Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Bloom bags for Microsoft event

I just received an order from Microsoft! I'm so happy :) It's an order for 150 bags, which is a good start. They chose the messengers, one of our most popular models. Right now we are having the logo printed on the fish feed bags and then we can start sewing. Anyway, just wanted to quickly update readers. Although I don't write as much now cos the bags and the guesthouse keep me busy, Bloom Cambodia is still very much in operation. We had our best ever high season here in Siem Reap, and I am glad things continue to look good for us in 2012. Another piece of good news: Bloom Garden Guesthouse, won TripAdvisor's Traveler's Choice 2012 and was also voted top 20 B&B/inns in Asia, the only one from Cambodia to have made it to the list. If you are ever in Siem Reap, do drop by the Bloom shop opposite the provincial hospital, near the Old Market to check us out.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Happy Khmer New Year

15 April 2011

Sousaday joul ch’nam thmei! Happy Khmer New Year! It's my fifth Khmer New Year - how time flies. I’m working in the Bloom shop here in Siem Reap for the next three days as my team has gone back to their home towns in the provinces. The Bloom women come from all over Cambodia – Prey Veng, Svey Rieng, Kampong Thom, Kampong Cham, etc.

Siem Reap is so quiet today, as most Khmers have gone home for the three- day holiday. There are few tourists around, probably because it’s so hot (my neighbour keeps spraying the ground with water in a bid to keep his shop cool.) The tourists must all be at the pool. It’s so quiet I should close the shop but I keep thinking I’m paying rent and everyday I don’t open and sell something, we are losing money.

I’m taking this opportunity to finally write something for the blog. It’s been three months – the longest I’ve gone without writing I think.

I’ve been so busy since opening the Bloom Garden Guesthouse in September. Already, we are number three on TripAdvisor, which is very motivating to our small guesthouse team. You can see the pride in Kagna’s, Ya’s, Rathy’s and Piseth’s eyes. Every time we move up the ranks they tell each other excitedly and seem more driven to be the best.

The guesthouse business can be tiring – well, it’s as tiring as you make it to be, I suppose. I’m the sort of guesthouse owner who is involved in my guests’ holiday, simply because I’m a people-person, and love, love, love, getting to know new people.

I’m always curious about other people’s lives, so I spend a lot of time with my houseguests, having dinners, hanging out at pubs, talking about the Cambodia I know, and learning about their home countries.

One of the most amazing conversations I had was with a young Israeli couple, who told me most Israelis want peace. They were once on the right track but that process was derailed. I found the couple to be very educated, well-travelled and compassionate and humble. We had $1 tapas and drinks one night together with my expat friends, mostly NGO workers and volunteers. Their friend from Ecuador joined us (first time I’d met an Ecuadorian in my life!) and I learnt Ecuador is one of the biggest exporters of bananas, as well as having oil.

Although tiring, it’s been great fun – I’ve met so many incredible, lovely, amazing people. I will remember always these two crazy Canadian ladies, whom I met at separate occasions, both travelling on their own. I say “crazy” with affection. I love crazy people. With them, what you see is what you get. It’s the ones who appear normal that freak me out, because you never really know what they really think or feel.

One evening Alan says to a mutual friend he doesn’t understand why I invest so much in transient friendships. Well, what is one supposed to do? If I have chemistry, and “click” with someone, I’m not going to hold back and pretend it’s not there, and stop myself from getting to know someone. Anyway, it’s the nature of an expat’s life – friendships are transient because either your friends leave, or you will, someday. If you believe what the Buddhists say, everything is impermanence anyway.

Thank goodness for Facebook for keeping in touch. I do fear the Big Brother aspects of Facebook, something that is always lurking at the back of my mind, but for now, its usefulness outweighs the fear.

Anyway, so between running the guesthouse and the shop, I’ve had no desire to write. I find when my life is full, writing takes a backseat. It’s a shame because I find writing cathartic. If I spent more time writing, I’d probably drink less!

My neighbour, the owner of a restaurant, just told me his four staff members are working today because “they have the Hun Sen spirit; they want to work”. (Hun Sen is Cambodia’s Prime Minister). Yeah, right. I am sure they’d prefer to be with their families during this holiday. But I have a guesthouse now, and I understand there are no holidays for those in the hospitality business. So the staff members at the Bloom guesthouse are working over Khmer New Year. We have real team spirit and I left it up to the team to decide who works when so we’ve planned to take turns going on leave during the holidays. Rathy, who chose to work all through Khmer New Year, gets paid twice the daily rate, as is according to Cambodian law.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Silly Runnings - Cambodian style



I loved this Youtube video and wanted to share. Thanks to my friend Dale :)

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Fire in Siem Reap town today


Alan and I were coming out of Lucky supermarket when we noticed big smoke behind the building. Kosal was picking us up so I went with him on his moto to see what was going on. We went behind lucky, turning right. Many people were also racing to see what was going on. We saw thick, black smoke rising. Kosal had to stop his moto as there was a jam. I hopped off and walked towards the fire.


