Arriving at the Temples of Angkor Aboard a Luxurious River Cruise Vessel

PHNOM PENH — Gliding through the water almost soundlessly, the ship drifted toward a small landing stage and quickly threw down the gangplank. An elderly man in swimming trunks lounged next to the boat’s swimming pool. Another sipped from a glass of whiskey as he watched the city approach from his private balcony.

This was no ordinary vessel. Unlike the more traditional fishing boats and ferries that ply the waterways of Southeast Asia, the AmaLotus, a cruise ship that began operating in September, contains luxuries like spa treatments, a gym and a swimming pool.

At 92 meters, or 302 feet, in length and capable of holding 124 passengers, the AmaLotus is one of the latest cruise ships to start ferrying tourists between Siem Reap in Cambodia and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam on the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers.

With competition among cruising companies already fierce on rivers further west — like the Nile, the Danube and the Volga — the Tonle Sap and the Mekong are starting to attract more interest from foreign operators.

The river cruise industry is growing fast worldwide as the baby boom generation in the United States, Europe and Australia enters retirement and looks for new travel experiences. While river cruises represent only a fraction of the global cruise industry, they are the fastest-growing segment of the market, said Bob Sharak, executive vice president of marketing for the Cruise Lines International Association.

“This is, in part, because of the growing number of travelers who have already taken a cruise and are looking for new cruise experiences, but also because the river cruise companies have invested in new ships, developed new itineraries in Europe and elsewhere, including Asia,” he said.

The booming Cambodian tourism industry — tourist arrivals increased to more than 2.5 million people in 2010 from 1 million in 2004 — and large waterways make the country a natural fit for companies on the hunt for new markets.

“For us, it’s an upscale market,” said Rudi Schreiner, president and co-owner of AmaWaterways, a river cruise operator based in California that has a 50 percent stake in the AmaLotus along with Indochina Sails, a Vietnamese cruising company.

Prices on the AmaLotus start at $1,599 per person for a seven-night cruise between Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh City during the low season in June and July, and reach as high as $4,000 for a top-of-the-range suite during the high season, which runs from October until March.

AmaWaterways is not the only company looking to tap into the river cruise market here. Heritage Line, a Vietnamese cruise company began operating a 70-meter liner capable of transporting 52 passengers between Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap last month.

The company is also building another ship to be chartered by Viking River Cruises of California. The 94-meter vessel will be capable of holding 124 passengers and is scheduled to start in January 2013.

Compagnie Fluviale du Mekong, founded by Terre Voyages, a travel company based in Paris, was the first cruise company to operate in Cambodia. The idea was to take visitors to the celebrated temples near Siem Reap while also showing them parts of the countryside where most Western travelers have never set foot.

Compagnie Fluviale started out with a 10-cabin boat called the Toum Tiou, the title of a traditional tragic Khmer love story. Fully paneled in wood, the Toum Tiou focuses on tourists looking to travel on a smaller, more intimate vessel.

Still, operating in one of the world’s poorest countries on pristine waters comes with its challenges and responsibilities.

For a start, it is not a year-round industry: cruise ships can reach Siem Reap only between September and January, when the water level in the Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, is high enough to let them pass.

What is more, environmentalists say boats running on diesel engines pollute freshwater lakes like the Tonle Sap, which is estimated to provide as much as 70 percent of Cambodia’s total protein intake through its fish.

The release of nitrogen oxides, produced when diesel fuel is burned, can lead to acidification in water and soil.

Cruise companies say that they are looking for ways to become more environmentally conscious. Compagnie Fluviale is installing more energy-efficient engines, power generators and air- conditioning units to cut fuel use.

Heritage Line and AmaWaterways are also looking to invest in cleaner engines, though there is still a long way to go until standards reach those being enacted in Europe.

“We’re still way behind developments on the European rivers. due to engineers’ not being able to think that far,” said Mr. Peter of Heritage Line. “Most of our boats are still diesel guzzlers.”

Another challenge for cruise companies is ensuring that the money generated from cruises also reaches the local population.

“That is one of the hard parts: making sure that tourists arriving in Cambodia — that the money they spend works its way down,” said Jimmy Murphy, chairman of AmaWaterways.

The AmaLotus has a total of 57 people working onboard from Europe, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia. Ten of them are from Cambodia, working in the kitchen and restaurant and earning an average of $250 per month. Cambodia’s average per capita income is $830 per year, according to recently released government figures.

