Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Doggies and Bloom's First Sale

It’s been more than a month since the last entry and so much has happened. In summary, puppy Austin almost died; we welcomed a new puppy, Nessie; and thanks to my wonderful friends at Riverkids (www.riverkidsproject.org), Bloom made its first major sale less than 3 months after operation. Phew!

Austin is now 6 months old. He was very sick a month ago and we nearly lost him to a canine disease very common in Cambodia. At first he was just sleeping all day and lost appetite. We thought he had simply eaten something bad. On day three, I noticed him coughing up a little blood and that’s when I panicked. We immediately took him to the vet who first diagnosed him with distemper. Subsequently, the vet told us the illness was actually Parvo virus. It was very depressing to learn on the Internet that there is no cure for the disease and affected puppies have a 50 per cent chance of survival. The virus attacks the lining of the digestive system so puppies cannot absorb nutrients or liquids. It is highly contagious and Austin’s pal, the furry black puppy who lives just a few doors away across the road died just 2 days after showing symptoms. We still do not know which dog first had the virus and how they got it. A week ago, we had brought Austin for a long walk to Hun Sen park for a run (Austin really loves to run, and he has very long legs, very coltish) and we thought perhaps he got infected along the way. I was very depressed at the thought of this: how in this town, you cannot even take your dog for a walk without it picking up a disease, because it is just so dirty, literally, with rubbish and dog poo almost everywhere.

In any case, Austin was put on a drip for four days continuously and had antibiotic shots. Six days after visiting the clinic, run by three very kind young Cambodian men, Austin got well. My advice to everyone with a puppy is please, please, remember to vaccinate it when it is old enough (6 weeks according to info on the Net). It was terrible seeing Austin suffer and although we had not told each other this while Austin fighting for his life, Alan and I had each secretly decided that if Austin dies, we would pack up and go home because it would just be too much. Cambodians, though, are used to puppies dying and our neighbours and housekeeper were rather blasé about the death of Austin’s pal. I can understand this, because the vaccines cost USD9 and each IV treatment, USD6—a lot of money for most locals. In a country where human life itself is cheap, what more dogs?


A week before Austin fell sick, we were given a puppy by our friends at Riverkids. Nessie is a very cute dog and soon displaced Austin as the favourite among the staff at Bloom. Alan and I are very conscious of this and we really try to make Austin feel loved. In terms of temperament though, Austin is the sweetie. Nessie was named after Vanessa (Austin Powers’ girlfriend in the first show). She is a right little monster, and the name “Nessie” (as in the Lochness Monster) fits her. She is very fierce, and enjoys snarling and pouncing on Austin when they play. Exposed to Austin, the vet said Nessie contracted Parvo as well. Fortunately, she was still young and had the maternal antibodies that protect her from many diseases. She was only given some antibiotic shots and thankfully, is healthy and full of energy. The two dogs bring us much joy in this foreign land. ☺

Riverkids—Bloom’s first big order
Bloom—the reason I am here. Bloom has been doing well, thanks to my incredibly supportive friends, Jimmy and Dale, who run their own project here in Phnom Penh, Riverkids. Riverkids is a project that aims to stop child trafficking in Cambodia. There are parents here who sell their children, usually for a few hundred dollars. These children are usually bought by middlemen/women who go on to sell them for a profit. The children could end up in brothels or adopted by foreign parents. The situation is so bad that countries such as the US and the UK have banned adoptions from Cambodia because of the possibility that the child could have been trafficked. You can read more about child trafficking and the work that Riverkids does on www.riverkidsproject.org. I should also declare in the interest of transparency that I am on Riverkid’s board of trustees. Riverkids is in the process of being registered in Singapore as an international NGO and we have great hopes that it will make a difference to the lives of some children here. It already has to some 55 kids who receive food, school and shelter at Riverkids.

Anyway, back to Bloom. Riverkids needs money for its programmes next year and Dale decided to sell Cambodian fair trade products online as a way of raising funds and more importantly, awareness. Bloom is one of the suppliers on the site www.shop.riverkidsproject.org. Dale tells me the site has been very successful not just in getting buyers, but in that people who buy often also make a donation to the cause. It is nice to know that there are so many people out there who care about others and that the products they buy make a difference to the lives of those who make them. The staff at Bloom worked very hard to get the orders out on time, working on weekends and at home after work hours. For this extra work, I pay the women per piece, calculating that it allows them to make more. I have been very happy with their performance and everyone is getting a pay rise this month, as they have all passed their probation, after 3 months. As the orders have slowed, at the moment, we are working to make prototypes of bags and home furnishing accessories. We are now working on a whole range of bags made out of recycled rice feed bags.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Day and Night in Cambodia

It’s 6:30am and the air is cool and smells cleaner—the motocycles have not started with their exhausts yet! It is 7:30am in Singapore and it is exactly like how it was back home, with the fresh cool air. I’m sitting in a big rattan chair with a thick cushion in the garden—I had bought these chairs for the garden café because I notice Westerners like them. They are really comfy. I am so excited about the café. It is another big investment—should I really be running two businesses, when the first is not yet stable? I have concluded it makes sense so I’m jumping straight into it, again with no experience in this area.

I wish I were a morning person but this is rare for me. In Singapore, after I quit my job, we would sleep at 11pm and wake up at 9am. We had to change our hours, sleeping at 9pm and waking up at 7am, because the work day starts earlier in Cambodia. Offices start operating at 7:30am (in Singapore, it is 8:30am or 9am). Lunch is at 11:30am and may be for an hour or an hour and a half. Work resumes until 5pm.

When I first hired the women from Hagar, I had wanted Singapore working hours (9am to 6pm), failing to see the strict distinction between night and day here. In Singapore, work hours are usually flexible, and working overtime (without extra pay, I might add!) is par for the course. Every white-collared worker in Singapore has worked till 8pm, or later, at some time or another. I remember taking a taxi to the office at 3am or 5am on days when I could not sleep, or leaving the office at midnight to meet a deadline. Yes, I was a right workaholic.

