Sunday, 21 September 2008

25 Metrolink crash victims linked forever by twist of fate

Yi Chao, 71

Los Angeles Times
Grandparents, children, students, teachers: The only thing the victims had in common was Metrolink 111.

By Joe Mozingo
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
September 21, 2008

Coasting out of Chatsworth at 4:22 p.m., Doyle Souser had caught an early train home from work to cook his family a nice tri-tip for dinner. Charles Peck had just wrapped up an interview for a job he hoped would land him in Southern California so he could marry his fiancee. Aida Magdaleno, a farmworker's daughter studying at Cal State Northridge, was on her way home to attend her nephew's baptism. They didn't know one another. Their only connection came when they boarded the first car of Metrolink 111 that afternoon. But a minute later, the far-flung threads of their lives would be forever tied off in a knot in the wreckage of California's worst train accident in modern history. In that instant, the cold rules of physics, or the mystery of fate, claimed a variegated slice of humanity as perhaps only a disaster can do and left a scattershot pattern of emotional wounds far and wide. Students and faculty at Theodore Roosevelt Middle School in Glendale grappled with the loss of their beloved head counselor, Ron Grace, 55, the heart and soul of the school. One parent, Emma Villalobos, said, "My kids had an angel named Mr. Grace." At Oaks Christian School in Westlake Village, they mourned English teacher Paul Long, 54, who was traveling home from his mother's funeral with his wife and son when the crash occurred. Long was airlifted to Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. The next day, doctors removed him from life support.

"He was a gentle and humble friend with such a warm heart unmatched by many," wrote one of his students, Matthew Slaven, in an online memorial. "I remember his smile, his joy. His love for us kids was unmatched. He genuinely cared. To this very day, more than any other teacher, I thank God that I had the privilege of having Mr. Long as my teacher."

The head-on collision with a Union Pacific freight train on a bend in Chatsworth punched the Metrolink's locomotive right into the first car. At least 22 of the 24 passengers killed in the Sept. 12 crash -- the engineer also died -- were riding in that car, according to the coroner's office.

One was Gregory Lintner, 48, who survived the fatal Metrolink crash in Glendale in 2005 but never got over it. With him he carried a photo of Juan Manuel Alvarez, the man convicted of murder for causing the crash. His wife said he always tried to hide his pain from her and their 15-year-old son.

Nearby Dean Brower, 51, an Army veteran working at a water treatment plant, had a busy evening ahead of him. He had to pick up his developmentally disabled son, Bill, 20, at the family music store in Ventura and then drive to Port Hueneme to pick up his adopted son Armando, 22, at his transitional living facility. Brower's generosity was such that four years ago he jumped at adopting Armando, who was in foster care. "He didn't have a moment's hesitation," said his wife, Kim. "His heart just bled for Armando not having a family."

In that same doomed carriage, there were young people striking out on their own. Jacob Hefter, 18, was a star student at Palmdale High starting his freshman year at Cal State Long Beach. Chen-Wyuan Kari Hsieh, 18, was a beaming senior and varsity tennis player at Hart High School in Newhall. Maria Elena Villalobos, 18, was a budding fashion designer with big plans, riding home to Moorpark from class at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in downtown Los Angeles. And Atul Vyas, 20, was already interviewing for grad school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard. Although the Claremont McKenna College student was of Indian descent, he was inducted into the Latino club at school because "they loved him so much," said his father, Vijay Vyas. "He was a very popular kid.

"There were grandfathers whose youthful ambitions had given way to the gentle love of family. Dennis Arnold, 75, gave up a promising folk music career in the 1960s because he didn't want to be on the road all the time, away from his wife, Maria, and young daughter and son. He became an aerospace engineer and worked on his final day. Arnold loved nothing more than Sunday dinner with Maria, his adult children and their families.

Yi Chao, 72, survived the killing fields in Cambodia and adored his 5-year-old grandson, who woke up every day and went into Chao's room. Friday, Chao was taking the train home to Simi Valley after an eye doctor appointment in Los Angeles. It took more than a day for his family to find out he had been killed.

Howard Pompel, 69, hopped on the train after work at the Los Angeles City Employees Club. He normally took a later train but cut out early to play pool with a family friend. "He wore his heart on his sleeve," said his daughter, Annette Conway. "He loved to make people laugh.

