensitive for both countries, he said, and he sympathised with Cambodia, which was due for a general election in July _ the same time the World Heritage Committee is to reconsider Phnom Penh's unilateral request for listing Preah Vihear.
The minister said Thailand and Cambodia would reach an agreement on the exploitation of natural resources in disputed areas. Negotiations were underway and should be finalised soon.
''Thailand and Cambodia have 26,000 square kilometres of disputed areas and this requires a joint agreement because there are oil and natural gas deposits worth about five trillion baht in the areas,'' he said.
''The dispute deserves joint management and government-to-government actions.
''(Negotiations) have made good progress. The issue will be discussed with Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Sok An as soon as possible.
Monday, May 12, 2008
Illegal trade of gasoline and sugar across the Cambodia-Vietnam border is now rampant in some southern Mekong Delta provinces.
Amid escalating world oil prices, Vietnam’s gasoline price, which is partly subsidized by the government, is lower than Cambodia’s fuel by VND5,500-7,500 (US$0.34-0.46) per liter.
Vietnam’s diesel and kerosene prices are also about VND3,000 ($0.19) cheaper.
An Giang Province’s Market Management Department estimated some 40,000 to 60,000 liters of fuel were trafficked out of the province daily.
The department named An Phu District, Tinh Bien District and Chau Doc Town as localities where fuel smuggling is rife.
A veteran trafficker N.V.M. said about 20 “businessmen” direct several dozens of people to smuggle gasoline, diesel and kerosene from Tinh Bien border town to Cambodia by water and land.
Fuel traffickers often mix kerosene into gasoline to earn more profit from sales, another trafficker named T.V.B. said.
Sometimes they add tra catfish oil into gasoline to “export,” T.V.B. said.
Domestic sugar prices, meanwhile, are higher than smuggled sugar by VND500-1,000 per kilogram, precipitating an illegal influx of the commodity into Vietnam.
Thailand’s sugar smuggled into Mekong Delta provinces via Cambodian traders is causing difficulty to sugar companies in the region.
Can Tho Sugar Company (Casuco) General Director Nguyen Thanh Long said although the company had reduced its sugar prices to VND8,000 per kilogram compared to early last month, it is still hard to compete with smuggled sugar, which is sold at about VND7,600 per kilogram.
Long said the company outlets in Can Tho City were now only able to sell between 50 and 100 tons of sugar daily, two to three times lower than before.
He also said around 300-400 tons of sugar are smuggled into the Mekong Delta region each day.
In An Giang Province, smuggled sugar bags are often falsely labeled before market distribution to avoid anti-contraband detection.
The China Post news staff
TAIPEI, Taiwan -- All Taiwanese tourists still stranded in Siem Reap, Cambodia, will be flown home tomorrow by a charter flight of Far Eastern Air Transport (FAT).
Several hundred of the tourists visiting Siem Reap -- home to the world famous Angkor Wat complex -- were stranded because of the abrupt shutdown of Angkor Airways last week due to financial troubles.
The tourists were gradually taken back by indirect flights provided by other of Taiwan's air carriers, including China Airlines (CAL) flights with stopovers at other cities like Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, or Ho Chi Minh City of Vietnam.
There are presently 148 tourists who flew to Cambodian on Angkor Airways tickets who will be able to return to Taiwan on an FAT charter plan that will fly directly from Siem Reap to Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport tomorrow.
The FAT flight was arranged after intensive negotiations involving FAT and local travel agencies with a final nod from the government's Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA).
The direct charter flights from Taiwan to Angkor Wat remains a lucrative line because of high interest in the historic and religious sites in the area following active promotion by travel agencies.
Since Angkor Airways has suspended the flight service, other air carriers have expressed keen interest to continue providing the charter flights.
Some travel agencies have stepped up persuasion, urging FAT to fill the void. But a couple of other Taiwan-based airlines are expected to compete for the lucrative line also.
A final decision will have to be made by the CAA in Taiwan and Cambodia's aviation authorities based on the aviation agreement reached between the two sides.
Monday, May 12, 2008
The bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh is getting quicker all the time, as work on the road on the Cambodian side nears completion.
It takes about seven hours, sometimes less, depending on how the border checks go.
About an hour out of the Khmer capital there are a few holdups with road work, but compared to a few months ago they are minimal.
The road is quite smooth and comfortable and there is plenty of interesting scenery to look at.
The border crossing at Moc Bai/ Bavet costs about VND400,000 (US$25) for foreigners – VND300,000 ($18.75) for the Cambodian visa and VND100,000 ($6.25) for the bus company – to organize all the passengers and passports in one hit.
