Thursday, October 25, 2007

Fake US Dollars and what you can do with them

This happened to me before Pchum Ben. I was tending to the Russian Market shop as all Bloomers were off to the provinces to see their families during this important festival. I was about to shut it when a Khmer woman entered the shop. In hindsight, I should have been more alert. All the signs were there: She wore a hat which she didn’t remove, she didn’t look at me, and she spoke in a very small voice. Not that she was shy—far from it. When it was clear that I hadn’t a clue that she was about to scam me, she became confident and even demanding at the end.

She chose two bags and then paid me with a hundred dollar bill. I was in such a good mood because it was my only sale for the day that I quickly returned her the change of USD73. Unfortunately for me, I had the change on me because I had just withdrawn money from the ATM because Sipha was going to come to borrow money from me. If I hadn’t had the change, which normally I don’t because I don’t carry much money with me, I would have had to go to the money changer and the scammer (scamster?) would have been found out.

It really is a win-win situation for these crooks. If they were found out, they can just say, “Oh sorry, I didn’t know. Someone passed it to me.” So they are never held responsible. I was told in Japan, you have to declare that the money is real when you hand it over. And if it’s not, you’re responsible for cheating.

So anyway, Alan was there at the shop to pick me up (he was trying out a motobike loaned to us by our Canadian friends while they went on holiday). He said after the woman left, “It’s a good trick, eh, if the money is fake. You get real money and bags.”

That’s when alarm bells went off. I went to a neighbour’s shop and asked them to check the bill for me and true enough, it was a dud. There was no watermark. And no stripes. (For those of you who want to know how to spot a fake, there should be a watermark of a man’s face and stripes—which can only be seen when you hold the note up against light).

I was so furious, really furious. I shut the shop and ran into the wet market (the external bit where they sell meat and veg and fruit) to look for the thief. I was going to punch her, I really was. I was furious because I was so nice to her and treated her with such respect and trusted her. (Later on, Kerri, my American friend said I shouldn’t punch people—Khmer women have been known to throw acid on the faces of their enemies).

Anyway, of course I didn’t find her. She is a professional and won’t be back at the shop, Alan says. But I think she might, because it was so easy scamming me. (I just had an epiphany! I’m not as savvy as I always believed! I do get cheated easily!) If she comes again, I swear, I will not be nice.

It was a big lesson to me. Because I frequently see Khmers handing over real USD100 notes at Lucky Supermarket, I automatically assumed she was a rich Khmer and her money was good. Now I will be extra cautious.

Alan was really sweet. I felt so lousy for being a dumbo, but Alan told me it was bound to happen sooner or later. We’re in a country where fake notes abound. Then again, even in Singapore, there have been cases of people being given fake US dollars at the money changer’s.

Alan also pointed out that retailers usually add the cost of pickpocketing into their books, because it is so common. I guess I should take into account such losses when planning the budget, but I didn’t. And because I am also running a “factory” (it’s really a small workshop of just five people), I should also take into account the cost of theft. I’ve had silk and bags stolen from the workshop, but that’s common in a factory environment—although let’s not forget even in an office environment, people steal stationery. (The stealing at Bloom seems to have stopped for the moment, but you never know. In fact, I just lost a pair of leather slippers I bought at Beautiful Shoes, stolen from my house/workshop.)

So what can you do with a fake USD? Obviously you can pass it on to someone (and then say loudly if caught, “Oh sorry! I didn’t know—it was passed to me!). But I can’t in good conscience do this.

You can also “sell” the note. I learnt that there are Khmers who would pay USD20 or USD30 upfront for a USD100 note—but it has to be a good fake.

Then there was someone who offered to give me USD20 for it, if he succeeds in passing it off to someone. Incredible isn’t it?

Cambodia is so different from Singapore. I’ve never, ever examined a Singapore note. Here, I have to start examine all the big bills, the way they do at Lucky. For me, it’s just another hassle to add to an already stressful place.

So what happened to the fake money? Sipha asked me for it and I gave it to her. What was I going to do with it anyway? For Khmers, it’s just part of life. Even Sipha herself has been handed a fake USD10 note (Ten dollars! Why do they bother, asked a friend. Well, because 10 dollars is a week’s wages for some).