"The montage of human loss is so wide that the figures mostly get painted in single brush strokes.

Christopher Aiken, 38, had just started a new life, getting married and going back to college to finish his degree. Walter Fuller, 54, ran the air traffic control tower at Burbank and enjoyed taking his kids in the RV up to Carpinteria, playing on his community softball team and flying small planes. Roger Spacey, 60, reveled in the simplicity of a walk, taking in the trees and the grass and the sky. He sat in the first car of the train every day, so he could wave at the engineer and conductor when he got off.

Michael Hammersley, 45, was a friendly mail carrier who loved children and comic books and science fiction. Alan Buckley, 59, a machine mechanic and grandfather, fancied trains so much he wanted his ashes thrown off the back of one when he died. Ernest "Pete" Kish, 47, was a kind family man who tended his garden and looked after a neighbor who had fallen ill.

Spree DeSha, 35, "played cop" when she was a little girl and grew up to be a deeply committed Los Angeles police officer. Beverly Mosley, 57, was a hospital ombudswoman, ecstatic new grandmother, die-hard traveler and soulful singer, regularly recruited to sing "Amazing Grace" at memorial services. Manuel Macias, 31, taught yoga to the elderly, blind and people with multiple sclerosis. Donna Lynn Remata, 49, doted on her children and worked at the MTA.

The Metrolink engineer, Robert M. Sanchez, 46, was a cheerful man with a tragic past who adored Italian greyhounds.

And behind every stroke of the brush is something only their loved ones will know. Gabriella Magdaleno, the sister of Aida, the farmworker's daughter gone to college, wrote this in an online memorial: "I will live for you and I will keep this promise and I will take care of my parents (your heroes. . . . I remember you told me that like a week ago . . . that you wanted to help them buy a house and that you wanted to return all they sacrificed for us) and sister I promise you that I will make sure I make your dream come true. I will be there for my parents. . . . We miss you very much sarquita. . . . In your eyes I will see the sparkle to my future and that of our family. I will forever have you in my heart and I will love you forever."

Tales of a traveler

Photo by Jaine Treadwell
Ruth Overstreet of Springhill has recently returned from Cambodia where she was a member of a Habitat for Humanity volunteer work group. The volunteers pay all of their expenses, including travel. They actually pay to work. Overstreet was also a volunteer for a Habitat project in Paraguay in June. She brought back mementos from both trips and pictures that she enjoys sharing with others.

The Troy Messenger
By Jaine Treadwell (Contact)
Saturday, September 20, 2008


Looking out the window of a tourist bus and down at the people below is not the way Ruth Overstreet prefers to spend her vacations.

Of course, she has been a bus tourist and enjoyed it, but if she can have her “druthers,” she would rather be out among the locals where she can absorb the culture.

That’s why Overstreet often takes working vacations with volunteer organizations.

She recently returned from Cambodia where she was a member of a volunteer work group with Habitat for Humanity. The trip to Cambodia was the second Habitat for Humanity working vacation that Overstreet has taken this summer. The first was to Paraguay in June.

“I like working vacations because of the closeness you have with the people of the country,” she said. “That’s the best way to learn about the country and its people. And, too, I like to think that maybe I’m doing some good along the way.”

Over the years, Overstreet has taken several working vacations with Habitat for Humanity and likes “working” with that organization.

“I look on the Internet to find the projects that I want to apply for,” Overstreet said. “You apply directly to the project leader and he or she is the one who makes the decision as to whether you are accepted and you are not always accepted. Those who are accepted pay a fee that includes all expenses and a donation to Habitat for Humanity in that particular country. You also must pay for your transportation. So, actually, you pay to work.”

Overstreet volunteers for Habitat for Humanity working vacations because she has a wealth of experience in building houses. She built her home in Springhill with the aid of books and magazines. So, she is one up on most members of the volunteer work group.

“Most of them have never mixed mortar or laid bricks,” Overstreet said. “They get a quick lesson and it’s off to work.”

The Habitat for Humanity project in Paraguay was completed during the two-week period the group was in Encarnacion.

“There were eight local brick masons who worked on the project, so our work group was basically responsible for keeping the brick masons supplied with bricks and mortar,” she said.