I saw this - a fire truck was already there and people were helping to pull the hose to spray the fire, which was engulfing a typical Cambodian provision shop, made of wood, with a zinc roof.


You can see the fire truck in this picture.


The policemen were trying to get people to stand back, away from the fire.




I stood opposite, outside the Angkor Land Hotel. This guy was racing to connect a hose from the hotel to help put out the fire.


The fire trucks managed to hose down the flames in less than 15 minutes.



The house was completely destroyed by that time.


You can see the coconuts spilling all over the ground. The umbrella was also burnt. There was hardly anything left of the small provisions stall.

The fire truck was leaving and you can see the policeman on the right holding up the electrical wire with his baton. At first I was thinking he was trying to prevent the wire from catching fire. 


Then I realised he was lifting the electrical wire to let the fire truck pass under.  You can see more clearly in the photo below.




This lady was crying and hugging her son, so I assume it is her shop that burnt down. She had only grabbed her little blue metal cash box. 


I felt so sad for the lady I wanted to cry. Must be terrible to lose everything in this way. But many Cambodian houses are similarly vulnerable to fires, because the walls are made of wooden planks and zinc sheets for the roof. Very few people have fire insurance so when you lose it all, there is nothing you can do. I've often thought about the houses we have rented in Cambodia. What happens if there is a fire? The landlord loses everything because the tenant cannot be expected to pay, and the landlord has no insurance.

The house Alan and I rented in Siem Reap is actually a death trap if there is a fire because there is only one door in and out of the house. Plus, all the windows have grilles (typical here in Cambodia because of security concerns).

Thank goodness the Bloom guesthouse is better designed, with a front and back door, another two more doors upstairs to the large balconies on the front and back. Best of all, there are no grilles on any of the windows - good for easy escape in case of a fire!


Monday, December 06, 2010

GREEN IS REVOLUTION!

I keep meaning to put photos up of our new shop but have been so busy with our new guesthouse. I did write in a previous entry how proud I was of our new wall. I had rented this shop space because I thought the walls outside the shop had potential as a marketing tool. It was previously salmon coloured so I white washed it and paid a Cambodian artist, Khey, to paint our new logo and the words. (Khey has 2 shops of his own, one in the Old Market and another one near my previous shop where he sells his original paintings). 

This is the Bloom wall:


In the day time.


And at night.


Tuk tuks line our street at night.

Khey did such a good job! Many, many tourists take photos of the green wall, with our logo and "Green is Revolution". They even pose with it!

I chose this slogan over many I have in mind, because I think it best encapsulates what we stand for. I had adapted it from Iran's Green Revolution, the name given to 2009's Iranian Presidential Election, in which many Persian protestors risked their lives to dispute the victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over Mir-Hossein Mousavi.

Green is revolution in so many ways. As I see it, concern of the environment is waking people up from their robotic consumer lifestyles. So many people go through lives semi-conscious, never really using the brain to think about the choices we make.

To me, the green movement is revolutionary, forcing us to re-examine the way we thoughtlessly consume the earth's limited resources. We are only now beginning to think about our unsustainable lifestyles and the stress it puts on our planet. From buying hybrid cars to changing our diets (fat people cause climate change, says the British government's chief green adviser) to buying recycled goods, many, many people are trying to make changes in the way they lead their lives, so as to live more responsibly. (Some say it is too late, but I think better late than never).


For me, the green revolution also means change towards a fairer, more just, and more thoughtful society. People now care more about other people and animals and things as they think about how climate change affects poor people (half a million displaced people in Bangladesh pour into the capital Dhaka each year as their homes are destroyed); polar bears (forced to be cannibals as they have smaller platforms to hunt seals); and our planet's future ("by 2025 there could be three billion people without adequate water as the population rises still further. And massive urbanisation, increased encroachment on animal territory, and concentrated livestock production could trigger new pandemics" - 2009 State of the Future).

It is my hope that this new concern for other people also includes interest in making trade fair, in ending the exploitation of poor people in the third world, just so we in the developed world can have our cheap consumer goods.

I think it is happening. I have seen people come to the realisation that part of the problem about climate change is that rich countries are consuming too much at the expense of other countries. From there, it is not a big jump to conclude that the lifestyles of people in the developed world are being subsidised by poor people in the third world. Thinking about climate change, people realise how interconnected we are, how interdependent we are, and how one problem in one part of the world will ultimately affect the rest of us.