With aging populations in many countries around the world offering more potential customers, Cambodia’s river cruise industry is poised for further growth.

“The type of customers you find on here are quite interested in learning things,” said Geoff McGeary, the owner of APT Group, an Australian travel company that has a share in AmaWaterways. “They haven’t come on this trip to lie on their back in the sun. They’re out to see things and learn things while they still can.”



Cambodia’s ailing former King Sihanouk vows to never leave his homeland again

By Associated Press, Published: October 30

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Cambodia’s ailing former king Norodom Sihanouk, his country’s dominant figure for half-a-century, vowed Sunday at a rare public appearance never to leave his homeland again.

Sihanouk, his son King Norodom Sihamoni and Prime Minister Hun Sen shared the podium at a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the former monarch’s return to his homeland after years of civil war.

The occasion may mark a last hurrah for Sihanouk, one of the giants of postwar Asian politics and the nonaligned movement of Third World countries.

In recent years, Sihanouk, who turns 89 on Monday, has suffered from colon cancer, diabetes and hypertension, and spent most of his time in China. He returned Thursday from his latest three months of medical treatment in Beijing.

The celebration of his Nov. 14, 1991 return was held Sunday in order to also mark his birthday Monday.

Tens of thousands of people turned out to attend the ceremony held in front of the royal palace in the capital, Phnom Penh. His picture and slogans were displayed there and along the city’s main streets.

“I have the great honor to inform our lovely compatriots that from now on, despite still having health problems and needing routine checkups by my Chinese medical team, I and my wife, the queen, have decided to stay forever with our compatriots inside our country,” Sihanouk said with a smile, eliciting cheers from the crowd. He said if the need arises, he would ask his Chinese doctors to come to Cambodia to attend him.

Sihanouk has a mixed legacy. He was admired for steering his small nation clear of the war in neighboring Vietnam for many years by deftly playing one side off against the other until he was overthrown by a U.S.-backed coup in 1970.

He then fatefully allied himself with the communist Khmer Rouge, who waged a bitter struggle for power against the U.S.-supported regime until taking over the country in 1975 and plunging it into the “Killing Fields” of bloody purges and misrule that left an estimated 1.7 million people dead.

Sihanouk’s support in the early stages won many adherents to the Khmer Rouge among ordinary Cambodians as well as diplomatic support

He became a mute prisoner in his own palace until a Vietnamese invasion ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979. Appalled at what the Khmer Rouge did to his country, he still fell into an uneasy tacit alliance with them against the Vietnamese occupation, with a new round of civil war coming to a formal end only with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1991.

Sihanouk was still held in high regard by many Cambodians when he came back home again and seemed set to provide at least moral leadership as the country rebuilt itself.

But Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge who came to power with the backing of Vietnam and kept his position as prime minister after the peace accords, proved to be a tough and wily political rival.

He deftly sidelined Norodom Ranariddh, another son of Sihanouk who had been co-prime minister, and consolidated power in his own hands, marginalizing Sihanouk with threats to abolish the monarchy.

In 2004, Sihanouk abdicated in favor of son Sihamoni, a retiring reluctant monarch who posed no threat to Hun Sen. The prime minister maintains an iron grip over the country within a democratic framework while brooking no challengers.

Hun Sen on Sunday praised what he described as Sihanouk’s idea of national reconciliation.

“Under the former king’s leadership and along with the government, a win-win policy was implemented that has brought us full peace and national reconciliation,” Hun Sen said.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.  



Shinawatras Pull Off Another Political Magic Act

SAN KHAMPAENG, THAILAND — Once again the Shinawatra clan has pulled off an unlikely feat: One of the wealthiest families in Thailand has convinced the poor and politically disenfranchised that it understands their problems, feels their pain and will fight for their rights.

The paradox of a billionaire family winning Sunday’s election by championing the have-nots — a notion that flabbergasts its adversaries — was on full display here in San Kamphaeng, the Shinawatra family’s hometown.

In grubby market stalls and ramshackle shops, residents flew red flags that advertised their support for Thaksin Shinawatra and his younger sister, Yingluck, who is now in line to become Thailand’s first female prime minister.

“We are so happy and relieved,” said Somboon Kamduang, a 55-year-old resident who scratches out a living selling peanuts and beans in the market and singing in restaurants at night.

Mr. Somboon said he was one of dozens of residents who gathered at the covered marketplace on Sunday night to watch election returns on television — and cheer the victory.