“The worked moved right along. The house was brick with a tile roof. It was relatively small, with two bedrooms and a living and kitchen area but it was nice. It had running water and electricity and would have cost about 2,600 U.S. dollars.”

The work experience in Cambodia was vastly different. The two house sites were located on a rice paddy and were extremely wet. There were only three local brick masons assigned to the projects and everything had to be done by hand.

“In Paraguay, we had an electric mixer for the concrete but, in Cambodia, we had to mix the concrete by hand,” Overstreet said. “We had to haul everything by hand. We would form a line and pass materials for one person to the next. We even hauled rocks for the floor that way. And, the temperature was high and so was the humidity. It was hard work.”

The Habitat houses in Phnom Penh, Cambodia were even smaller than the one in Paraguay, probably not more than 14x20 feet. They were brick houses but had tin roofs.

“We piled rocks on the ground to make a firm base for the floor,” Overstreet said. “Then cement was poured over the rocks. The houses are tall so that a sleep loft could be added if the family could afford it. And, the houses were not built to keep the roaches out.”

The Habitat houses in Cambodia didn’t have running water or electricity and had squat toilets.
“A squat toilet is exactly what it says it is,” Overstreet said, with a smile.

The two Habitat houses in Cambodia would have cost about $1,500 each in American money. One of the houses, was for a family of three or four with a total income of $480 a month. The other was for a family of nine with a total income of $540 a month.

“The people in the areas where we worked were farmers and they were very poor,” Overstreet said. “The farmers in Paraguay grow soybeans, wheat, corn and barley. In Cambodia, they primarily grow rice and some fruits. In both countries, they are glad to have help in building their houses. Help means that more people can have better places to live.

“A lot of people live on platforms on the ground with roofs made out of whatever they could find,” Overstreet said. “They don’t own land so some people had put up shacks on the side of the road. A lot of people live on the streets, even families. So those who can afford a Habitat house are very fortunate.”

Overstreet said the requirements for owning a Habitat for Humanity house are the same worldwide.

“You have to be able to pay back the loan,” she said. “These houses are not free. If you cannot make the payments then you cannot be approved for a house.”

When Overstreet’s group left Cambodia, one house had been completed and the other was going up.

“Work was very slow because it was done by hand and, then too, we had inexperienced people laying bricks,” she said. “It was hard, tiring work.”

But volunteering for a working vacation is not all work. There are opportunities for cultural experiences and a few side trips are planned.

After about 10 days of hard “costly” labor, the volunteers are treated to a day or two of R&R.
“When we were in Paraguay, we visited Iguazu Falls in Argentina,” Overstreet said. “These falls should be one of the Seven Wonders of the World. There are hundreds of them and it’s an incredible sight.”

Overstreet had visited Iguazu Falls on a previous trip but said there was much more water this trip so the falls were even more spectacular.

In Cambodia, Overstreet skipped the side trip to the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat.
“Angkor Wat is very impressive,” she said.

"For hundreds of years, the ruins were covered by jungle growth. When they were discovered it was a great find. I’ve seen the ruins several times so I decided to stay behind in Phnom Penh and visit the Royal Palace Gardens and the National Museum. I’m glad that I did. What I saw was very impressive. Almost unbelievable.”

Of course, Overstreet did a little shopping on the side and picked up mementos for herself and a few things for her children and grandchildren.

Back home now, she has begun to contemplate where she will go next. But one thing is for sure, her plans will include another working vacation.

“With working vacations, I hope to do some good,” Overstreet said with a smile. “I hope to help a little. Maybe I have.”

Overstreet has been taking vacations, both working and pure pleasure, since 1989. She has traveled to countries in Southeast Asia, South America, Africa, Europe and Central Asia. She has toured Australia and New Zealand and every state in the United States except a couple in New England.

She has no favorite country but she does single out Colorado as the prettiest state.

“The Rocky Mountains in the West really stand out and the Appalachian Mountains are pretty, too, but not as impressive as the Rockies,” she said. “Every country and every place is special. I want to see them all.”

Keat Chhon: Fuel Prices Will Decrease to Riel 4,900 Early This Week

Posted on 21 September 2008
The Mirror, Vol. 12, No. 578

“Phnom Penh: Keat Chhon, Senior Minister and Minister of Economy and Finance, said that from 22 September 2008, fuel sold at different fuel stations in the Kingdom of Cambodia will cost between Riel 4,900 [approx. US$1.20] and Riel 5,000 [approx. US$1.22] per liter.