And this is how "Green is Revolution" applies to Bloom. At Bloom, we make products with recycled materials as our way of contributing to saving the environment. At the same time, we pay fair wages to producers and charge fair prices to customers as our way of trying to make trade fair. This is why the other part of the wall says "Making Trade Fair - one bag at a time." I hope this makes sense to you. But if not, please let me know, as it helps me sharpen my thinking about the issue.


A final pic. My team was so cute. They asked me to take a photo of them in front of the wall because they had seen many tourists do the same. 


From left: Bora, Kagna, Socheata and Piseth. Hope to see you at Bloom Cambodia!



Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Opportunists and Conspiracy theorists

My staff members at the Bloom guesthouse told me banana sellers in Phnom Penh took advantage of the tragedy in Phnom Penh and raised the prices of bananas in the city. Cambodians offer bananas and light incense (3 or 5 sticks, different from the 2 sticks that the Chinese offer) and candles to pray for the dead. Everyone bought bananas, even in Siem Reap, to pray that those who died in the stampede will go to heaven.

So these banana sellers in Phnom Penh were selling a bunch of bananas for 15,000riels or even 30,000riels (US$7.50). The normal price is 1500riels ($0.40) or 2500riels. Even in Siem Reap, the price went up, to 5,000 (US$1.25) or 7,000 riels per bunch.

Kagna's sister-in-law, who is a fruit seller in Psar Leu market here in Siem Reap said, "Why these people like this?" She believes "do good, get good" so will not raise her prices from the usual 2500 riels. Everyone is disgusted with the opportunistic merchants. But even at those prices, the bananas were sold out in the city.

Cambodians are finding it hard to understand how so many people can die in such a short time. In just 6 hours, more than 300 people died (latest reports put the figure closer to 400). Kagna says even in Pol Pot's time, not so many people died in such a short time (I don't know if this is true). She said Prime Minister Hun Sen "cry and cry" on TV and that during the six hours, he was exhorting the people on the bridge "don't run, don't run." She said he was beamed live on TV and they broadcast his message on loudhailers around the bridge.

Some theories have emerged. Some say it is because it is the year of the Tiger and tigers like meat and blood, so it is a year for disaster (err...not a very good theory if you ask me).

Others say it was caused by agents who are opposed to the government so that the Cambodian people will blame the government for its ineptitude (err...also not a very good theory, in my view, because the people who shouted must have been amongst the crowd, so risked their lives as well. Unless people think these "secret agents" had a way of escaping after causing the panic). But the government has said it will find and punish those responsible for shouting that the bridge was about to collapse.

Another theory is the panic was caused by Cambodian "hooligans" who like to play a game. The game involves linking arms and moving the human chain altogether forwards and then backwards. People will then fall, causing laughter and cries. Usually the youth do this on the streets during the Water Festival.
 
But maybe the simplest explanation is the right one. Occam's Razor is a principle that recommends selecting the competing hypothesis that makes the fewest new assumptions.

Cambodians are not the only ones to have experienced a stampede. This study found a total of 215 human stampede events were reported from 1980 to 2007, resulting in 7069 deaths and at least 14,078 injuries.

There are many things that can cause a stampede. When the Brooklyn Bridge just opened, a woman tripped, which contributed to fears that the bridge would collapse. "As she lost her footing another woman screamed, and the throng behind crowded forward so rapidly that those at the top of the steps were pushed over and fell in a heap." (abstract found in the New York Times.)

In 2005, 1000 people died in the Baghdad Bridge Stampede . There were rumours of a suicide bomber. Interior Minister Bayan Baqir Solagh said that one person "pointed a finger at another person saying that he was carrying explosives...and that led to the panic".

In 1989, 96 people --all fans of Liverpool F.C.-- died in the Hillsborough disaster. In 2007, 3 people died and 30 were injured in Chongqing, China, when a supermarket offered 20% discount on cooking oil. And in 1896, 1389 people were killed in a crush as people tried to get presents during the Coronation of Russian Tsar Nicholas II. (All these records can be found on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stampede).

So I don't think the stampede was caused by enemies of the state. We still do not know what caused it, but it could be as simple as a one person suggesting the bridge could collapse. If enough people hear and believe him, that would be enough to cause a panic.

For me, the important thing is that the authorities learn from this tragedy. Stampede can be prevented by more organised crowd control, barriers and preventing extreme density of people.