Such flexible work hours are not common here. The day starts early not just because of the heat, but because of light. It would be too late for the women to leave work at 6pm, which is when it gets dark, because street lighting is not widespread and is limited to the main roads in the city. It is dangerous for people who live in remote areas as they are prey to robbers and the like. Eventually, we agreed that BLOOM’s work hours would be from 8am to 5pm, with an hour’s break for lunch.

Very early on, I had visited the slum village that now houses the people who were moved from their homes in front of the Tonle Bassac. These people were cleared out because a big developer had decided to build hotels and shops on that prime piece of land facing the river. The new slum is more than an hour’s drive from Phnom Penh and the people were given little more than bamboo sticks and plastic sheets to build tents that would be their new homes. It was a very sad sight and one of the motivations for me to come here.

The men now have to travel more than an hour to get to the city for work and have to pay 2000 riels (about 50 cents US) a trip on moto, which is very cheap for the distance (it costs 2000 riels to get to Chbbar Ampov which is only 30 minutes away). Because they cannot afford to pay more (a round trip costs them a dollar US. It is a lot of money considering that if the men are are lucky, they get USD2 or USD2.50 a day), the motodop (motocycle driver) would pile 3 or 4 people on the bike before setting off. Then the men would have to make every effort to return home before it gets dark. It is a hard life.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Water Festival

Today my friend Sophon invited Alan and I to join his family at the riverfront to celebrate the Water Festival. The festivities last three days, during which the biggest draw is the boat race. Alan and I had watched the race on TV the day before, the first day of the festival, and we found four Cambodian channels that broadcast the race ‘live’. Sophon tells me a million people from the provinces troop down to Phnom Penh for the festival and to support their teams. The boats represent the different provinces and they train for a year for this race which takes place on the Tonle Sap. Sophon says the boats cost a thousand US dollars each and the military has its own team and apparently so has Prime Minister Hun Sen! We also saw an all-woman team.

The boats are long and reminiscent of the dragon boat race that takes place in Singapore. I counted over 60 people on each boat. They paddle really fast and it was nice to watch the different coloured boats try to outdo each other. I have to say, though, it was not really exciting for me because I had no idea what was going on. There were so many boats (I think there were 400) and I just had no clue who was from where and who was winning. For us (we sat on the roof terrace at the FCC or Foreign Correspondents’ Club), it was just a change because there was some action on the river. As it got dark, the FCC was packed to the brim with mainly tourists and expats. At 5:30pm, 9 boats all lit with brilliant lights started to float pass. They each represent Cambodia’s various government bodies: the king, the senate and national assembly, the ministry of justice, the ministry of defence etc. The last one, however, represented ANZ Bank. We did not stay for that but the very thought that a commercial entity can sponsor a boat which really is out of place is upsetting.

Alan was disappointed because he thought it would be like the Water Festival in Thailand where people actually do something with water (they throw it at you!). Our friend Heng, tells us the festival is to celebrate the Khmer victory over the Champa Muslims many, many years ago. The Champa Muslims used to have their own country but are dispersed now. Sophon tells us the boat race had started out as a race within the Cambodian navy, but then expanded. Sophon also related the tale of the rabbit in the moon (the moon was almost full that night). I can’t remember the story but I had heard a similar one when I was a child in Singapore.

The crowds at the riverfront were amazing. I had never seen so many people in Phnom Penh before! This is the only time when Phnom Penh gets so crowded, because during the other big festivals like Pchum Ben and Khmer New Year, Cambodians return to their provinces.

We had walked from Independence Monument because no vehicles are allowed from there on (but some large SUVs and motos were seen being let through). It was great! I love pedestrian walks where you can walk in peace. What was truly amazing was how Cambodians automatically walked on the right side of the road, so that people heading in one direction stayed on their side of the road. Alan and I were saying this would never happen in Singapore. In Singapore, there would be utter chaos as people walk all over the place in their bid to get to their destination quickly. Perhaps it is because of our notorious kiasu (“afraid to lose” in Hokkien) syndrome. Singaporeans are well-known to be so competitive, we have to win at every little thing. There is even a cartoon, Mr Kiasu, that chronicles how kiasu we are.

Singaporeans’ inability to keep to their side of the path has led to shopping malls in Orchard Road having to hire security guards to ensure we follow the rules. This happened after chaos ensued and a couple of fights broke out in the underpass linking Takashimaya and Wisma Atria on Orchard Road one year during Christmas. I’m laughing as I write this because it’s so silly you just got to laugh.

There are also free concerts in the park everywhere, and Khmer movie stars and singers do their part. Saveth says a Singaporean singer will be participating in the concert held at the Olympic Stadium, but he forgets the name. I am curious and pleased about this singer. On Hun Sen Park near Independence Monument, you can sit on the grass and watch the concerts and buy drinks and snacks from vendors who are everywhere. Saveth says it costs USD100 a day to rent a stall by the river. It is expensive and he says companies do it for advertising, rather than to sell their goods.

For three days, at 4pm, the king comes out of his palace to join in the celebrations. Then at 6pm there are fireworks. We watched the fireworks from our roof terrace yesterday, together with Vee, our new housekeeper and Austin, our International Puppy of Mystery, who has doubled in size. I liked the display and the fact that Cambodians can enjoy fireworks just like the rest of us. Alan says, “bread and circuses, bread and circuses”, the people have to be entertained. He is loathed to think about the cost of the fireworks.

We walked home from the river and stopped by a Khmer-run fast food restaurant that was packed. It was cheap food: hotdog 3000 riels (USD0.75), pizza for one for 4000 riels (USD1) and beef with rice and a fried egg for 6000 riels (USD1.5) and very popular with the locals. By now, at 8pm, it was much harder walking home because the crowds had grown and it became quite stressful. As usual, Alan the white man, attracted much attention, and many Khmers said ‘hello’ or ‘what is your name?’ to him. I sometimes get jealous of the rockstar treatment he gets (I’m Asian and so people aren’t as interested in me).