“Mr. Keat Chhon said so, after a meeting with fuel companies in Cambodia, following Samdech Hun Sen’s order to decrease the price of fuel, after seeing that the price of crude oil on the world market dropped around 25%, but in Cambodia, there is only an approximate 10% decrease, which is not balanced yet.

“Regarding the improper decrease of the price of fuel, compared with the international market price, Mr. Keat Chhon explained that normally, when the price of fuel on the world market rose by 80%, fuel stations in Cambodia increased the price by 40% only. He continued to explain that the Royal Government of Cambodia, led by Samdech Samdech Akkak Moha Senapadei Dekchor Hun Sen, had decided to provide subsidies as a challenge to the rising price of fuel.

“According to Mr. Keat Chhon, during a period of 9 months in 2008, the Royal Government has spent approximately US$200 million quietly in order to overcome the fuel price rise. Related to the efforts of the Royal Government in decreasing the price of fuel, Mr. Po Samnang, the director of the National Culture and Social Morality Center, who had tried to meet the Minister of Economy and Finance, said that he had sent a letter to the cabinet of Mr. Keat Chhon, asking him to encourage a decrease of the fuel price [from around Riel 5,000] to the range of Riel 4,100 [approx. US$1.00] or Riel 4,300 [approx. US$1.05] per liter in order to promote the living standards of the poor and of civil servants, who earn small salaries.

“However, Mr. Po Samnang’s effort was mocked by officials in the Ministry of Economy and Finance, saying, ‘You just drive an old car, why do you come to protest?’

“It should be noted that according to a source from the cabinet of the Minister of Economy and Finance, around 2 million liters of fuel are consumed per day. Therefore, if the Royal Government had decreased the price by Riel 100 [approx. US$0.02] per liter, the state will help consumers to save Riel 100 million [approx. US$24,500]. Nevertheless, what is interesting is that while the Minister of Economy and Finance had announced that the price of fuel will stay increased at around Riel 5,000 per liter, crude oil at the international market decreased from US$147 to US$91 per barrel on 15 September 2008 and rose again to US$97 on 19 September 2008.”

Kampuchea Thmey, Vol.7, #1751, 20.9.2008
Newspapers Appearing on the Newsstand:
Saturday, 20 September 2008

Former Topekan reports from inside Cambodia

Cambodia's troubled and bloodied past belies the beauty of its culture, landscape and people. A former Topekan offers her first-hand report.

By Susan Anderson

Special to The Capital-Journal
Sunday, September 21, 2008

EDITOR'S NOTE: Susan Anderson, a freelance writer who spent her childhood in Topeka and now lives in California, has traveled extensively throughout the world, including three trips to Cambodia. Following are her impressions during a recent visit to that Southeast Asia country.

TAKEO, CAMBODIA — There is nowhere to begin and nowhere to end when you want to start describing a country like Cambodia.

I suppose I could begin by saying that it's a country shaped like a heart at whose center is Angkor Wat and the great Tonle Sap. A better description would be that if you took all the signs, symbols and colors the universe has yet to think of and scattered them around like confetti, the landscape would look like it does in Cambodia.

But in the end, I don't even think it's a place after all. I think of it as a dream because its depth, beauty and terror are unknowable, and because it seems like the closest thing you can get to being in heaven and hell.

It is dotted with constellations of ancient temples and vast areas of unexploded landmines, sometimes right next to each other. The subtle embrace of control and explanation that helps put everything together in your day-to-day life in the United States is rendered obsolete in a country whose culture has been threatened with destruction.

What is so spectacular about Cambodia is it's been relatively untouched by modernity due to its long history of isolation and warfare. There is a bucolic beauty to the undeveloped countryside that is ethereal to the point of being eternal.

It's home to an assortment of precious flora and fauna, though the threat of development looms large.

The Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, is a biosphere with more than 220 different kinds of birds. Interestingly, birds are considered bohdhisattavas, a type of enlightened being, in Buddhism, making the region all the more holy. It also has the biggest diversity of fish species on the planet.

