A surge of tourism increases access not just to well-known sites such as Angkor but also temples in regions once off-limits due to skirmishes.

A surge of tourism increases access not just to well-known sites such as Angkor but also temples in regions once off-limits due to skirmishes.

Two decades ago, the great ruined temple complex at Angkor in central Cambodia was an uncrowded dream destination. But as the country emerged from decades of poverty and suffering, mass tourism arrived at the UNESCO World Heritage Site. With it came sightseers by the busload and the transformation of the hamlet of Siem Reap at Angkor’s threshold — an amiable but ballooning tourist trap with a new international airport, a branch of the Cambodian national museum, a trendy restaurant row and an abundance of hotels, including high-enders Raffles and Sofitel.

If the speed of transformation is any indication, 2011 is the time to visit the diminutive Southeast Asian country lodged between Thailand and Vietnam, not just to take advantage of Siem Reap’s amenities but to go beyond Angkor to wonders still lost in the Cambodian jungle.

There are, for example, vestiges of the Khmer Empire as remarkable as Angkor all around Cambodia, including an older group of temples in the Sambor Prei Kuk area; Koh Ker, northeast of Siem Reap, opened to visitors since land mines, laid during the civil wars, were removed; and majestic Preah Vihear, on a mountaintop in the north where, until recently, Thai and Cambodian troops were engaged in a border skirmish.

The once-inaccessible Cambodian countryside, with its lime-green rice paddies, jungly mountains, swollen lakes and rushing rivers, increasingly is opening, thanks to adventure travel agencies that take visitors there by horse, motorcycle and helicopter. Guests at 4 Rivers Floating Lodge, a new eco-resort on the Tatai River in western Cambodia, get the chance to spot secretive rhinos and elephants in the wild, while boat trips up the great Mekong River cruise through the habitat of the rare, freshwater Irrawaddy dolphin on their way to the friendly Laotian border town of Chhlong.

Christmas is in the heart of Pinoys in Cambodia

By Leti Boniol Philippine Daily Inquirer

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia—It will be Mylene Malabanan’s second Christmas away from home this year. She will be spending Christmas Eve with Filipino friends also working in this southeast Asian capital, as she did last year. As for Christmas Day, “it’ll probably be just a regular Saturday for me.”

In a country where Buddhism reigns, Christmas is a struggle for thousands of Filipino professionals here, so they stick together, at least for the noche buena.

Mylene’s idea of Christmas is “just staying home with the family, seeing the children’s faces light up when they open their gifts, hearing their laughter, picture-taking, eating. I won’t have those here.”

Her friend Marie Anne ‘Maan’ Abrera, an account director and producer for a production company who has been working for five years here, says she has learned how to cope. “You miss your family, friends, and the tradition.” Still, she says the Filipino “community here will try to celebrate the way it is supposed to be” as “Christmas is in our hearts.”

But there is a good side to being away, she says: “I am not pressured to give gifts.”

Another Pinoy friend, Leon Franco Dionco, a creative director for a fashion magazine, says Filipinos are flexible and know how to maximize what they have so they can still enjoy Christmas together.

Three years in the Cambodian capital, Franco, an advertising graduate from Manila, has observed that since 2008, Christmas decor has been popping up in the city. He surmises that Phnom Penh is slowly being influenced by international holidays.

Mylene now sees “a lot of commercial establishments hanging Christmas decors. Bookstores also sell Christmas trees, some establishments have big Santa inflatables in front of their shops.”

Maan said she is sad in a way because some sectors in the city are “celebrating commercially without really understanding the true meaning of Christmas.”

Franco says he prefers to celebrate Christmas in a simple way. It is New Year’s Eve he is waiting for, and at Mylene’s office, December 31 is the one they really celebrate.

Cambodian, Vietnamese parliamentarians boost cooperation

A delegation of the Vietnam- Cambodia friendship parliamentarians group, led by Head of the NA committee for deputies’ affairs Pham Minh Tuyen, is visiting Cambodia from Dec. 22-27.

During the visit, the delegation met with representatives of the Cambodia-Vietnam friendship parliamentarians group, headed by permanent Deputy Prime Minister Men Sam An.