There were similar celebrations across north and northeast Thailand after the surprisingly strong victory of Pheu Thai, as the party led by Ms. Yingluck is known. Opponents of the party fear a surge of populist policies, increased debt for the country and a revival of what they say were efforts by Mr. Thaksin to dilute democratic checks and balances.

But here in the birthplace of a now revitalized Shinawatra political dynasty, the victory Sunday was personal.

“We have been tormented since 2006,” said Piyapong Pookklai, 61, a classmate of Mr. Thaksin at the local primary school. The military coup that year removed Mr. Thaksin from power and the election Sunday was seen here as both a vindication and an act of defiance toward the coup makers.

A caravan of pick-up trucks from the Pheu Thai Party drove triumphantly through town on Monday, with loudspeakers blaring a grateful message to voters: “We will bring happiness back to you, brothers and sisters! Thank you!”

The caravan was led by Mr. Thaksin’s niece, Chinnicha Wongsawad, who was re-elected as a member of Parliament with a commanding 78 percent of the vote. At 29 years old she is one of the youngest members of the Shinawatra family.

She joins the growing dynasty: In 1969 Mr. Thaksin’s father, Lerdt, was elected to Parliament and served a little more than two years. (Like his son nearly four decades later, his term was interrupted by a military coup.) Mr. Thaksin’s sister, Yaowalak, served as an official in the municipal government of Chiang Mai, the busy capital of northern Thailand a half-hour drive from here. Mr. Thaksin’s brother, Payap, was a member of Parliament for one year until the 2006 coup.

Finally, Ms. Yingluck’s election to Parliament on Sunday marked her debut in politics. Previously she worked as an executive in Mr. Thaksin’s business empire.

The Shinawatra family started its silk business in 1911 and have spent recent decades converting their economic clout into a political power.

As Chinese immigrants who arrived in northern Thailand in the early 1900s, the family’s forebears were outsiders. But the family grew deep roots in the community, married local villagers, bought land, planted orchards, lent out money and soon became the overlords of the area.

Bangorn Auppara, 76, a resident who once worked for the Shinawatras, says the secret to the family’s success has been a mixture of hard work, resourcefulness, and “stinginess.”

The family became powerful in the area, she said, partly by lending out money and confiscating land when the borrowers could not pay back.

It’s hard to find someone here who has a bad thing to say about the family, partly because so many people in San Khampaeng work for them or rent property from them.

Most the buildings in town are owned by the various branches of the Shinawatra family, said Penphan Supittayaporn, 58, who sits behind the counter of the Shinawatra silk shop, one of the family’s businesses.

The silk business has seen better days — there were more stray cats than customers in the shop during a visit on Monday — but has become a sort of political shrine, with framed pictures of Mr. Thaksin and other family members attending ceremonies over the years.

Residents recounted how Mr. Thaksin started out working relatively menial jobs in the town. Mr. Piyapong, his classmate, says he sold ice cream with Mr. Thaksin on the streets. Mr. Thaksin also helped his father at a coffee shop in the market.

It was perhaps this upbringing that helped Mr. Thaksin develop an ability to connect with rural Thai voters — a trait that has apparently endured despite his enormous wealth earned in his telecommunications and other businesses.

To Mr. Thaksin’s detractors, especially among the elites in Bangkok, the kinship is a disingenuous facade to enlist the support of the masses. But Mr. Thaksin’s strongest appeal has been in the provinces, where part of his popularity is that he speaks a local northern dialect, distinct from the Thai spoken in Bangkok.

Mr. Thaksin’s brother, Payap, said in a telephone interview Monday that the nature of the family’s businesses have helped the family maintain a rapport with farmers.

“Our family used to have a fruit farm,” he said. “We planted orange trees, mango trees and longan,” he said, describing a tropical fruit common in northern Thailand. “I think it made us connect with the farmers more than others.”

Mr. Thaksin’s rural background also helped him craft the policies —

local financing schemes, crop-price supports, universal health care,

among others — that proved so popular with rural voters and cemented

their loyalty, Mr. Payap said.

For Mr. Piyapong, Mr. Thaksin’s classmate, the rise of the Shinawatra clan was something akin to destiny. He fondly recounted a festival at the local Buddhist temple five decades ago when he and Mr. Thaksin met with a Buddhist monk who asked what they “wanted to be in the future.” They were 7 or 8 years old, Mr. Piyapong, said.

“I want to be the prime minister,” he remembers Mr. Thaksin saying.

“Those words have stuck in my head until now. At the time, it was very unusual for a kid to say something like that.”