Sipha tells me she is angry with her countrymen and says out of 10 Khmer people, only three are good. It’s quite scary that Khmers themselves think so poorly of their own people.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Peaceful vigil for Burmese people

Yesterday, I stood outside the Burmese embassy here in Phnom Penh, with about 40 other people. I had just returned from Siem Reap and read about the week-long event in an email (no such demo in Siem Reap where people are too busy trying to fleece tourists). Most of us wore red (red supposedly symbolises the bloodshed) in a show of solidarity. As far as I know, there was only one Burmese man among us, a teacher here in Phnom Penh. I asked about Khmer monks--where are they? why aren't they supporting their brothers-in-monkhood? One Khmer man told me the monks are under pressure from authorities to behave, although a few did come on the first day of the vigil (Saturday) to chant for peace outside the embassy.

Most of the people there were from international NGOs, and were mostly Khmer. A few held up pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi. I have to say that I found it all of little practical use. I really don't think the group of us made a difference at all. I think what would have made the difference is the numbers. If there were hundreds of us in red, it would make for a good picture, which would get published, which would then bring more, sustained, attention to the issue. As things stood (pun intended), it seemed like a party for most people; a chance to meet up and chitchat with like-minded friends. Still, for all it's impact or lack of, I went because I felt it was the least I could do. I cannot pretend the brutality does not exist and get on with my life. I am reminded of a Singaporean woman who told me, when I brought up the Rwanda genocide at a party back then in 1994, "You should get a job. Then you will stop worrying about these things." I assume she meant stop worrying about impractical things, things that you have no control over. (She was a consultant for the Boston Consulting Group--there's a surprise.)

Anyway, so that is why I turned up. I wanted to do something, anything, just to be involved. For all the good it did. Oh well, maybe I'll take a photo and post it online and hope the Burmese people will see that other people do care about them and are rooting for them. It really is the very least we all can do.

Details are Sketchy

On another note, a friend of mine pointed me to this interesting blog where I got a mention for sharing my troubles with the local police (I think we all need to expose their tricks and stand up to them!)

I'm not sure who is behind this blog, but it's a really good wrap of Cambodian news. I found this story on the USD250 bounty on three gangster monkeys hilarious:

USD250! In a country where the government officials earn around USD40 a month! Let's just say I'm surprised no one's caught the little terrors yet.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Cafe growing pains

I wish there was someone I could talk to about the growing pains in running a cafe. One of the hardest things I've found is settling on the appropriate number of staff. At Bloom, we can go without customers for five days in a row and then on the sixth day, we'd have eight people turn up at the same time. How do I get the balance right? If I hire too many people, they'd be sitting around most of the time, bored out of their brains (although we do try to create new recipes when the cafe is quiet). If I hire too few people, we cannot cope with a sudden surge in customers. I guess this is what they mean by "scalability". How can I strike the right balance and ensure we are scalable?

Currently, Bloom has three cooks and two waiters (me included). I am lucky I also have Srey Roth, who used to be a co-manager at Sisters' cafe at the Russian Market. Roth works at the Bloom Bags shop at the Russian Market but she helps out at the cafe whenever I need her.

The cafe had its best and worst day yesterday. We were really lucky and had 20 people come in for lunch. We were all so excited as we were informed of their pending arrival the day before. They would also place their orders in the morning which would leave us enough time to prepare the food before their arrival. I had checked with the Bloom team that the six of us would be enough to cope with the numbers and they replied confidently, yes.

Unfortunately, a combination of factors led to a very unhappy situation--food was served very late, customers were not pleased, staff were harassed and tempers were fraying all around. I was very fortunate that most customers were very understanding and forgiving, but I felt like I had let them all down. I let the stress get to me and started bubbling when I had to apologise for the umpteenth time. Not good. I was told by a customer who returned today for lunch (yay! we didn't lose them all!), "We were all talking about you yesterday." I'm sure they were thinking, what's up with this woman? It's such a small matter, especially in a country like Cambodia, where there are many other things to be crying over.

I felt upset because we had let customers down and left them unhappy. Customers are everything to a business, especially a new one. We so desperately need good reviews and for customers to spread the word about Bloom. I keep thinking, we only have one chance, we can't screw it up. And yesterday I was convinced we did. It was very discouraging, and I kept wondering, when will we ever get things right?

The good thing is that most of the customers were really, really sweet about the whole thing. Twelve of them even returned today! I was very, very touched and really appreciated that they gave us an opportunity to try again. I cannot explain how much this means to Bloom--we hardly ever get the opportunity to practice serving a large number of customers at the same time. And this group of kind souls were willing to give us a second chance. They believed in us, and thankfully, things went much smoother today. We didn't let them down.