All in all, it was nice to experience the Water Festival and it was really nice to see how Khmers join each other in having fun—they seem to love the crowds and the bustling atmosphere. For us though, it was too much excitement—we’d probably stay home next year.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Business licence

It’s been really hot these past couple of weeks and the heat is getting to me. We have been trying to cut down on the use of aircon because it is costly, but I find it almost impossible to sleep in this heat. Saveth tells me the weather in Phnom Penh is changing—November used to be cool he says.

It is former king Sihanouk’s birthday tomorrow, which is a public holiday and yesterday we saw fireworks from our roof terrace. What a nice treat! The big holiday is in a week’s time—the Water Festival, when a million people from the provinces troop down to Phnom Penh to watch the boat race at the river, in front of the Royal Palace. The teams come from different provinces all over Cambodia to race once a year. I want to go but fear the crowds. You can also stay home and watch the race ‘live’ on Cambodian TV. But as it is my first time, I think I will brave the crowds and take photos for everyone.

Time is passing swiftly by and I am afraid I won’t make my November deadline. I will have to pay for a business licence, given by the local sangkat (police). The official in charge of small businesses for my area has been to the house twice. He is very keen for my business. I had asked a trustworthy Cambodian friend to speak to the sangkat about my plans for a business. The official first quoted USD300 for the licence, which is way overpriced (the usual is between USD100-USD200). He claimed it was “fixed price” when my friend tried to negotiate. However, another friend with experience managed to bring the price down to USD230. The sangkat also said that if a Khmer person were to sign the lease for the house on my behalf, the price is only USD180. To be fair to the sangkat, he said I had to pay up only if I wanted to have a sign for the shop. Otherwise, he will allow me to operate for free, without a licence for 6-9 months, in the name of research.

If you are planning to rent a house in Cambodia, make sure your landlord informs the sangkat and signs an agreement with them. Every time a house is rented, the landlord has to contribute money to the sangkat. My Cambodian friend tells me the sangkat gets very little money from the government so this is their way of getting income for their policing activities.

Apart from the business licence fee, I will also have to pay income tax which should be about USD10 a month (I have no idea how they work this out). The other big licence is the one for exporting goods, but as I am not sure how much I will sell, I am not applying for this yet. I am sure there are other “taxes” which I will have to pay for later on.

So the things I need to get done soon are

1. Pay for business licence.
2. Design and make signboard
3. Work with tour agents
4. Advertise

To save money, we made the decision not to have a guard. As a result, I have moved the sewing machines indoors from the car port. The women now sew in a room on the ground floor. It will be more comfortable for them and on Friday I got everyone involved in the move, because I wanted them to feel comfortable with the new arrangement.

However, we hired a live-in housekeeper today who will start tomorrow. She is a widow from a province that Esther recommended to us. She has a daughter working in a garment factory. Her priority was finding a place to stay and we thought why not let her live with us? It’s the first time Alan and I will have had a stranger living with us so this should be interesting.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Dengue is Me

Sat Oct 21, 2006

It finally happened. I contracted dengue. Barely four months into my third trip to Cambodia. It was quite an experience going to the hospital and I have to share it with readers who are planning to come here.

My symptoms started on a Wednesday evening, with pins and needles in my hands and ankles and feet. That night I came down with fever. The next day, my temperature was 38.6 degree celcius (101 degree farenheit), then went down to 35.9. Apart from the fever and chills, I did not have any other symptoms. The next day my temperature rose to 39.2 (102.5), which convinced me to see a doctor in Cambodia.

I called up someone who has been here for 11 years, Malaysian missionary Esther Ding, who is the founder of Khmer Life, and also, she says, Villageworks, the one that is now owned by the Singapore Girls’ Brigade (interesting story for another time). Esther told me to see Dr Lily of First Central Clinic on Monivorng Boulevard, just 10min walk from my house.

Dr Lily wasn’t in (I found out later she is from China and is the manager of the centre, which is Chinese run) and I was taken to see another Chinese lady doctor. A nurse approached me with a thermometer and I recoiled. “Is it clean?” I asked, thinking I had to put it in my mouth. Another nurse said don’t worry. In Cambodia, doctors always take temperature from the armpits. The temperature and blood pressure were normal.

The doctor did not speak English and I asked for a translator. It was a Khmer man who as it turned out, spoke worse Mandarin than me! So much for that plan.

The doctor then took out a wooden tongue press from a small metal box and stuck it in my mouth. It all happened so quickly that I did not have time to ask if it was sterilised. She kept asking me to say “ahhh…” and the Khmer man was translating, “doctor ask you to say ‘ah’, say ‘ah’!”, while I was just concentrating trying to push out the press! When I succeeded I immediately went to the sink to rinse my mouth and tongue. Very rude, I know. Meanwhile the doctor had put the press back into the box which contained some other stuff…

It was all very perfunctory, her questions, she only seemed keen for me to do a blood test. That was fine because I wouldn’t have trusted her diagnosis anyway. It turned out I had very low, 1900 (normal is 4000) white blood cells count, and low platelet count, 1850 (normal range is 1500-4000), which the doctor said would only continue to drop. Then I realised the name on the card was not mine! It was some other person called Wang Fuxing. I pointed this out and the doctor insisted it was my card, they just used the previous patient’s name! Anyway, it turned out it was my card, so they said anyway. The doctor decided I would have to stay the night at the hospital for observation. When I refused, we agreed for me to go on a drip, but only after I confirmed what I was getting. She claimed the first time it was antibacterial/virus drugs (fangjun yao), but the bags I saw were sodium chloride and dextrose. Salt and sugar. There might have been some drugs injected into the bags, but I did not see any on the preparation table.