The New York Times

Action at grass roots

Angkor’s tourist income is funding community projects beyond the Cambodian heritage site, writes Leisa Tyler.



Cambodia’s Angkor Heritage Park is the fastest-growing tourism attraction of any World Heritage monument. Increasing at an average rate of 30 per cent a year, arrivals are expected to reach 3 million this year, up from 200,000 visitors 10 years ago.

Tourism has turned the temples into one of the most sought-after experiences in the world and brought development and infrastructure to the nearby town of Siem Reap.

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But few people in Siem Reap province benefit from these tourist dollars. Predominantly rural, the people remain among the poorest in Cambodia, many living on less than a dollar a day.

A Bangkok-based hotel management group is hoping to change this. “Tourism is better equipped and in a better position to deal with poverty than many governments,” says Bill Black, the managing director of Ativa Hospitality, a management company that has the Hotel de la Paix and Shinta Mani hotel in Siem Reap in its portfolio.

Black is a man on a mission. Diverting a percentage of room rates into community-based projects, the genteel Canadian wants to prove that, with a little effort and imagination, tourism can be a vehicle for community development.

Black’s first project, the Shinta Mani Hospitality School (now called the Institute of Hospitality), started in 2004. It enrolled 20 disadvantaged youths in a year-long hospitality course conducted at the Shinta Mani hotel that would prepare them to work in the town’s burgeoning hotel industry.

The program was a success and became the model for similar projects in Cambodia. Another Shinta Mani initiative is the Connect program, in which hotel guests can buy and deliver practical items such as wells and vegetable seed, piglets or bicycles to families in need.

Since its inception in 2005, the program has built 1043 water wells with mini-market gardens and 97 small concrete houses with septic tanks.

Black has since established the Hotel de la Paix Sewing Centre with funds from the five-star hotel, which teaches needlework and accounting skills to young women.

More recently the Hotel de la Paix teamed with MasterCard to raise money for a new workshop, which is now under construction at the sewing centre. A previous project with the credit-card company bought 900 bicycles for underprivileged school children.

“The idea is to give people the opportunity to be self-sufficient,” Black says, explaining that first they give families a well and vegetable seed. When they see the family has successfully grown vegetables, including surplus to sell for income, then they may buy them a bicycle or a female piglet to raise and breed.

Fiona Donato and daughter Felicity, 10, from Dover in Tasmania, became involved with Black’s Connect during a school trip to Cambodia, buying two water wells and a piglet and delivering them to the donors. Donato says the experience was “life changing”, and the school has since donated two more piglets, a house and 500 mosquito nets through fund raising.

RI still waiting for Thailand`s signal to meet Cambodia

Jakarta, March 25  (ANTARA) – Indonesia`s Foreign Affairs Ministry said it had yet to receive an official statement from Thailand regarding its intention to hold a bilateral meeting with Cambodia to settle their border problem without the presence of a third party.

“We have yet to receive an official statement from Thailand`s representative regarding the matrer. Therefore, we cannot comment on this issue yet,” Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Michael Tene said here on Thursday.

Earlier in the day, the Bangkok Post quoted Thailand`s Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon as saying the next General Border Committee (GBC) meeting with Cambdoia must be between Thailand and Cambodia only, without a third party.

Col Thanathip Sawngsaeng, the defence spokesman, said Gen Prawit reaffirmed to the meeting that the GBC must be bilateral without the presence of representatives from Indonesia or any other third country.

“We will not go to Indonesia. The meeting must be held in either Thailand or Cambodia. However, there would be no problems if Indonesia wants to come as a listener,” he quoted Gen Prawit as saying.

Gen Prawit said he had personally discussed the matter with Cambodian Defence Minister Tea Banh.

Moreover, the Thai Defence Ministry had sent a letter to his Cambodian counterpart, asking for a GBC meeting as soon as possible so that the military leaders of the two countries can discuss the border problem.

The GBC is co-chaired by the defence ministers of Thailand and Cambodia. It is separate from the Joint Border Commission (JBC), under the foreign ministry.

Gen Prawit said he believed Cambodia would not postpone the meeting again and that a date would be agreed upon soon.

He said Cambodia was supposed to host the 8th GBC meeting this year. But if Cambodia was not ready, Thailand would be willing to host it, he added.

At the next GBC meeting the two sides would discuss problems in implementing agreements over the disputed border area, security along the border, illegal labour, drug smuggling and other crimes, he said. (ANTARA)

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