To the team from Peace Bridges, the Mennonite Central Committee and KHANA, thank you again from all of us at Bloom.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Dealing with Cambodian Police (or how a Singaporean’s understanding of authority is screwed up)

Yesterday the fire police came again. I had already bought a fire extinguisher from them a few months ago. This happened after eight of them stood at my door the second day after I opened Bloom café. Sometimes I think the police are the most efficient people in Cambodia. They had asked that I buy four fire extinguishers for the café at USD45 each. At that time, I had called the landlord who told the police to return the next day so we can discuss. Back then, I had explained that we’re new and only just opened, so I don’t have money. In the end, I agreed to purchase only one extinguisher at USD35 (apparently you can buy a new one at the market for USD20).

After that purchase, a man from the fire police would visit once a month, always a different bloke, always with some excuse to get money from us. One time, one of the men stuck a piece of paper on the extinguisher, to certify it is safe or some other trivial reason and asked for money. I gave him a buck just so he would go away.

It’s not a good idea, because if they know you’re an easy hit, they’ll keep coming back for more. Perhaps it is the Singaporean in me. I am so trusting and naïve. My instinct is to assume policemen are policemen and what they say is always legit (more of how screwed up my thinking is below). And I seem to become worse as time goes by here. In the beginning I was more careful and suspicious and not give in, calling the landlord or some savvy Khmer friend, but I think I am worn down. I am also embarassed at always having to call people for help. I hate being like this, just wanting to throw money at the problem, just wanting to pay them off so they will leave me alone. But somedays I just feel I have no energy to argue and argue with them.

Anyway, sometime in the last week, two men on separate motobikes came to the house. They claimed to be from the immigration department of the city police and asked that I pay USD50 for an annual licence from them. I told them I had already paid the sangkat (local police) for the business licence, and as far as I am aware, there are no other business licences to pay for. One of the men said, “Yes, yes, sangkat I know, but we are city police!” and showed me his papers (written in Khmer and in a plastic sheet). He also showed me a stack of papers with other cafés with photographs and namecards of their respective owners attached.” I recognised one woman who runs a Malaysian restaurant. The policeman said, “She has a good heart, she gave me USD80.”

I told him, her business is good, she is established, she can afford it. We are new, we have few customers and I asked him to verify this with Sina, one of Bloom cafe’s more senior member of staff. (Sina was beside me throughout this, as I wanted him to translate, just in case). So I offered USD15. The boss if the two said USD25, and I told him if the business picks up next year, no problem, but help me out here. Plus, I am helping Khmers, by giving poor women jobs. That really seemed to affect him somehow and in the end we agreed on USD20.

But I only had USD10 and had to borrow the rest from Sipha, Bloom bags’ trainer. That raised her suspicions, but by the time she appeared to see what was going on, the men were on their way out. They told her rudely, “No need to stare, we are the police”. They also told me they would be back at 3pm to get copies of my licence and my passport and photo.

Sipha told me to call the sangkat but my phone was spoilt (another story, but the point is that I have lost all my contacts since I didn’t save the numbers in my SIM card—moral of the story: always save your contacts in your SIM card!). We took a moto to visit the police station instead. Our man was not there but we managed to get his number and he agreed to come to Bloom café within half an hour.

Sipha explained what had happened and the local policeman got very angry. I think he was angry with me as well as the scam artists, as he was convinced they were. I was still convinced the two were real policemen from their behaviour and was sure they would come back for my papers. The sangkat looked at me like I was stupid. He said, “They’re not coming back! They’re thieves!”

He said next time when this happens, send them along to him. He is the only one who is authorised to get money for my business licence. As the sangkat said, the men failed to return that day. I was so angry with myself for giving the men money I could not sleep that night. I was just so angry with myself for being so stupid. I am not normally such an idiot, and have seldom been scammed, because I am too much of a cynic to believe people easily.

The next morning, while I was out, the two men returned! I have no idea how she did it, but Sipha got back my twenty bucks! Everyone is always telling me how Sipha is bossy and rubs people the wrong way, but I have to say, it pays to be bossy in Cambodia. Since the rule of law does not mean much here, Cambodia is the sort of country where any display of power lets you get away with a lot.

I was so happy to get back the money. But then, the very next day, a man claiming to be from the fire department came and asked for five dollars. If I do not pay the money, if there is a fire, he said, the fire brigade will not come to my rescue. I will have to deal with a fire myself. I was so furious, I refused to pay. Five bucks is pittance, obviously. But it was no longer about the money. I was furious at the fireman and at the fire department for behaving like this. So poor people who cannot afford five dollars will not get served by the fire police? Of course. You know these things happen in Cambodia, but I was shocked at how blatant it is. The police don’t even bother to pretend they exist to serve the people.