Cambodia's deep Mekong waters are home to the world's largest fish — the Mekong catfish and the Irawaddy dolphin, recently featured on CNN by journalist Anderson Cooper.

Cambodia is a country where people still take baths in front of the National Museum and children run naked through traffic, lending a fairly lawless quality to the whole nation. And it's a country that seems to be grabbing the attention of the tourism industry.

A troubled past

To understand modern Cambodia, you simply must take a look at the traumatic history of its people and geography. The political legacies of its complicated history are apparent everywhere. It's architecture is a play on globalization and ancient religious beliefs. Everywhere there are structures, all in various states of ruin or repair, that tell a story of Hinduism, Buddhism, animism, French colonization, Cold War autocratic rule and modern capitalism. Street names in Phnom Penh, the nation's capital, reflect the international conflicts and influences that have shaped the Khmer soul.

The Soviet, Chinese and Vietnamese influence of the Cold War are echoed with names like Mao Tse Tung Boulevard, Russian Market and Kampuchea Krom Boulevard.

Kampuchea Krom is a reference to the lower part of Cambodia taken over by Vietnam several hundred years ago. What was originally Cambodian, we know today as Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).

The fact that every day one is approached by beggars and one in six Cambodian children never make it to adulthood is countered by the gentle graciousness of many Khmer people who are trying to look forward to the future.

When you land, you can see abandoned helicopters framed by the beauty of native trees, resting as poignant memorials to the machinery of war. There are bullet holes on wats, pagodas and various houses and factories, and there are signs everywhere telling people not to bring in weapons, such as guns and grenades.There is also a heaviness to the air, even before you land.

Horror reigns

When the United States decided to pursue military action in Vietnam in 1965, then-King Sihanouk protested by cutting off military aid from the U.S. government, much to the displeasure of Cambodia's military elite. A few years later the king broke off diplomatic relations with Washington because of its direct military engagement in Vietnam, which further weakened the kingdom's strength.

When Viet Cong soldiers moved into Cambodia, a secret bombing campaign by the United States ensued. Hundreds of thousands were killed. No one knows the exact number because the victims were largely peasants in remote villages.

The population of Phnom Penh swelled to more than a million, and in 1970 Cambodia lost its king to a U.S.-backed leader named Lon Nol in a coup. Social structures broke down with the flood of refugees, and a relatively small army of Maoist-inspired revolutionaries named the Khmer Rouge found traumatized peasants an easy population of potential soldiers.

On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge overtook Phnom Penh and forced all of its citizens to the countryside to work in "agrarian utopia" farming communes. Postal services, western medicine, factories, schools, flights (except to Beijing, a Khmer Rouge supporter), education, etc., were banned. The country came to a complete standstill, and millions of people died in an attempt to reduce Cambodia into a land of illiterate peasants.

The "new people"— that is, anyone who was educated, spoke French, wore glasses, etc. — were singled out for extermination. Cambodia lost a whole generation of teachers, artists, lawyers, doctors and other people deemed to be enemies of the state.

Future tourist draw

Cambodia's situation improved to a degree when the Vietnamese, irritated by incursions from the Khmer Rouge on their shared border, overtook and occupied the country in 1979.

In the early 1990s, United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia had deployed 16,000 troops to Cambodia to oversee the Paris Agreement of 1991. Most Cambodians I've spoken to welcomed the UNTAC in the early 1990s, but the soldiers spread HIV/AIDS heavily among the people. To this day, Cambodia has one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in Asia, with a whole generation having been affected by the lasting effects of the disease.

Most of the population in Cambodia is under age 30, a population without grandparents and often without parents.

This, I've found, seems to have made Khmer people some of the more individualistic and creative people I've ever run across. Life here is like a complicated balance of do-it-yourself self-reliance and live-for-today ingenuity.

Cambodia will become more popular with tourists as the country's population heals and tries to look forward to a better life. With so many of the people so young, it'll be interesting to see how life evolves here.

But, Cambodia is a heart-shaped country and, like a heart, it continues to beat.

How to discover–and relish–Angkor Wat

CURIOUS monks stop to chat with a photographer at the Bayon. Photo by Peter Oxley



Inquirer Lifestyle
By Virgil Calaguian
Philippine Daily Inquirer
09/21/2008

MANILA, Philippines—After decades of neglect, the world is rediscovering the glories of the fabled Khmer Empire.