Several local money changers work the strip but only offer half the going rate, so it’s better to wait till you get to a bank in Phnom Penh.
For a short stay US dollars are the main currency anyway.
Then the bus passes through the Cambodian border casino paradox, where dirty markets are juxtaposed with rows of large glitzy gambling houses against a backdrop of a fairly desolate landscape.
The roadside lunch restaurant stop has a wide range of excellent Khmer food, the chicken curry is a special favorite.
They accept US dollars, Vietnamese dong or Cambodian riel, whatever you have.
The dish is not particularly cheap, at about US$3.
The next stop is a river ferry crossing at Kandal.
Vendors assail the bus with all sorts of delicacies in trays balanced on their heads.
The bus driver often has to shut the door to keep the passengers in and the vendors out.
Big-bellied fried frogs, baby birds and crickets are the main fare.
God knows how much they cost – I didn’t ask! But there were also some little sweet glutinous rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves – 50 for $1.
A few hours up the road is Phnom Penh. A tuk-tuk can take you from the bus station to your hotel.
Reported by Michael Smith
May 12, 2008
Thailand will soon end its dispute with Cambodia over the proposed listing of Preah Vihear Temple as a World Heritage Site without making any trade-offs for oil rights, Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama said yesterday.
"We are negotiating to have a joint administration run the temple and its grounds," Noppadon said. "We'll have a joint statement on the issue soon."
The International Court of Justice in 1962 ruled the Hindu temple belonged to Cambodia.
Thailand had no objection to listing the site until Phnom Penh, in preparing its application, annexed 4.6 square kilometres of land with overlapping ownership claims.
Thailand has suggested the contested area be managed by a bilateral body.
Both sides need to reach an agreement before the UN Educational, Science and Culture Organisation makes its final
listing decision in July.
The issue was politicised by some newspaper columnists who alleged the government would concede to Cambodia's proposal if Phnom Penh granted oil and gas concessions to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Cambodia has discovered potential oil and natural gas reserves in the Gulf of Thailand in its own territory and in overlapping areas. The two countries are working on a joint development scheme, Noppadon said.
The talks were on a government-to-government basis and the private sector was not involved.
He said, adding he had no idea whether Thaksin had struck a deal with Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen.
"I don't want to speak on behalf of former premier Thaksin, but I believe he would never barter away Thai territory for business interests," he said.
May 11, 2008
Everyone served, no exceptions.
That's the simple policy and philosophy at The Neighbors' Place food pantry, as summed up by Seang Lee Kim, a senior aide and volunteer called "Mr. Lee" by everyone who knows him.
It took some time before I could actually speak with Mr. Lee, however. He was busy helping a long line of pantry customers, leaving plenty of time to stand and observe all the activity going on around me at an organized yet hectic pace.
Clients stood calmly and quietly at the doorway of the food pantry, waiting their turn. I was there at 4 p.m. on a Wednesday, one of the busiest times to distribute food. While I took in the scenery, I counted at least 60 people getting food and assistance.
They represented many races and backgrounds. They ranged from the young to the elderly, from people with medical problems to those stopping for food between their first and second jobs of the day. There were parents with children along and some who went about their business, quiet and alone.
I met Deborah Roehr, who is a grandmother and Wausau homemaker who had stopped at the pantry for milk and food.
"It's got everything," she said of the pantry, "quality food and the service is good, too."
One by one, the people went to a desk, where they showed indentification and were asked their telephone numbers, income and how many children in their family and ages.
They can visit the pantry once every three weeks, and signs around the distribution area remind them of the rules: "6 items per family, one meat only per family, one boxed meal per family, one cereal per family and five-minute time limit."
Food distribution ran like a smooth machine. Visitors put the food in shopping carts, and volunteers -- including people on the W-2 public assistance program, county jail inmates, high school students and other community members -- took the food in the carts to the cars.
When at last I spoke with Mr. Lee, he told me he came to the United States on Feb. 3, 1981, and first arrived in California. He is from Cambodia and left because of the communist regime. Before he came to the United States, he was in a refugee camp in Bangkok, Thailand, for three years waiting for his four children.
But after he passed tests and completed interviews with refugee redistribution agencies, he had no choice but to leave by himself.
Asked what he likes about his work at the food pantry, Mr. Lee replied, "I like to talk to people and to help people." As for the type of people who use the food pantry, he said, "All kinds of people -- everyone served, no exceptions."
Melissa Cunningham-Campbell of Wausau is a member of The Neighbors' Place board of directors.