At the meeting, the two sides informed each other of their countries’ political situation and economic achievements and review their bilateral cooperative activities.

They agreed to further exchange information and delegations so as to strengthen friendship between the two nations.

The delegation was received by acting President of the Cambodian National Assembly Nguol Nhel and visited some localities in the country as part of the working visit.

Groundbreaking report looks at LGBT Cambodians

The Cambodian Center for Human Rights released a groundbreaking report on the 9 December titled “Coming Out in the Kingdom: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People in Cambodia.”

Rex Wockner

The Cambodian Center for Human Rights released a groundbreaking report on the 9 December titled “Coming Out in the Kingdom: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People in Cambodia.”

It says that LGBT Cambodians face unique challenges, including ostracism from their families and communities that often leads to economic hardship as well as discrimination by employers and authorities.

The report argues that the concept of homosexuality as understood in “the West” may not directly transfer to Cambodia.

“The Cambodian understanding of sexuality is derived from concepts of gender, character and personality,” it says. “The focus on these character traits and outwardly visible characteristics instead of sexual orientation means that many Cambodians who are homosexual do not identify themselves as such.”

Buddhism, the report says, generally tolerates homosexuality.

“Homosexuality, whilst seen as an oddity, does not attract the kind of aggressive reaction as can be seen in Christian or Muslim cultures,” it states. “Buddhism itself places no value on marriage or procreation. Marriage and procreation are considered positive if they bring about love and respect, but may be deemed negative if pain or strife is caused. However, in Cambodia, cultural, social and economic pressures override Buddhist teachings on marriage — family values are incredibly important and pressure is strong for sons and daughters to marry and have children.”

“Sexual behavior amongst male youths may be seen as harmless experimentation, since women are expected to remain ‘pure’ until marriage,” the report continues. “Youthful indiscretions may be forgotten or may continue unnoticed. However, eventually men are expected to marry and father children. Given traditional gender roles, women have less ability to pursue same-sex relationships than homosexual males, either privately or publicly.”

“The risk of ostracism from a close family network and economic difficulties posed by living outside the family network may mean that LGBT persons do not live the lives they wish to or have to conduct homosexual relationships in secret,” the researchers conclude.

Nonetheless, an LGBT community is emerging in the nation. A pride celebration, which includes workshops, movies, art exhibits and social gatherings, launched in 2003. Four hundred people attended the culmination of the events in 2009.

Pride organisers have formed an organisation called RoCK to support LGBT people and raise awareness among non-gay Cambodians.

A gay “scene” has developed in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

And “the Internet has allowed gay Cambodian people to connect to other gay people, thus raising awareness of a wider, global LGBT community and the possibilities of participating in this,” the report said.

Cambodia to let 62 Vietnamese refugees stay longer

Cambodia said Friday it will allow 62 Vietnamese refugees to stay in the country a few more weeks as a favor to the U.N. refugee agency but believes they no longer face any danger in Vietnam and can be sent back.

Cambodia previously gave the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees a New Year’s Day deadline to close a refugee compound in the Cambodian capital. But the country will now give the agency until Feb. 15 instead, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said.

“Vietnam is speeding up its economic growth. There is no war and no bombs, therefore Vietnam should not have any refugees,” Hor Namhong told reporters. “For the refugees who have not been granted asylum, they must be sent back to Vietnam. They cannot stay in Cambodia.”

The Foreign Ministry notified the UNHCR this month it planned to shut the housing compound Jan. 1 and send the residents home. Cambodia wants to close the compound in Phnom Penh to deter more arrivals.

The UNHCR pleaded for a little more time to help resettle the refugees.

“We’ll do them a favor. Prime Minister Hun Sen decided to postpone the deadline,” the foreign minister said.

Thousands of hill tribe people known as Montagnards fled to Cambodia since 2001, when Vietnam cracked down on protests against land confiscation and religious restrictions.

The current group is the last batch of asylum-seekers from 1,812 Vietnamese hill tribe people taken in by the UNHCR since 2006. The agency has resettled 999, mostly in the United States, and sent 751 home.

Many Montagnards sided with the United States during the Vietnam War, attend Protestant churches not recognized in Vietnam and are generally distrusted by the communist government.

Associated Press