Saturday May 26, 2018

Kampong Cham Retreat: A blend of Bamboo and Buddhism in Cambodia

An eco-tourism retreat in a remote area charms with its unusual style, sustainable design and a non-typical connection with Buddhist traditions

Wat Hanchey, next door to the eco resort, wikimedia

Cambodia, March 17, 2017: While walking towards the edge of a plateau, with a setting mid-day sun, to the left a work crew can be seen putting grout into the beams of an unusual building, made almost entirely from bamboo, whose flowing curves show certain similarities with a seashell. The indifferent Mekong River sprawls northwards.

Admiring the view, the co-founder and director of the NGO Buddhism for Social Development Action (BSDA),  Vandong Thorn says, “You see all the Cambodian pictures here. You see rice fields, you see the ponds, the river, the village and traditional houses.” Thorn found this site, perched on top of a mountain just over 20 kilometres from Kampong Cham city, just two years ago.

After buying the land from farmers a company that was gradually chipping away at the mountain with bulldozers as it sold off its soil, BSDA has taken the initiative of building an eco-tourism retreat, unique to Cambodia both in its incorporation of Buddhist principles and its sustainable design.

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Thorn, who has been a monk for 20 years, takes a very un-dogmatic approach when it comes to orthodox ideas regarding religion. For him Buddhism is “just philosophy, not religion”.

Thorn proudly says, “If [Buddha’s teachings are] reasonable for you, you believe it. If it’s not reasonable for you, you don’t follow.” In the philosophy Thorn has found an ethos that could lend itself to social welfare and guide his NGO, based on the principles of hard work, charity, harmony and equality.

He hopes to harness these principles at Hanchey Eco-Retreat by employing locals, paying them appropriate wages and using the revenue for the funding of on-site vocational training for poor area residents.

A worker scoops mud that will be made into bricks, Eli Lillis

All of the buildings at the eco-tourism site are engineered in  the shape of the lotus flower which is a well-known symbol in Buddhism, a meditation center featuring eight open doors, representing the Eightfold Path.

The site will have villas for guests, as well as the vocational training center, which can provide accommodation up to 100 students per year, and a “model organic farm” for agricultural training programs. In an attempt at sustainability, the project designers have decided to build the site nearly entirely out of natural materials – principally,mud bricks and bamboo and such elements.

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“Most of our buildings, when we’re finished with them, we can throw on the compost heap,” Gordon Evans, a technical adviser on the project mentioned, “Bamboo will rot, the earth [bricks] will rot, [and] it’s a very small ecological footprint that we have.”

In mud pits throughout the site, the rich clay soil is being mixed with rice chaff, straw and water, before being pressed into bricks that make up the foundation of the structures. In a tank at the base of the property, bamboo is soaked in a vat of boric acid and borax, a natural compound that substitutes sugar with salt to help prevent insects.

Although bamboo is available in a huge amount all throughout Cambodia, it is regarded to be a temporary building material because of its susceptibility to insects. It was a brave decision indeed to devote much of a project like this whose building phase costs nearly half a million dollars to a material like bamboo.

According to Ngun Heng, a local resident who is the general manager for the retreat, “Some people in my family, when they heard that our buildings are from bamboo, just said ‘Why? We never heard of using bamboo like this.” Ngun also mentioned bamboo is very popular material for chopsticks or toothpicks but not for entire structures.

A team of consultants from Thailand was brought in by BSDA to explore the possibility of using it successfully throughout the resort considering the fact that the use of bamboo is more frequent in Thailand. The crews were advised on how to treat the material to keep insects away and the degree to which the beams could be bent to accommodate the flowing organic shapes of the structures. This has been the cause for something of a local spectacle.

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“When we build everything from bamboo like that, the local people are surprised, I can say 50 people or 60 people per day come [to see]. I’ve already put the word out not to come, but they still do, Ngun added.

Roofing being put on the reception area, Eli Lillis

Even though Swiss NGO Ecosolidar has been providing enough money, for the building phase, the project is still almost $100,000 short of its requirement to fund the furnishing and operation costs for the resort. If they can get other investors or sponsors for this project, the resort should be ready to open in approximately one year.

Thorn envisions a spot where tourists can look forward to experiencing the traditional Cambodian way of life – especially those looking to indulge in yoga, meditation and the study Buddhist philosophy and principles.

According to Evans, “So many people come to Siem Reap or Sihanoukville, go to the beach, and they’re done. This isn’t for those people”; Even though it has been pointed out that there will be a swimming pool and bar for those looking for a get away and just kick back and relax.

The project is located next to Wat Hanchey, a historic pagoda with Chenla temple ruins dating back as far as the seventh or eighth century; Thorn has linked the project with his neighbours.

A road has been built by BSDA that connects with the pagoda and Thorn hopes to introduce interested tourists with the monks, as well as to potentially have them tag along with them on village visits.

Wat Hanchey abbot Tang Chheng studied meditation from his predecessor, Tol Phoung, who is well known for having walked all the way from Cambodia to Myanmar on foot to learn about meditation there. Thorn also hopes to tap into this deep institutional knowledge for his guests.

When asked if he minds tourists coming to visit the pagoda, the abbot says he “would be happy for their coming here”.

He says, “When they go back, they will tell their friends and family about our beautiful pagoda and resort, which means more tourists and more income. Those who work for the project are from the area They can improve their lives without immigrating to other countries to work.”

– prepared by Durba Mandal of NewsGram. Twitter: @dubumerang


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Can Flourishing Islamic State (ISIS) be Stopped in Afghanistan?