And here’s another thing: when the electricity department found out this house was rented to foreigners, they fined my landlord USD250, and increased our electricity bill. We now have to pay foreigner rate for electricity, which is about 10 per cent more. How can the electricity department fine people, Alan pointed out.

Being Singaporean, I know how public utilities are linked to the government, so I had a hard time understanding what Alan meant. He finds it bizarre that I think it is perfectly normal for the utilities board to fine customers. When I was growing up, public services in Singapore were monopolies, just like in Cambodia now. So to me, it is normal to see how you can get fined by the public services company. Pay the fine, or you don’t get the service. It’s not like any old shop, because in a monopoly, we cannot take our business elsewhere.

(Privatisation is only a recent thing in Singapore. But now in the telecom sector, for instance, Singaporeans now have Singtel (formerly a monopoly and incumbent), M1 and Starhub competing for our business.)

Alan points out that even in Singapore, the public services company do not, and cannot, fine customers. All they can do is cut you off until you pay your arrears, or take you to court. Only the courts have the authority to impose a fine. And if the utilties company were to say, “Pay the fine, or you get cut off,” in a civilised country, you can sue the company for extortion.

I have to admit I find it hard to understand what Alan is saying, which he says is bizzare, because I am supposed to come from a developed country. Bizzare to him, but disturbing to me. How did I come to understand that it is perfectly normal and acceptable for a public utilities company to fine the citizens of a country? This can only happen if the state and the company are one and the same and that the tools available to the state to enforce compliance are similarly available to the company. It is really creepy to me that it took me a while to see what Alan was saying. I wonder what other aspects of my view of the state is screwed up. Although I am supposed to come from a developed country, it is obvious that much of my thinking, as a Singaporean, is still third world. I suppose that is why Singaporeans put up with so much: because we don’t know any better.

What really worries me is that I am very sure I am not alone, among Singaporeans, in my thinking. I am educated, have a Masters in Political Philosophy, widely travelled, worked in a multinational corporation. Of course I do not think I'm super-smart (on the contrary, I have just demonstrated how unsophisticated my understanding of politics is), but I am supposed to be educated. It just goes to show the big gap between knowledge and practical wisdom. It just goes to show how important it is to be exposed to other ways of life. As my example shows, if you only know one way, you'll find it hard to understand how there can be another, possibly better, way.

Monday, August 06, 2007

The Vet to the King of Bhutan dropped by...

I've not had any desire to update the blog because I've had a terrible few months. So I'm actually uploading what was sent to my friends in an email.

In the last 3 months, my housekeeper ran away to her province with my camera and many other things; thieves axed my back door in an attempted robbery (housekeeper gone by this time, so they must have known I'm staying alone with my puppies); my neighbour screamed in the middle of the night because 4 men tried to break in to steal her son's motobike (neighbours have made a roof out of metal grilles so it looks like they live in a cage now), I almost sacked entire Bloom team for infighting (again! and now there are only 5 bag workers left and would you believe it, 3 cliques), Bloom cafe's opened and my cook is 4 months pregnant! argh!

anyway, I've been so down, I've not been updating the blog. Am also smoking too much (I *do* know it is a filthy habit, so please don't give me flack about it) and not sleeping much. The good news is that I've rented a shop at the Russian market (major tourist attraction- every tourist goes there for USD2 GAP T-shirts, USD6 Docker pants etc). It's only been 2 days and the shop's not fully decorated but we've sold 2 bags! YAY!

I've printed a huge manifesto banner (2.8m by 2m) which will cover the back wall completely. it's coming on tuesday and i'm quite excited.


1. We believe in the right of all people to a decent
life, free of poverty, and with access to education
2. We believe you can be rich by helping the poor
3. We believe women hold up half the sky
4. We believe your handbag is a reflection of you
5. We believe quality is worth paying for
6. We believe workers should always be paid a fair
wage—to hell with big, fat, CEO paychecks!
7. We believe if you knew the truth you would not
tolerate the exploitation of workers
8. We believe exploitation is evil
9. We believe in the power of good over evil
10. We believe in the power of the individual to
bring about change
11. We believe in love at first sight (at least where
our bags are concerned)
12. We believe in transparent prices; life is too
precious to waste time on bargaining

Actually i have another one: " We believe intellectual property is only for those who can afford it."

Totally un-PC but completely realistic, I think. I may rotate the last point on banner every so often. I was also thinking of "a million flowers blooming" and something punny like that, but that's a bit too Mao-ist for me. But holding up the sky is fine, hee hee.

I'm also thinking of having a Bloom Wall (like the Berlin Wall, haha) where people can scribble what *they* believe in. the shop's tiny 2m by 4m, so space is a premium but we don't have that many designs, believe it or not.