It was fine with me because I had not been eating for the past 3 days, so I could do with the food. There is no treatment for dengue. In Singapore, the doctors give you potassium salt. You just need to have plenty of rest and drink lots of water.
It was traumatic though, because the first nurse, a Khmer woman, had tried to insert the needle and did it wrongly, causing me much pain. Then a Chinese nurse, who said she was more experienced, came along and wanted a go. *I* had a go at her: I’m paying money for this, why didn’t you come the first time round, why send an inexperienced nurse? Anyway, she too failed, muttering that my veins were too fine. Finally it occurred to them to change to a child’s size needle. Despite not being able to see my veins, they had insisted on using the standard adult sized needle. I was thinking how typical this inflexibilty in customer service is—in Singapore and in Cambodia. People just don’t use their brains, but follow SOP (standard operating procedure). The doctor herself finally got the needle in. So my advice is to get the doctor to do it for you the first time round.

It was hilarious being at the hospital, whose clients consisted only of Chinese and Koreans and me. There were no white people at all. When I told my English friend Myriam, she said, get a second opinion from a proper doctor! What was funny was the way people kept streaming in and getting put on drips like it was routine. The woman on the bed next to me had an inflamed throat and was given a drip! At 9pm, these two Chinese men strolled in, chitchatting with the clinic’s administrator, then comfortably settled on the beds, reading newspapers while being hooked up. You get the sense that for these people it’s just like going to the pub. “I’m not feeling too good today, I think I’ll pop down to the clinic (pub) for a drip (beer).” Alan and I were joking about infusing them with beer which is roughly the same colour as the dextrose. One Chinese guy asked the patient in the next bed whether there were any openings in his cardbox box manufacturing factory. Another one had asked for half a pack of dextrose, but fell asleep and when the nurse woke him up, he said, let me finish it and promptly went back to sleep. I wonder if it is the aircon that they like?

I had read in a book, I think it was the one written by a British doctor who had volunteered to work here in her 50s, that Khmers are big believers in drips. Whatever they’ve got, they insist on a drip. You often see people riding pillion on a motobike holding on to their drip bags. (There is also a country where the people like injections, although I forget where.)

In Singapore, it is antibiotics. Doctors insist on prescribing it to you for whatever illness. I am not sure if it is because they think that is what the patients expect, or whether it is their way of making more out of you. I dislike seeing doctors in Singapore for that reason. Taking antibiotics regularly is not without harm. You could get immune to the drug when you really need it, and worse, most antibiotics don’t work with pinpoint accuracy, which means they destroy good bacteria as well.

Anyway, it turns out, the consultation was only USD2 (what it was worth, probably!), blood test, USD7, and the 2 drips, USD25. No wonder they were so keen for me to take the drip—it’s more than 10times the consultation fee! Still, at USD34, it was fairly cheap. Myriam’s foreign doctor charges USD40 for consultation alone, about 6 times the price in Singapore.

The good news is I felt much better after the drips and could eat a bun that night. It’s the day after and I feel well enough to type this.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Crochet Plan

This child stays in one of the cement bag houses. Her sister is checking for nits, a common past-time here. Apparently, Khmer children who have blond hair are malnourished. It's not hair dye but a sign of malnutrition, so I've been told by people who work with children. I have a plan to hire a crochet trainer for the people in the slum village. If I provide the yarn and the needles, the people can crochet products for me which I will sell in the shop. This gives them the opportunity to make more money

Leaf House in Cambodia

Do you live in leaf or concrete house? This is a photo I took when I first visited Neang at her "house" across the Monivorng Bridge. She lives in something better. In her hut, unlike this, only the roof is made of leaves. The floor is made of wooden planks while the walls are bags that used to contain cement. See Cement and cement bag houses

I watched a BBC program yesterday, "Bionic Buildings". The first houses were literally just skins, and made of animal skins, to protect us from the elements. Houses in the developed world have progressed so much. Today's bionic buildings are able to "tan" (change colour according to the weather), have the ability to self-clean (just like the Lotus leaf--dirt and water just slip off...think of the money saved from cleaning buildings), and are able to keep temperature constant just like termite houses in the desert. One day Cambodia will share in this progress. It may be a long time coming, but it will get there. Ultimately, nothing can stop scientific progress. People and events may delay progress but I have a teleological view of history.

Neang's House

Neang and her grandma, who is 78 years old. Her granny looks healthy, although she must have had a very hard life, under Pol Pot and now this. Neang also has two other siblings, both disabled from accidents, who just moved to Vietnam wit live with her aunt. This is the entire house. On the left is a stove and they cook with wood which Neang finds. On the left is a water dispenser for the 30 litres of water she gets a day. Washing has to be done at the river because the precious water is used for cooking and drinking. On the far right, you can see a bit of the Hwa Tai Cream Crackers tin I had thrown away
and which she had asked from me when she saw. It was a lesson for me to keep whatever can be used. What is waste to us is precious to poor people.

The job at BLOOM has allowed Neang to rent a house for USD10 a month near the construction site. I will visit her at her new home soon.

Pompous Villas and Shanty Towns

This is where Neang stays. This commune of about a dozen houses was provided by the construction company for free, if the workers work on the site. Neang worked there before she joined me. She was paid only 6000riels (less than USD1.50) a day to carry the bags of cement and other heavy work. You can see the cement house at the back. Cambodia is full of scenes like this. Pompous villas existing side by side with shanty towns.

Birthday and Goodbye, Judge

I turned 35 a few days ago and I had 20 people over for a BBQ. It started out as an excuse to feed the staff but I also wanted to invite my new friends in Cambodia who have been so kind to me. It was great fun, with a full moon (it was the Mooncake Festival the day before, when Chinese eat mooncakes and drink tea while admiring the moon. The children carry lanterns and light candles anywhere they can). We played Khmer songs and drank beer (boy, can the local men put it away). The staff really enjoyed themselves and some came over early to help. (Bonthuen even wanted a test run the day before!) There was a lot of food for the staff to take home, so mission accomplished!