I first visited Siem Reap (pronounced See-um Ree-up) in December 2006. Since then I have been back four times, and each time the place looks different.

In less than two years, the town has changed tremendously, turning from a dusty, sleepy settlement into a modern city of increasing sophistication.

Buildings are sprouting all over. Where once there was none, there are now Internet caf├ęs and ATM machines and even that ubiquitous feature of modern cities—a fast-food joint.

Air-conditioned malls are being constructed and soon, we are told, the Old Market will be moved to a new development outside town, while the present site is converted into a modern retail complex.

The town’s fast transformation is fueled by only one thing—tourism.

Last year Siem Reap had around a million visitors; this year that figure is expected to double.

Throughout the world there is reawakened interest in Angkor Wat and the magnificent monuments of the ancient Khmer Empire. These World Heritage sites are clustered around Siem Reap. It is anticipated that in the next decade Siem Reap will become the next major destination in Asia, second only to neighboring Thailand.

In the first half of 20th century, Angkor Wat drew such celebrities as Charlie Chaplin, Jacqueline Kennedy and French President Charles de Gaulle, but the country was closed to travelers during and in the aftermath of the tragic years under the murderous Khmer Rouge. We got an inkling of the utter horror of that dark era from the Hollywood movie, “The Killing Fields.”

It has only been in the last five years that visitors have started to come back in large numbers. Hopefully the tragic past is now securely behind as the country strives to catch up with the rest of the developed world.

Getting there

Filipinos are not required to have visas (Malaysia is the only other country that enjoys this privilege); everybody else has to cue up upon arrival to have their pictures taken and their visas issued.

There are no direct flights from Manila to either Phnom Penh or Siem Reap, but there are alternative routes. A fun way is via Bangkok (Cebu Pacific flies nightly, arriving around midnight). You can then travel to Siem Reap by either air or overland.

The trouble with the first is that Bangkok Airways, which has a monopoly on the Bangkok-Siem Reap route, charges astronomical fares. You could take an Air Asia flight to Phnom Penh and from there hire a taxi to Phnom Penh, and you’d still end up paying less than the Bangkok Airways fare to Siem Reap.

Most visitors fly to the capital, stay there for a couple of days, then join fellow tourists on the boat to Siem Reap. It’s a six-hour journey on the Tonle Sap River (which turns into Tonle Sap Lake near Siem Reap), but it’s an adventure worth experiencing at least once, and a good introduction to Cambodia’s bucolic countryside.

To relieve the tedium of the trip, many passengers clamber up to the roof to sit in the sunlight (the trip sets off early in the morning) and take in the scenic view as the boat goes past villages, rice fields and patches of lush tropical growth.

If you have the stamina and patience for a long haul, take the bus from Bangkok to Siem Reap, which costs only $10 per person.

Leaving Bangkok early in the morning, a four-hour drive on a big air-conditioned bus will take you to the last town on the Thai side.

From there, take a tuk-tuk to the border itself, go through Thai immigrations, after which you walk through a concentration of neon-lit casinos, a curious sight, like a mini Las Vegas in the dusty tropics.

After completing the formalities at Cambodian immigrations, you step into Cambodian territory, where another bus will take you to Siem Reap. You should hit town by late afternoon or early evening.

There are other possible routes—via Hanoi or Saigon, Kuala Lumpur and even Singapore, both on regular airlines like Philippine Airlines and on budget carriers such as Air Asia and Jetstar. Check out their websites for flight details.

(Rowena Coloma of Travel Specialist Ventures, tel. 9287487 or 9255383, handles tours to Cambodia and other Southeast Asian destinations.)

Moving around town

Siem Reap is quite small, with the area around the Old Market (Psar Chas) as the sole hub of activity. Except when they go out of town to archeological sites, visitors hardly ever venture from the area demarcated by Sivatha Boulevard, Pokambor Avenue and National Road No 6.
Sivatha Boulevard is the town’s main street, lined on both sides with shops and commercial establishments.

Following the wooded banks of Siem Reap River, Pokambor Avenue, which becomes Charles de Gaulle Boulevard after it crosses National Road No. 6, goes past five major landmarks of the city—the Old Market; the Royal Residence (quite modest, nothing imposing); the lovely Royal Gardens; the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor (this looks more palatial than the actual Royal Residence); and the radiant National Angkor Museum.