(CNA) Taipei, May 10 (CNA) A group of Taiwanese tourists stranded in Siem Reap, Cambodia, by the abrupt shutdown of Angkor Airways arrived at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport Saturday on a China Airlines (CAL) flight from Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia.
The travelers were the first of among 449 Angkor Airways ticket holders to return home after being left without a return flight when the Phnom Penh-headquartered carrier suddenly decided Friday to temporarily suspend all its flights between Taipei and Siem Reap -- home to the world famous Angkor Wat complex -- because of financial woes.
A total of four flights on Saturday were expected to bring a combined 134 of the tourists home, with the remaining passengers expected to catch other flights to Taipei on May 12 and 13.
They have been forced to find connecting flights from Phnom Penh, and Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, on CAL, EVA Airways and Vietnam Airlines.
Such flights added five hours to travel times to Taipei compared to the canceled direct flights between Taipei and Siem Reap, according to local travel agencies, which reportedly will suffer substantial financial losses because of the flight cancellations.
Angkor Airways operated 20 to 23 chartered flights between Taipei and Siem Reap per month. It attributed the suspension of flights to the detention of Alex Lou, the managing director of the carrier's Taipei branch, who is suspected of being involved in Far Eastern Air Transport (FAT) embezzlement case.
Lou was responsible for the financial management of the branch, the carrier said, and without him, the branch faced insurmountable cash flow problems.
The suspension of Angkor Airways flights has only added to the woes of debt-ridden FAT, which has leased aircraft to the Cambodian airline for its Taipei-Siem Reap service, FAT executives said.
They noted that the partner airline owes FAT NT$790 million (US$25.77 million) and the cancellation of the flights will deprive FAT of NT$1.34 million in daily income from the lease contract.
FAT, Taiwan's oldest private carrier that has been hit hard by a deteriorating domestic aviation market, filed for bankruptcy protection with the Taipei District Court on Feb. 17 and has been struggling to meet its operating obligations since.
Taipei prosecutors suspect that top-ranking managers at FAT pocketed company funds and purposely let Angkor Airways delay paying FAT the debts in exchange for kickbacks.
(By Elizabeth Hsu)
Monday, May 12, 2008
Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, who has a notoriously combative relationship with his country’s press, threatened yesterday to sue two local newspapers.
Speaking on his weekly Talking Samak Style television show, the prime minister took two unnamed papers to task over their reporting of disputes over a temple on the Thai-Cambodia border.
Samak, who is known for his gruff, straight-talking style, recently canceled his twice-weekly press briefings because he said he was worried he would publicly utter “rude words.”
In his latest attack on the media, he said the newspapers had accused him of trading claims over the temple — which is on Cambodian soil but to which Thailand has historically laid claim — for financial gain over oil deals.
“That is absolutely unacceptable,” he told viewers. “Tomorrow my lawyer will certainly have a job to do. The only way out is through the court.”
Samak did not give any details of the offending newspapers, or specifics of the allegations.
Thailand and Cambodia have historically both laid claim to the Preah Vihear temple, an ancient Hindu site perched on a mountaintop on the Thai-Cambodia border.
The World Court in 1962 ruled that the temple belonged to Cambodia.
The UN culture organization UNESCO last year decided against granting the temple coveted World Heritage status.
Rumors swirled that Thailand had blocked Cambodia’s efforts to have Preah Vihear listed, but Cambodian officials denied this, and Samak has said he will not hamper attempts by Cambodia to try once again to have the site listed.
A former TV chef and self-styled “man of the people”, Samak led the People Power Party (PPP) to an election victory last December and often uses his Sunday television show to complain about the Thai media.
When he announced he would no longer give his press briefings, he said that the public believed he used impolite words.
“So to solve this problem and so that I do not utter such rude words, I must not talk,” he said.
By Victoria Shouldis
For the Monitor
May 11, 2008
The theme of family - both in terms of the people who raise you and family in the most global, community sense - was the focus of yesterday's commencement ceremony at Henniker's New England College.
Members of the school's 61st graduating class heard firsthand about family - and the almost unimaginable devastation of loss - from commencement speaker Loung Ung, who lost both parents and two siblings in the genocide following the 1975 Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia.
In a stirring and paradoxically upbeat speech, Ung offered a brief retelling of her life, from degradation, starvation, and unrelenting grief to new life in the United States and a passion for writing that sustains her.
About 300 students from NEC's undergraduate and graduate program received degrees yesterday in the ceremony at the Lee Clement Arena; in addition to Ung, poet and Pulitzer Prize winner Galway Kinnell and human rights advocate Radhakant Nayak were awarded honorary doctoral degrees at the ceremony.
