THIS WEEK IN HISTORY
Vol. 7, No. 23
October 16-29, 1998
THIS leafy town is so cash-strapped it cannot even afford to clean up its own garbage. Yet, as home to Cambodia's premier tourist attraction - the Angkor temples - the maintenance of Siem Reap is crucial to the town's economy.
So the townsfolk are banding together to create a number of community initiatives to deal with problems the government with its empty coffers cannot: cleaning the river, building a bridge, and collecting garbage are three tasks the community have taken upon themselves.
On October 3, residents rolled up their trousers and waded into the Siem Reap river, clearing weeds and rubbish from the bed and banks. The Clean River Campaign drew some 1,000 participants, who lined the river for almost three kilometres.
"This town depends on the river very much. If you let the river become polluted, that is to say we kill ourselves," said Governor Toan Chay in a closing speech.
The governor himself declined to get his feet wet, but representatives of the provincial tourism and public works departments, police, local hotels and restaurants, and over 100 schoolchildren plunged into the water.
"I am happy, there are a lot of people doing it together," said schoolgirl Sopheap, 13. "If we clean the river like this, it will be nice and clean."
Richard Helfer, CEO and chairman of Raffles International, the corporate owner of Siem Reap's Grand Hotel d'Angkor, which organised the event, pledged that the hotel would run similar river cleanings every three or four months.
Provincial director of public works, Sok Sin Lin, reiterated the money woes. "In this office, we have no money," he said. "Phnom Penh pays for office supplies, but for building, no."
So when a 1997 flood washed away a bridge in central Siem Reap, the Public Works Department had no hope of being able to build a new one. But Sok Sin Lin got together with the monks at nearby Po Tek Ruat pagoda to secure provincial permission to build it themselves.
The monks took up a collection for the bridge and work began in March. It is due to be finished in another four months.
"The monks and the public together, it is good," said Tang Teum, manager of Po Tek Ruat pagoda. He added that upon its completion, the monks would hold a ceremony at the bridge and televise it nationally.
Sin Lin said he has personally contributed about US$10,000 towards the $30-40,000 project, as a way of making Buddhist merit and added that "every time someone walks over the bridge, it will make merit for me."