This interesting Slate article, on "How not to get trampled at [Obama's] Inauguration" tells you the warning signs of an imminent crowd crush and what to do in such a situation. Here are some pointers:

1. There needs to be communication - with barriers, signs, or loudhailers. "Crowds are rarely belligerent, but they can become deadly if, for example, there's no way to announce that someone has fallen down and everyone must take a step back."

2. You also need space around you, and the article suggests no more than four people per square meter. "Otherwise, if someone jostles you, you won't have room to stick a foot out to stabilize yourself. If you fall, other people may trip over you, creating a pileup. Meanwhile, the rest of the crowd will continue to surge forward, unaware of your situation, and the pressure will build."

3. If you do feel like you are being touched on all four sides, you need to move to the margins. Try to move sideways. "After that, the last opportunity to escape may be when you feel shock waves travel through the crowd. This happens when people at the back push forward, but the people at the front have no where to go. If you feel the crowd sway like this, you are in serious danger. Wait until the crowd stops moving and then inch your way sideways and backward, zigzagging to safety. Just as you might swim back to shore in the ocean, try to navigate during the pause between waves."

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Almost 400 dead at Water Festival stampede

Very sad day for Cambodians. As if their lives are not hard enough, the rare chance ordinary Khmers - many from the countryside who come to Phnom Penh to watch the annual boat race - had a chance to rejoice and celebrate, they met with tragedy. The Guardian reported a policeman saying most of those killed were not people from Phnom Penh, but from the provinces who wanted to walk on the new Rainbow Bridge over the Tonle Sap, close to the festivities. 

Fortunately none of the Bloom women was on the bridge but they were seriously depressed today when I spoke to them on the phone. I told them to take the day off. (I live in Siem Reap, so am far from the tragedy but our workshop is in Phnom Penh). Later I heard Kamhut's father and brother were injured on a bus going home from Phnom Penh to her province in Kampong Thom. The bus had got into an accident. Four million people were in Phnom Penh for the weekend celebrations but the organisers had only expected 2. Phnom Penh has about 1.5 million residents. 

I called Kamhut and as usual she sounded happy and cheery but when I told her to take as much time away from work as she needs and to call me if she needs anything, she started crying. Kamhut is only 23. We are all hoping her family will be ok.

We don't yet know what caused the panic. The New York Daily News reported that a witness has said the stampede started when 10 people in the crowd fainted, causing others around them to panic. In an earlier Guardian article, a doctor said the two major causes of death were suffocation and electrocution.

Sean Ngu, an Australian who was visiting family and friends in Cambodia, told the BBC. "There were too many people on the bridge and then both ends were pushing. This caused a sudden panic. The pushing caused those in the middle to fall to the ground, then [get] crushed. Panic started and at least 50 people jumped in the river. People tried to climb on to the bridge, grabbing and pulling [electric] cables which came loose and electrical shock caused more deaths."

It also seems the police did not handle the situation well. CNN reported a Phnom Penh Post journalist as saying police began firing water cannons onto a bridge to an island in the center of a river in an effort to get them to continue moving across the bridge. "That just caused complete and utter panic," he told CNN in a telephone interview. A friend who has lived in Phnom Penh for many years told me that by the end of the Water Festival celebrations (when the tragedy happened), many policemen are drunk and so security can be lax.

I watched the news on Cambodian TV and took these images off Bayon TV. You can see the human crush.



It was reported that two-thirds of the dead were women. The injured were laid down on the streets.



Those who were injured were taken to Calmette Hospital. The hospital could not cope, so people were laid down on the floor.


The dead were covered with white sheets at the hospital.

From another Cambodian news channel. The police were at the site today. You can see crowds at the scene.


This is the bridge.

Strewn with slippers.


Interview with the man in charge


Bayon TV organised a donation drive for the victims. They were taking phone calls from donors and you can see this man on the right holding out a USD20 note to donate.


The Cambodian government has said it would compensate 5 million rielsm or USD1250 to the families of each of the dead and 1 million riels each to those injured. This man is announcing who donated and how much and thanking them. People were donating whatever they could. There were many for 20,000 riels, or just USD5, and from as far away as Banteay Manchey.


I want to donate too and will have a collection box for victims at the Bloom shop.  But how can I ensure whatever money me and my team and our friends raise do reach the victims? It sounds cynical but I am adamant the money we contribute does not do go to somebody's retirement fund. 

The only thing I can think about is to find victims myself and hand the money over. So this is the plan. First we collect the money, then I will get the Bloom team in Phnom Penh to ask around so they find people in their provinces who were affected by the tragedy and we give them the money ourselves--directly. It may be a long shot, but maybe not, because people in the provinces are tightly-knit. I'm sure we will manage to find the right people to give the money to. 




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