National Road No. 6, also known as Airport Road, leads to Siem Reap International Airport and is where many of the big brand-new hotels are located. It might be helpful to note that the new Angkor International Hospital and smaller clinics catering to foreigners are on this road.

The town sprawls out on the eastern side of the river, but these are residential and new shopping areas where mostly local folk go. There is a big Divisoria-like market in the area and, further afield, a kind of people’s park (it’s actually just an open field) where locals come to enjoy the evening, seated on rented mats spread on the ground, drinking beer and eating barbecue, balut (yes, they have balut) and all sorts of snacks in movable stalls.

There are no taxis in Siem Reap, but a car or van with driver can be rented on a daily basis. On our first visit we hired a van for two days, costing only $30-$40 per day.

Later we found out a far better alternative is to hire a tuk-tuk. Not only is it cheaper ($12-$15 for a whole day; $2 for short rides around town) but it’s actually more fun.

Unlike our tricycles, which are supremely uncomfortable, Cambodian tuk-tuks have the motorbike and driver out front, pulling the cab along. It’s like riding a horse carriage. “I feel like Prince Philip,” Peter said as we proceeded in stately fashion along the tree-lined roads of the Angkor Archeological Park.

Now, if you’re traveling on a shoestring, a moto would be your chosen mode of transport. A moto, short for motorcycle or motorbike, is exactly just that—a motorbike that takes a passenger on the back seat for $1 a ride. No need for a helmet and other safety measures. Just jump on the seat and fling your arms around the driver. Don’t ask me what happens when it rains.

What to see

One of mankind’s greatest achievements, Angkor Wat marks the pinnacle of ancient Khmer civilization. It is for this world-renowned artistic and architectural masterpiece that most visitors come to Siem Reap, and as such it tops any list of must-visit places. It certainly lives up to the hype, and takes your breath away each time you see those five majestic corncob-shaped towers.

Inside are walls and walls of superb bas reliefs depicting epic battles from the Rayamana and other icons and episodes in Hindu-Buddhist mythology, including the oft replicated and reproduced Churning of the Sea of Milk, a cosmic tug-of-war between gods and demons.

Angkor Wat, according to historians and scholars, took 30 years to construct. It was built in the reign of Suryavarman II (1113-1150 AD).

It marks the zenith of Khmer civilization, though the golden age of temple building came later, under Jayavarman VII (1181-1220 AD), who, as if to make up for the fact that he didn’t build Angkor Wat, launched a construction frenzy that saw the completion of Angkor Thom (his walled city which contains the Terrace of the Leper King); Bayon (his royal temple); Ta Prohm (dedicated to his mother); Preah Khan (dedicated to his father); and innumerable hospitals and rest houses for the poor.

All those places are worth visiting, particularly Angkor Thom (it gives you a sense of what it might have been like to live at the time); Bayon (famous for the gigantic faces oriented toward the four cardinal points); and Ta Prohm (where the ruins are being strangled by the roots of gigantic trees that start life as a parasite then kill the host tree).

Located outside the Angkor Wat/Angkor Thom complex, the exquisite Banteay Srei, with its profusion of delicate carvings, is also worth a visit, and so is the pyramidal Prasat Ta Keo.

Angkor Thom was sacked in 1431 by invading armies from Siam (Siem Reap actually means Siam Defeated, referring to an earlier Khmer victory), from which the empire never again fully recovered, though the Khmer kingdom endured until the end of the 16th century.

All those sites mentioned above are located within the Angkor Archeological Park, also known as Angkor National Park. A one-day pass is available, but this is hardly enough to cover all major sights. A much better deal is to buy a two-day or three-day pass, which allows you explore the sites at leisurely pace.

After temple overdose

The temples are magnificent, but after a while it is possible to suffer from temple overdose. If and when that happens, head for the Old Market and lose yourself in the maze of shops selling traditional Cambodian arts and crafts—silk, wood and stone carvings, and silverware.

It’s a fascinating experience, and bargaining is part of the fun. You can indulge in light-hearted banter with the pretty sales ladies, and they don’t seem to mind if you don’t buy in the end.
The Central Market is not far from the Old Market, but it’s new and less interesting. After dark, the Night Market gets its share of browsers and buyers, though it’s somewhat lacking in local flavor and was obviously set up for tourists.