Nayak has devoted much of his life to the more global family, working for justice and equality for those who remain disenfranchised from the effects of India's former caste system. Kinnell focuses his poetic eye on those unexpected failings and foibles in each slice of family life; he read his poem "It All Comes Back" - a comic-but-suddenly-not-so-comic look at a cake mishap at his 4-year-old son's birthday party.
In the audience, Dave Gallup, his mother-in-law, Janice Griffin, and son Adrian, 5, enthusiastically waited to cheer on June Gallup, who was receiving a master's degree in management. As Adrian passed the time with a small green dinosaur and a Gameboy, Gallup's mother talked about the importance of the day.
"It's a family effort. We'd talk every night, and it seemed like every time I turned around, June was in school again!" Griffin joked. "I am proud of her. She's my special daughter."
Max and Diane Lavoie were thrilled to find a picture of their son James Hawkes V in the latest edition of the student newspaper as the ceremony began yesterday. Hawkes, from Manchester, was a theater major. Diane Lavoie was able to list most of the productions her son has been in at NEC - from Laramie to The Diviners. She also recalled his most revealing role.
"He played Tartuffe, and I got to see my son all dressed in gold lame and boxer shorts including a scene where he showed his behind for a minute," recalled Lavoie. "I was worried about how his grandmother would react - but we warned her, and we sat on the left side where you couldn't see so much of him. His grandmother said that that was the most she'd seen of him in 18 years, since she'd last changed his diapers!"
Alumnus and trustee Franc Perry - who identified himself as the first openly gay African American on the NEC board of trustees - offered graduates advice taken from a blessing given to slaves as they were separated from family in the 1700's: remember who you are, where you come from, and God bless you. Perry then led the crowd in the singing of "America."
In her address to the class, Ung talked about her earliest childhood memories. She began with herself as a 4-year-old, content and comforted in the lap of her father at a movie theatre.
"I had soy milk and dried crickets- crunchier than popcorn, I'll tell you - and when I didn't want to hold these things anymore my father put his hand out and just knew to take them," she said.
"See we didn't have cup holders in Cambodia back then but we didn't need them. We had fathers."
Within a year of that memory Ung's family was dispossessed and moved into rural camps where there was forced work and widespread starvation. And fewer than four years later - about the time it takes to get a college degree, she noted - her parents were dead and two siblings were gone and Ung was left to somehow put together the pieces of her shattered life.
But put together her life she did - intervention from relief organizations eventually landed her in Vermont - and in her life, Ung found her resilience, her voice, and even a sharp sense of humor. She also found a deep appreciation for family in the loss of her own.
"Your family is your road map to your past, present and future," she said, urging graduates to take a moment to appreciate the value of what they have. "Today: grab your father's hand and kiss your mother: they make all the difference in a cold world."
As the names of the graduates were announced one by one, perhaps the youngest person in the crowd ,14-week-old Sophie, found comfort and curiosity in her father Ted Olivo's arms as they waited for mom Senja Olivo to cross the stage.
"Mommy's next and you have to clap for her," Ted Olivo stage-whispered to the infant. And with a little help, she did.
"Thailand would never give even an inch of its territory to Cambodia and no one in the government thought about doing it," Mr. Noppadon said.
Admitting that the overlapping claims to the areas surrounding the Preah Vihear temple of Cambodia is a very sensitive issue while negotiations with Cambodian officials are not yet finalised, Mr. Noppadon said.
Cambodia has asked the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) named the Preah Vihear temple to its World Heritage list.
Historically, Thailand and Cambodia have laid claim to the temple, astride the border in Kantharalak district of Thailand's Si Sa Ket but can be easily accessed only through Thailand.
The World Court ruled in 1962 that the temple belonged to Cambodia.
"Currently, areas mutually claimed by Thailand and Cambodia are not yet settled total 26,000 square kilometres. It's necessary for the two countries to settle the disputed areas first because they contain oil and natural gas worth about Bt5 trillion," Mr. Noppadon said.
The disputed areas should be jointly managed by governments of the two countries, he said, adding that he would discuss the issue with Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Sok An as soon as possible.
"The country's interests must come first. A joint statement will be issued by the two governments regarding the overlapping areas. Only a few minor wordings are left for the settlement," Mr. Noppadon added.
The Jakarta Post, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap
Sitting under the shade of a tree, on a hot day in the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, 15 kilometers from Central Phnom Penh, I felt horrified thinking of the suffering of the thousands of innocent people who were killed here by the Khmer Rouge regime.
A tiny ant was walking on my arm. Without giving it a second thought, I brushed it away. It rolled over but managed to regain its balance. Immediately I regretted the recklessness of my action.