Sipha took me to Chhbar Ampov (pronounced “Chbar Ampou”) market because it’s a wholesale market. Vendors at Psar (“market”) Olympic and others in Phnom Penh city get their goods there. Now I see why it’s so crowded. We bought corn which just came off a truck from Kampot province in the south. It is the season for corn and everywhere now you can see corn vendors selling boiled or grilled corn for 1000 riels or USD0.25 for one. I paid USD3.50 for 50 raw cobs of corn and squatted together with Sipha to pull off the husks. I really felt like a local, although you can tell I’m not because my thigh muscles are nowhere as strong!

Expats here usually shop for food at supermarkets like Lucky, Pencil and Big A. I think it’s because it is what we are used to—nicely laid out aisles and meat, veg and cheese sections. Alan and I shop at Lucky on Sihanouk, mainly because it is convenient (10mins walk from our house) and you can get stuff like broccoli and frozen spinach. There is also a good selection of wine and cheap, compared with where I come from! (Alcohol in Singapore is very expensive, because of the duty. And so are cigarettes! A pack of Marlboros cost USD1 here and more than 6 times as much back home, if I remember correctly.)

The prices at Chhbar Ampov market were also much cheaper than what I was used to. Beef was USD4 a kilo for the good stuff; cuttlefish less than USD2 a kilo; tiger prawns USD6.50; while chicken was USD3.50. I had to go away because the sellers kill the chickens on the spot and boil them to remove the feathers. Sipha was handling the chickens with her bare hands, assessing their size and quality. And all I could think of was “Bird flu! Bird flu!” I made sure we washed out hands the first opportunity we had. I also bought an ice-box for USD24 (down from USD28), which had “Pepsi” splashed across it. I thought it was a lot of money, but my fridge is not big enough for all the food and drinks. I was thinking someone is making a lot of money out of these ice-boxes because they should be provided free by Pepsi to vendors who carry Pepsi products. I wonder if they are stolen, because I have heard of garment workers who steal thread to sell.

I didn’t have a cake but everyone sang me the birthday song anyway. But the day ended with sad news and me crying. I had called home and at first my father did not want to tell me about my dog. He kept saying “I will tell you another time, today you enjoy yourself.” But I wanted to know. Judge, my dog in Singapore, died the day before. He was old, more than 10 years old and Alan had been telling me, he’s done, worn out. He was having problems peeing and was disoriented. I did not know this, but Alan had offered to put him to sleep about a week ago when Alan was in Singapore awaiting the flight to Cambodia. My father said that Judge was unable to eat or drink for the last five days. I was so upset because he was my dog and I was not there for him. I had not seen him in 3 months and I was thinking I left him for a bunch of people I did not even know. I did not have a clue he was ill because he was the same dog when I left. I was even doing research on how to bring him over.

Judge was a beautiful American cocker spaniel. In fact he was called Judge because he looked like he was wearing a judge’s wig. My mom used to call him “angmoh chabor” (Hokkien for European woman) because of the long blond hair on his head. He was found in Eng Neo Avenue in the posh District 10 area by a lecturer at the university who had tried for a week to find its owner before I decided to take him in. Most likely some bloody idiot had thrown him away. There are Singaporeans who see dogs as fashion accessories, like a designer handbag. For a while Schnauzers were the in-thing. Some of these people get fed up of having a pet after a while, just as they would their handbag, and then dump them. I have never bought a dog and did not plan to start when I moved here. Many locals buy short, longhaired, white dogs that look like a cross between a Westie and a Pekinese for USD50. The locals also eat dogs—but only mongrels. The short fluffy white ones are pets. My father told me to take care of Austin (we changed Socks’ name in deference to Austin Powers), but said no more dogs for him and mom because they just cannot take it anymore. Alan says it can kill old people when the dog dies. I have to keep an eye on Austin because I have been told he could get stolen and eaten when he grows up.

Bye, bye Judge. Puppy Austin is here to remind me of the circle of life.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Cement and Cement Bag houses

Today, I followed the Hagar Re-integration team to visit two of the women who work with me. The first house was across the river from Phnom Penh city not far from Chhbar Ampov market. We had to cross Monivorng Bridge, to the south of the city. (There are two main bridges in Phnom Penh, the one in the north is the Cambodian-Japanese Friendship Bridge, which takes you across the Tonle (“river”) Sap onwards to Siem Reap. Monivorng Bridge straddles Tonle Bassac and leads you to Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam). Chhbar Ampov market is a big one, where many locals shop on a Saturday morning, and immediately after crossing the bridge I could see a swarm of people, motos and cars.

We drove a short distance and came upon about a dozen shacks built beside a river. This is where Neang (aka Sok Lin) stays. It was very depressing to learn that Neang lives here with her 78-year-old grandmother. She is from Svay Rieng province, just at the border with Vietnam. The only reason Neang has a place to live in Phnom Penh is because she works at a construction site on weekends. The construction company provides these shacks made out of leaves, wood and cement bags (you have to see the photos to understand) for free, along with 30litres of water every day. It sounds a lot, but 30litres of water is not enough to shower and wash with. (To give you an idea, filling a bathtub uses up four or five times as much water). So the clean water is used only for cooking and drinking. Bathing and washing clothes is done at the river. Neang was very hospitable, and offered us her water, while apologizing for not having food to offer us. She told me she earns 6000 riels (less than USD1.50) a day for working as a construction worker. She says it is very hard work, carrying very heavy bags of cement. I have no doubts about it. I have seen women working at a construction site near my house and remember being very surprised. I was surprised they have the strength to do such heavy work.

Neang is a tiny woman. She is 30 years old and divorced. Her husband left her for a friend of hers. The only time she teared when speaking with Chhorvy and me was when she told us how her husband used to beat her (It was my fault. I asked too much). Sometimes she would bleed. She showed us scars on her legs from those bad times. A couple of times it was too much for me and I really had to fight back tears. (At times like this, I recall what I had once read in a book on animal rights when reading about the animal suffering became too painful—if the animal can experience the pain, I certainly can read about it). If Neang had experienced such pain, I can listen to it. But I feel I cannot show I'm upset because I want her to think that things are not that bad. I feel I have to be positive or else she will find it hard to be positive.