A morning excursion on the Tonle Sap Lake is another viable option when you’ve had too much temple-trekking. This body of water is so huge that you can’t see the shores when you’re somewhere in the middle. People live in houses on stilts along the shore as well as on huts floating on the water. You can either pay the official rate of $12 per head for a half-day tour or do your own negotiations with a boat operator.

To get to the lake, hire a tuk-tuk in town, but negotiate the price with the driver beforehand (for your own convenience you might want to also arrange for a return journey).

If you’re interested in finding out how silk is produced and woven, set aside half a day for a visit to the Angkor Silk Farm, some 16 km west of the town proper. The centuries-old craft was all but lost during the troubled years under the Khmer Rouge but is undergoing a rebirth.

For decades there was no repository for the astonishing array of treasures that have survived from the ancient Khmer civilization. Prized for their artistry and delicacy, Khmer sculptures have been a much sought after booty in an illegal international trade, often ending up in private collections in Europe and the United States.

Happily the newly constructed National Angkor Museum will now rectify this problem, with its state-of-the-art storage and display facilities. Using easy-to-follow visual aids and high-tech exhibition methods, the museum offers plenty to interest the visitor, including an awe-inspiring room containing 1,000 Buddhas. A trip to Siem Reap would not be complete without a visit to the museum.

To get the full flavor of your encounters with ancient Khmer civilization, you might want to hire a licensed tour guide. These can be identified at the sites by their uniform—brown trousers, beige shirt and name badge. Guides are available for virtually any of the world’s major languages, and you can easily hire one through your hotel or guesthouse. The going rate was $20 for a whole day more than a year ago; most likely that has increased since then.

Regular guided tours are also conducted by Virgo Travel, but this group of young Filipinos, among them Cathy Pamintuan and Jerome Rivera, offers more than that, aiming to promote greater understanding of local culture. Visit the group’s website at
www.virgotravelcambodia.com.

Where to stay

The hotel industry in Siem Reap has witnessed a building boom in recent years, funded in large part by Korean investors. Some of the huge hotels on the Airport Road are Korean-owned.
A very reliable choice on the strip is the comfortable Monoreach Angkor Hotel
(www.monoreach.com), managed by Annie Rivera, a Filipina, the only woman GM in the hotel industry in Cambodia. Annie has a way of putting people at ease, and under her supervision the hotel staff is invariably helpful and friendly toward guests.

Slightly off the main drag is the Angkor Palace Resort & Spa (www.angkorpalaceresort.com), set amid sprawling gardens.

If you have money to spare, the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor (www.raffles.com, part of the renowned Raffles chain) and Amansara (www.amansara.com, of the equally famed Aman group) are obvious choices, but the pleasure of staying in either place comes with a steep price—$300-$400 for the cheapest single at the Raffles and $700 at Amansara.

I have stayed at the Raffles and can certainly say that it lives up to its billing as a grand hotel. Everything is orchestrated to make you feel like you have stepped back to the time when travel to exotic places was an exclusive privilege of the rich. One almost expects the bellboys to pull out Louis Vuitton trunks and valises from the authentic cage elevator.

Other five-star hotels include the Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Golf & Spa Resort (www.sofitel.com); Sokha Angkor Resort & Spa (www.sokhahotels.com); La Residence d’Angkor

(www.residencedangkor.com); and Le Meridien Angkor (www.lemeridien.com/angkor).

Foreign Ministers to work out Ta Kwai dispute

(BangkokPost.com) - Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat and his Cambodian counterpart Hun Sen both agreed to resolve the border dispute around Ta Kwai temple at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in New York, the United States on September 29.

According to Foreign Ministry’s Department of Information deputy chief Thani Thongpakdee, the premiers from the two countries had a telephone conversation and both agreed that the Thai-Cambodian border row can be solved through bilateral means.

He said the Thai premier expressed confidence that the problem can end peacefully and legally because both countries have cordial relations for a long time.

Foreign ministers from Thailand and Cambodia will seek a peaceful solution to the border row around Ta Kwai at the upcoming ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting, after the Cambodian premier earlier accused Thailand of border intrusion into Ta Kwai last week, Mr Thani concluded.