In ordinary circumstances, I would not have cared about the life of an ant. But I'd just seen more than 8,000 skulls of victims arranged according to sex and age under glass panels in the memorial stupa on the Killing Fields.
My travel partner helped me get the ant off my arm and lowered it to the ground. "There you go," he said to the ant and we watched it walk away.
Before setting off for Cambodia, I'd had visions of touring the magnificent temples of Angkor in Siem Reap, which I eventually did. Cambodia's intense history, however, left a stronger impression than I'd expected.
Phnom Penh Before traveling on to Siem Reap, my partner and I spent two nights in the capital city, Phnom Penh.
There we visited the Tuol Sleng Museum and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, which also bear witness to the horror of the Khmer Rouge regime.
In 1975, the Khmer Rouge overthrew the U.S.-supported Lon Nol government, seizing Phnom Penh. In the name of its "peasant revolution", the Khmer Rouge ordered the mass exodus of two million Phnom Penh residents to the countryside, where they were forced to carry out hard labor. From 1975 to 1979, more than two million of the country's seven million people lost their lives.
The Tuol Sleng Museum, formerly Tuol Svay Prey High School, was transformed into a prison by the Khmer Rouge. It was renamed S-21. A number of prisons, such as the S-21, were scattered across Cambodia. In S-21, some 17,000 former government officials and intellectuals were tortured. The prisoners were later transported to Choeung Ek and killed - most bludgeoned to death in order to save bullets.
We took a guided tour around the museum. A Cambodian woman guided us from room to room, showing us the metal bed on which the prisoners died. We saw the claustrophobic chambers made of red bricks inside the rooms, in which prisoners were kept.
Hundreds of pictures of former prisoners and guards were displayed in the museum. The Khmer Rouge was very detailed in their documentation, taking pictures of prisoners when they first arrived at S-21.
It was inevitable that visiting the two historical sites would be emotionally draining. It was important though for us to visit them to grasp the intensity of the tragedy.
The remarkable thing about Phnom Penh is that, apart from the two historical sites, the city has a fun atmosphere. Almost 30 years after the end of the holocaust, Phnom Penh is thriving. Old French colonial houses stand alongside the traditional Royal Palace.
Big land cruisers, as well as scooters ridden by youngsters, fill the streets. At night, as the air cools down, Phnom Penh residents flock to the parks in front of the royal palace and near the National Museum (this park boasts a "dancing fountain", with dangdut tracks included).
After a bittersweet journey through Phnom Penh, we committed ourselves to a six-hour bus ride through the flatlands of Cambodia heading to Siem Reap, the gateway to the temples of Angkor.
The construction of new buildings and new roads shows that the once still backwater is facing rapid development. Near the Tonle Sap riverfront, guesthouses and cool restaurants and bars flourish, giving tourists a place to relax after a long day of temple traipsing.
It would take more than a day to explore the 100 or so temples of Angkor, built between the ninth and 14th centuries, the time when Khmer civilization experienced the height of its extraordinary creativity.
Staying in Siem Reap for five days, we chose the US$60
seven-day pass over the one or three day passes.
On our first day, we hit Angkor's star temple, the 12th century Angkor Wat, the biggest and one of the most preserved temples in Angkor.
The tips of the towers of Angkor Wat slowly emerged in sight as we neared them on a motorcycle-powered cart (Tuk Tuk). I felt like I was in the mythical land of a children's storybook.
The wide moat surrounding the temple is breathtakingly beautiful.
Constructed by Suryavarman II, the Hindu temple oddly faces the west, believed to be the direction of death. The temple is thought to be a tribute to Vishnu, the Hindu deity the king identifies with, as well as his tomb.
Read counter-clockwise, the bas-relief tells various stories, the most intriguing of which is a depiction of heaven and hell where doomed souls are dragged along by devils.
Other temples in the complex are equally impressive. One of the Angkor kings, Jayavarman VII, reigned from the late 12th century to the 13th century. A Buddhist god-king, he constructed the fortified city of Angkor Thom, which is home to the Bayon temple and other structures.
The Bayon consists of 56 towers carved with 216 giant faces of Avalokiteshvara looking down. Some scholars suggest that the faces may also be a representation of the king himself.
Some of the temple ruins in Angkor have been abandoned for hundreds of years and thus "swallowed up" by the forest. Tall trees grow on temple rooftops with their gigantic roots covering the buildings.
Angkor in the end does not only hold evidence of the extraordinary creativity of the ancient Khmer empire but also bears witness to the powerful forces of nature.