Neang may lose her home because since she started working for me, she can only work at the site on weekends whereas they require workers to work at least 3 days a week. She also did not go to work today because she knew I would be visiting. My priority now is to find lodgings for her, preferably in the city. Neang has to pay 2000riels each time she travels to my workshop in the city. That is about USD1 a day on transport. It makes me upset to think that the poor really have it so hard. It is too expensive to live in the city, so they have to live far away. They already earn so little, yet they have to spend a big percentage of their income on transport. Why is there no public transport system?

According to Human Rights Watch, "the highest proportion of government expenditure still goes to security spending even though the war ended long ago. In 2004, central government spent 24.23 percent of its budget on defense, 18.68 percent on education, 11.01 percent on health, and 1.87 percent on
social security and welfare. Spending on justice and human rights is so low as to be almost invisible." (www.hrw.org/asia/cambodia_appendix.pdf)

We next traveled to Edany’s house. Edany, like Neang, is a divorcee. Many Cambodian women are divorced from their husbands because the men tend to take on more than one wife. The government is trying to change laws governing marriage (a topic for another day).

Edany has two daughters, 18 and 3. On weekends, Edany sometimes stays with her mother. This was another experience. To get to the village, we had to cross what looked like a river to me. Are we really going to drive through the deep muddy water? It reminded me of the silly “Duck Tours” we have in Singapore, where the boat shaped bus converts into a boat that takes tourists down the Singapore river. So this is why NGOs need big SUVs. We’re lucky. What about the villagers? They’d have to wade through the water. It turns out the water was not so deep, just knee-deep at its worst.

We got off the truck and walked to a village built along the banks of the Tonle Basac. I can see the big Naga casino from here. It’s a nice view of the river and of the city across and the air is clean and fresh. Alan and I used to sit at one of the many small pubs along the touristy Sisowath Quay, wondering what it was like across the Tonle Sap. We can see new developments being built and had heard of big villas by the river where aircon is unnecessary because the air is clean and cool.

I was relieved to see that Edany was much better off. She is from Siem Reap but has been living in Phnom Penh since 1993. Her mother has a small shop selling shampoo sachets, cigarettes and tiny packets of sweets to the villagers here. They do not own the land but are lucky a friend has lent it to them for free. The friend, however, plans to sell the land. Edany says she will be ok when that happens because her mother can then stay with her. Edany and her daughters look healthy and the visit left me reassured she was ok. Edany’s daughter has also just graduated from a cooking course at Hagar.

We also visited another woman who works at Hagar. This woman’s house had fallen into the river and they rebuilt the house nearby on a small plot of land, which they rent for USD5 a month. It reminds me of Bangladesh and how homes are just falling into the river, because of climate changes brought about by global warming. The average Bangladeshi family uses just one-tenth of what the energy consumed by the average British (or was it Western family... I can't remember but found this website
http://www.esrc.ac.uk/ESRCInfoCentre/facts/UK/index10.aspx?ComponentId=15069&SourcePageId=14975. Once again we in the developed world are making the world’s poor pay for our creature comforts.

Edany owns a bicycle and cycles into the city everyday, with her daughter on tow. Neang has one bought on hire purchase (she has paid USD20 of the USD30). I offered to pay the outstanding amount first and Neang can pay me back through her wages, but Chhorvy said it would be better for Neang to take responsibility for the bicycle. In any case, I have decided to buy bicycles for the workshop, so I can loan to future workers who may need them.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

My TukTuk Driver and Friend

Sophal, my tuk-tuk driver. Very honest, hardworking young man. Here he is in our garden because I had asked him to be our guard for the week that Boret was away. I highly recommend him if you're like me and fed up of tuk-tuk drivers who are out to fleece you.

SMS or call Sophal at +855 016585316. He can also be reached at men_sophal@yahoo.co.uk (don't ask me why it's .uk when he's in Cambodia!)

My Puppy for two days, Socks (or Jiku as his orginal owner called him). Gave Socks back to its mummy because both pup and mum were howling for two days (mummy Socks lives just down the street). I just could not bear to separate them. He's a very sweet and intelligent Cambodian dog and I will take him when he is off weaning, hopefully in a couple of weeks.

BLOOM(ers) at work, haha!

Clockwise from left - Camoen, Edany, Channo, Sok Lin and Sipha, the trainer. I'll be visiting the women at their homes this Saturday to get a better idea of their lives.


It is 4:30am and a nice drizzle is going on outside. I love the sound and smell of rain—lovely to sleep to, but useless tonight. Was wide awake and decided to come downstairs to write a bit. Want to take laptop onto bed but have to resist because the doctor says I must only associate the bed with sleep.

Called Alan earlier. It costs only 180riels (SGD0.08) a min to Singapore and ten times as much (SGD0.85) to call Cambodia, and that’s on Singapore’s cheap VOIP line, 1511. It’s absolutely ridiculous. I used to call Alan in the UK on 1511 for only SGD0.05 cents a min, or SGD3 an hour. What gives? Monopoly, that’s what.

Anyway, was trying to sort out what I need Alan to bring over for me. I was disappointed to hear we have to leave behind the new 20-inch Dell LCD monitor. Alan will not be taking along his new super-duper computer, the one he built just before I made the decision to move to Cambodia. It’s a big machine, with lots of storage capacity and too heavy to bring over. Alan spent a lot of time researching his new toy and getting it to work. I remember trudging to Sim Lim (Singapore’s one-stop computer centre) with him on numerous occasions in the name of research, always dreaming of opening a shoe shop there, so women like myself can entertain ourselves while our boyfriends shop for their gadgets.