The truth about IS and Afghanistan is definitely no picnic

Taliban fighters react to a speech by their senior leader in the Shindand district of Herat province, Afghanistan, May 27, 2016.
Taliban fighters react to a speech by their senior leader in the Shindand district of Herat province, Afghanistan, May 27, 2016. The rise of IS in Afghanistan has become such a priority that U.S. and Afghan forces sometimes support the Taliban while battling IS, VOA
  • Depending on the location, the proliferation of IS has drawn varied resistance from the Afghan military, U.S. air support and ground troops, local militias, Taliban forces and other militant groups
  • Afghan army planes on Wednesday night accidentally air dropped vital supplies of food and water to IS militants in the Darzab district of northern Jouzjan province instead of to their own besieged troops
  • In the Tora Bora area, where IS has made a strong stand in recent days, local villagers and militias joined with Taliban to rout IS

June 25, 2017: The Islamic State group is rapidly expanding in parts of Afghanistan, advancing militarily into areas where it once had a weak presence and strengthening its forces in core regions, according to Afghan and U.S. officials.

Depending on the location, the proliferation of IS has drawn varied resistance from the Afghan military, U.S. air support and ground troops, local militias, Taliban forces and other militant groups.

Attacking IS has become such a priority in the country, that disparate forces sometimes join together in the ad-hoc fight, with Afghan and U.S. forces finding themselves inadvertently supporting the enemy Taliban in battling IS.

Confusion leads to mistakes

All too often, officials say, mistakes are made due to confusion on the ground.

Afghan army planes on Wednesday night accidentally air dropped vital supplies of food and water to IS militants in the Darzab district of northern Jouzjan province instead of to their own besieged troops, provincial police chief, Rahmatullah Turkistani told VOA. The supplies were meant to help Afghan forces that are countering twin attacks by IS and Taliban militants but were used instead by IS.

“It’s not getting better in Afghanistan in terms of IS,” U.S. Chief Pentagon Spokeswoman Dana White told VOA this week. “We have a problem, and we have to defeat them and we have to be focused on that problem.”

Reinforcements for the IS cause reportedly are streaming into isolated areas of the country from far and wide. There are reports of fighters from varied nationalities joining the ranks, including militants from Pakistan, India, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Russia and Central Asian neighbors.

Confusing scenarios

Still, the Islamic State-Khorasan (ISK) as IS is known in Afghanistan remains a fragmented group composed of differing regional forces with different agendas in different parts of the country.

“IS-K is still conducting low-level recruiting and distribution of propaganda in various provinces across Afghanistan, but it does not have the ability or authority to conduct multiple operations across the country,” a recent Pentagon report said. But where it operates, IS is inflicting chaos and casualties and causing confusing scenarios for disparate opponents.

In the Tora Bora area, where IS has made a strong stand in recent days, local villagers and militias joined with Taliban to rout IS. IS regained ground after a few days, leading to U.S. military air attacks on IS positions in conjunction with Afghan intelligence instructions and army operations.

IS fighters reportedly have fled from mountain caves of Tora Bora, where al-Qaida’s leader Osama bin Laden hid from U.S. attack in 2001.

Families displaced

IS fighters were also reportedly advancing in neighboring Khogyani district, displacing hundreds of families, according to district officials. It is one of several areas in Nangarhar province, near the Pakistani border, where IS has been active for over two years.

Fierce clashes in the Chaparhar district of Nangarhar last month left 21 Taliban fighters and seven IS militants dead, according to a provincial spokesman. At least three civilians who were caught in the crossfire were killed and five others wounded.

“IS has overpowered Taliban in some parts of Nangarhar because the Taliban dispatched its elite commando force called Sara Qeta (Red Brigade) to other parts of the country, including some northern provinces to contain the growing influence of IS there,” Wahid Muzhda, a Taliban expert in Kabul, told VOA.

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Recruiting unemployed youths

IS has also expanded in neighboring Kunar province, where, according to provincial police chief, it has a presence in at least eight districts and runs a training base, where foreign members of IS, train new recruits.

Hundreds of miles from Nangarhar, IS is attempting to establish a persistent presence in several northern provinces where it has found a fertile ground for attracting militants and recruiting unemployed youths, mostly between the age of 13 and 20.

IS has been able to draw its members from the Pakistani Taliban fighters, former Afghan Taliban, and other militants who “believe that associating with or pledging allegiance” to IS will further their interests, according to the Pentagon report.

Hundreds of militants have joined IS ranks in northern Jouzjan and Sar-e-Pul province where local militant commanders lead IS-affiliate groups in several districts.

Darzab district

Qari Hekmat, an ethnic Uzbek and former Taliban militant who joined IS a year ago, claims to have up to 500 members, including around 50 Uzbek nationals who are affiliated with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) — previously associated with al-Qaida and Taliban in Afghanistan.

IS and Taliban are reportedly fighting over the control of Darzab district in Jouzjan which they stormed this week from two different directions and besieged scores of government forces. The Taliban has reportedly captured the center of the district while IS militants control the city outskirts.

Afghanistan faces a continuing threat from as many as 20 insurgent and terrorist networks present or operating in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, including IS, the Pentagon said.

“In areas where the government has limited influence and control, IS attempts to emerge and expand there,” Ateequllah Amarkhail, an analysts and former Army general in Kabul told VOA.

Hit-and-hide strategy

IS has also claimed responsibility for several recent attacks in urban areas, however, with a hit-and-hide strategy that is proving effective. And it is engaging too in more skirmishes with U.S. forces that initially were sent to the country to help Afghan forces halt the spread of Taliban.

Three American service members based in eastern Afghanistan were killed in April during operations targeting IS militants, according to the Pentagon.

“ISIS-K remains a threat to Afghan and regional security, a threat to U.S. and coalition forces, and it retains the ability to conduct high-profile attacks in urban centers,” the Pentagon said. (VOA)