Yet he has never once blamed or berated me for wanting to move. Alan has been incredibly supportive. It’s a big change for him and for someone who hates change, he has been just wonderful. I often think how lucky I am, ending up with the only man I ever liked. Alan is the smartest, most disciplined and even-tempered person I know. Here is someone who embodies Aristotle’s Golden Mean. He shows me what human beings are capable of and I love him dearly for it. I can see him cringing already if he reads this—-he’s also the most private and un-vain person I know. Actually, I am cringing myself. I feel like deleting this paragraph entirely but am resisting editing my thoughts in the interest of honesty.

Alan arrives on Thursday and all will be well again. :)

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Management Lesson #1

Have decided to write about my first management lessons. Today Sipha approached me to tell me I should consider not paying so much to the women sew-ers. She is of the view that this makes the women lazy. Alan thinks it's perverse, for if you were paid well, wouldn't you work harder to keep the job? I have been told by other people that this is the reason why the garment factories pay so badly--USD45 a month. With overtime, people make USD70-80 a month. They pay poor basic salaries because the belief is that locals will get slack. I am not convinced this is the real reason for the poor pay. Obviously for many companies, they simply want to get away with paying as little as possible.

Anyway, the real lesson is I failed to ask the right questions when I approached Hagar. I had assumed the women had received the same training and were all competent in sewing. As it turned out, some were there for 6 months, while one woman had been there for a year. Some are better at sewing. Yet I offered all the same pay, which obviously is not fair. Anyway we will see. I have a meeting with Chhovy the reintegration manager at Hagar and a very sweet lady later today and I will seek her advice.

We are also on deadline (I am aiming for my shop to open in November, when the tourist season picks up) and this has put pressure on Sipha. As a result, she has asked that I hired yet another person, someone more experienced in sewing. That would make 8 people in our team and we have not even sold anything yet! I keep thinking about this thing I read: don't spend any unnecessary money in your first year of business. I guess I have to assess if this new lady is necessary. The smart thing to do is of course replace the inexperienced women with women like her, but I feel I ought to give the others a chance. I have learnt from my staff that Hagar keeps the good ones after training and finds jobs for the less than stellar performers! Uh-oh!

What are the rules?

It’s 2:20am. First time I have been up in the middle of the night in a while. Just heard the sound of someone throwing cans about. Must be the Korean restaurant two doors away. It’s such a noisy street during the day it drives me crazy. I’m also constantly worried that Alan will not be able to put up with it especially coming from Scotland, where there’s plenty of personal space and quiet.

During Pchum Ben, some Vietnamese kids and their chaperons somehow decided to start playing badminton on the street just in front of the house. I don’t even know where they came from. For three days they drove me crazy with their screaming. It is easy to identify the Vietnamese language because it is so distinctive. Sunday was the worst and I had to lock myself upstairs in order to stop myself from battling with the noise-makers. I am still unsure about personal space in this country. You often see people playing badminton in the streets in the evening, but don’t they usually play outside their own homes? Or can people play anywhere they want and the rest of us just have to put up with it? What are the rules?

I remember being very miserable that day, wondering how I can live here. Maybe it is just the location. The posh NGO area of BKK1 is probably quiet enough. Thankfully Alan called. He suggested I get Boret the guard to speak to them. Good idea, why didn’t I think of it? Except Boret is back only on Wednesday. I gave him a week off to see his family in Kratie. Everyone tells me it is too much, everyone gets only 3 days at the most and everyone starts work on Monday. It’s the Singaporean in me. I give Boret 2 weeks holiday a year as per Singapore standards. And anyway, he works 7 days a week (if you can call it work, because it mostly entails sleeping!)

There are two types of guards here—the professional ones (MPA is the biggest and most established and rumour has it, has the backing of the government and therefore the Cambodian police) whose guards are on 2-hour shifts, ensuring they are wide awake. It’s relatively pricey to engage their services, about US400 a month, I was told. The big NGOs and restaurants employ them. Then there are the house guards, local men who sleep within the compound of the house (Boret sleeps in the car port). They act mostly as deterrents because none of them has weapons in case of a real break-in. In fact that was our first concern--“Does Boret have a weapon?” I asked Tra, Dr Thadaran’s son. (Dr Thadaran, a dentist, is our landlady and Boret is her stepbrother), “Because I don’t want him to get hurt in an attack.” Tra seemed genuinely surprised by the question. I guess attacks are rare because it’s mostly petty thieving that goes on here. Riverkids just down the road, for instance, lost 2 bicycles and a ladder.

Have barely been here in the hall downstairs for 10 mins and have been bitten to buggery. Damn mozzies. Another thing I dislike about Cambodia. People here just do not have a clue and I can hardly blame them. Even squeaky-clean Singapore has a mosquito problem. Poor Alan and my mom contracted dengue fever last year. I remember feeling so horribly guilty for Alan’s dengue. He would have never got it in Scotland.

The neighbour behind us here has a huge jar that has filled up with rainwater and plastic bags and other litter. Dad went to check and found it full of mosquitoes. What to do? Speak with them and explain how mozzies breed? Or just take a hammer and smash the jar? I don’t know. I want to talk with them but I can just see their expression—it’s just mosquitoes, you dumb barang. Most Cambodians believe adults do not get dengue or malaria and certainly do not die from it. Mozzies are just a minor nuisance. Whenever I complain about mosquitoes, the people who work with me just look at me like I’m mad and making a mountain out of a mozziehill.

I have just been absolutely exhausted. I seem to need a lot of sleep here. My friend Jacq was telling me about some virus making the rounds in Singapore that leaves you exhausted before striking again and repeating the cycle. Sounds exactly like how I feel!

Oh well, time for bed. Will try to get some sleep because tomorrow I have to speak with one of the women who did not turn up for work today and did not inform anyone of her absence. I've had a gut feeling she would be trouble since day one. I still hope I am wrong about her.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Pchum Ben

It's Pchum Ben ("p-choom ban"), a national holiday honouring the dead. It's a bit like qingming (cheng meng) where the Chinese go to the graveyards to pay their respects to their ancestors. Here, though, people go to wats, or pagodas, to pray and offer food to monks.

Most people return to their provinces and so have my staff. It's a three day holiday for them (Wed to Fri). Boret our guard has gone to see his family in Kratie ("krachay"), Saveth to Kandal, Bonthuen to Takeo and Edany to Siem Reap. Channo hails from Kampot but won't be returning home for some reason. Only Sipha and Sok Lin are from Phnom Penh. Sipha tells me she will spend this holidays making bags commissioned by a shop at Psar Thmei (Central Market). For her, work never stops.

The city is very quiet and the streets have few cars. On Friday, the second day of Pchum Ben, my friend Sophon picked Dad and myself up to take us to the wat and then to his house for lunch. We went to two wats, the second, Wat Phnom, is the most famous in Phnom Penh and in fact what the city was named after.

At the first wat -- I forget the name, we sat with a monk who was very keen to speak with us in English. He had been learning English for a year and was keen to practice. When we bade adieu, he asked us to visit him anytime. He was very hospitable and offered us Coke. I took many pictures and will try to upload later.

Lunch at Sophon's was excellent--egg noodles with soup and deep fried spring rolls (filled with yam and meat). We also had appetisers of glutinous rice cakes filled with yellow beans which I absolutely loved. Sophon says these traditonal rice cakes have been made for hundreds of years--simple yet oh so yummy.

New Singapore embassy

I have been sick for a week. Actually I am worried about my health. I seem to be falling sick often here--that's twice in 2 months. I think it is due to the bad diet because i mostly live alone and can't be bothered to cook. Dad is here on a visit but he doesn't cook either! I wish there was a pill we could pop that would make us full. Cooking is such a bother.

My boyfriend Alan has arrived from Scotland and is in Singapore. He couldn't get a flight this week (all the cheapie SGD48 seats on Jetstar have been sold out!) so he will be here next Thursday. That would be great. Alan will make sure we eat well. It'll be back to curry with broccoli and carrots for dinner!

I passed the Norodom Boulevard the other day on my way to Monument Books, the big (and expensive!) bookshop here in Phnom Penh and was interested to see that the Singapore government is building a new and massive embassy here, just opposite the former one housed in a small villa. It is a sign that the government is spending, or is planning to spend more money in this country. Probably in telecoms--maybe they're trying to take over the market just like in Thailand, haha.

Been watching the news on the coup in Thailand. What a country. I watch the civilian protests in Hungary and contrast this with Thailand where the military just rolls in. They don't mess about, the Thais.

Still don't have home Internet access which is a pain and which I miss terribly.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Cambodia Calling

(This blog post was published in its entirety on www.itjournoasia.com and an edited version in Asia! magazine)

I had been looking for something interesting to do after leaving my job. Determined that my life would not be dictated or limited by my CV, I spent a year traveling, seeking adventure and curious to see where my journeys would take me. Little did I expect to be living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, just two months after my first visit to the country.

Poverty can be shocking. It is hard to imagine a family of five sharing an 8 ft by 8 ft room and even harder to believe when faced with it. Yet, this family is among the luckier ones, for this tiny room has electricity and running water. Many in Cambodia’s capital live in tents or thatched huts with no amenities and few possessions—a couple of plates and a bucket for washing them. I now know the meaning of “dirt poor”.

I cannot erase the image of a pair of scruffy white high heels hanging up in one hut, a woman’s prized possession. I think of the dozens of shoes I have at home in Singapore and I think how strange this roulette that is life, and how many people end up in a bad way through little fault of their own.

Home to the world’s largest religious monument, Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s proximity to Vietnam made it certain she would be dragged into the war its neighbour was fighting with the US. Many areas of Cambodia were carpet-bombed and/or strewn with landmines. When the Americans finally left, the Khmer Rouge took over.

1975 was declared “Year Zero”, in which money, books, television, medicine, music, traditions and festivals were eradicated as the Khmer Rouge attempted to restructure Cambodia into a self-sufficient, classless, agrarian society. The entire country was transformed into a giant rice factory fuelled by the immense suffering of its workers. Cambodia is still recovering from the effects of the genocide that left the country bereft of educated people, facilities and equipment.

For me, the decision was easy: set up a business to provide people with jobs that pay them fairly. I believe having regular income gives people hope and a sense of the future.

I decided to start a small workshop to make handbags and approached Hagar, a Swiss-based NGO (non-government organization) that provides shelter, skills and job placement for abused and disadvantaged people. It has not been easy, having to learn to speak Khmer, and living away from family and friends, but I have been very lucky in making new friends. I am constantly humbled by how generous and kind Cambodians are despite how little they have and what they have been through. It says much to me about the human spirit and its resilience.

My biggest gripe is that home Internet access is still very expensive. ADSL costs US$110 a month for 1gb download at 256kbps, and don’t even ask about cable broadband with unlimited data. The high prices have led to some imaginative ways of accessing the Internet. I have heard of people trying to live within a 50m radius of an Internet café and then paying the cafe US$30 per month to let them plug in a blue-tooth transmitter. Then there is the guy who had the Internet shop pull a Category 5 cable from their router down the street and into his home.

Still, prices are falling all the time. It would have cost you US$10 an hour to surf the Net in a café in 1998. Today, it can be as little as 1500 riels (about 40 US cents).

There are companies that see the potential in this country of 15 million with low telecommunications penetration rate. In May, Singapore’s MediaRing, together with JV partner Cambodia-based Anana Computer, launched the first and only ISP here to offer WiMAX, a wireless digital communications system, also known as IEEE 802.16.

There are also rumours that a new company will be entering the market in October, and that it will offer cable TV with 75 channels, plus a 512kbps Internet connection, all for only USD30 a month. I can’t wait.

It is now almost three months and BLOOM has taken off. I work with six local staff members who make beautiful Khmer silk bags and other products that I design. I have a savings plan for the women so they can eventually own sewing machines, allowing them to run small businesses from home.

This in turn enables other women to take their place at the workshop so I can reach out to more families. My next challenge is to find the markets for our goods. I don’t expect it to be easy, but hey, that’s part of the fun.


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