The cafe biz on the other hand, is very slow, last month we brought in only us150 for the whole month, which is not sustainable obviously (that's my cook's pay alone!). Many customers tell me, the food's really good, I just need to get the word out. Maybe i'm not doing enough marketing, although i have placed an ad in the Phnom Penh pocket guide, and printed flyers, and made brownies to give to tourists at Tuol Sleng, so we shall see.

It's bloody hard work this cafe biz and I feel like a prisoner in my own home (I live upstairs the cafe and I'm also the waitress).
The good news is I've discovered I'm not really the hermit i imagine I want to be. I love, absolutely love, meeting new people. Yesterday, for instance, I met the vet to the King of Bhutan, who checked out Austin and declared him to be a healthy, tartar free dog! (Everyone gives me hassle cos he looks all skin and bones, but the vet, Marianne--she's French--said it's his breed).

Did you know bhutan is a closed country? There is a usd200 a day tariff on all tourists, which includes accomodation and food and travel. weird. Anyway, Marianne runs a shelter that has 200 dogs and is so inspiring. Cambodia needs an animal
shelter too. a lot of abuse but I guess in a place where human life is cheap, what more animal life? It'll take a lot to change people's thinking. By the way, they eat dogs here. 5000 riels per kilo. Very cheap compared to beef (20,000 riels) and pork (16,000 riels). Only the men do it though, when they drink beer. They believe it makes them strong. Yeah, yeah, like tiger penis and the like. Crap. Black dogs are especially valued. Khmer men think it makes them courageous. I was horrified to see dog skulls in a hawker's glass stall one day.

It's 5am and time to go. I'm planning an FAQ for Bloom customers. I really hope the russian market stall will drive customers to my house. I cannot continue lose money like this! Alan has given me one more year. After that, it's pack-up-and-move-to-the-(cheap) beach time. Doesn't sound bad at all, but is 2 years really enough time to try to make things work? Every expat tells me it takes 5 to 10 years to achieve something in Cambodia. oh well, we shall see.

In the meantime, take care all, and I hope to be back in Sing soon. I feel like I really need a break. Most days I don't miss Singapore at all, it is easy to live in Cambodia, believe it or not. I do miss friends and family though!!


The BLOOM Manifesto


1. We believe in the right of all people to a decent life, free of poverty, and with access to education
2. We believe you can be rich by helping the poor
3. We believe women hold up half the sky
4. We believe your handbag is a reflection of you
5. We believe quality is worth paying for
6. We believe workers should always be paid a fair wage—to hell with big, fat, CEO paychecks!
7. We believe if you knew the truth you would not tolerate the exploitation of workers
8. We believe exploitation is evil
9. We believe in the power of good over evil
10. We believe in the power of the individual to bring about change
11. We believe in love at first sight (at least where our bags are concerned)
12. We believe in transparent prices; life is too precious to waste time on bargaining

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Lunch at Bloom

Yesterday was a good day for Bloom. I had invited the volunteers from Singapore Airlines cabin crew for a special lunch menu of Khmer food created by Chantou, our chef who used to work at Malis restaurant. For USD6 (about SGD9) a head the menu comprised:

• Amok Fish Curry (Fish curry steamed in a bed of leaves)
• Beef Loc Lac (stirfried marinated beef on a bed of salad. The dip is a mixture of pepper, salt, sugar and lime. I suppose you could say it is the Khmer version of Thai beef salad)
• Prahok Ktis (Fermented fish paste fried with minced pork and eaten with rice or with raw, fresh Cambodian vegetables like small round brinjals and long beans
• Deep fried Chicken Wings marinated with kreung (Cambodian spices)
• Stirfried morning glory
• Seafood Tomyam soup
• Cambodian dessert of bananas and sago in coconut milk

The SIA team really enjoyed the meal and said it was the best Khmer food they have had in Cambodia. I don’t know if they were just being nice, or it was the atmosphere or the company, but all of us at Bloom (me, Chantou and Ruat, who made the very popular dessert!) were very happy. One guest said it was a nice ending to their trip, as they were due to fly home at 6pm that day.

Although I can’t cook, I helped prepare the food in the morning and was amused to see Chantou separating the leaves of the morning glory from the stems. Cambodians only use the stem in the dish. I said, “No,no, it’s ok, Singaporeans eat the leaves too. In fact we prefer the leaves!” So they purposely cook only the stems! Alan and I have always wondered why we only get to eat wood every time we order morning glory and now we have stopped ordering the dish when we eat out. Come to think of it, it is the same with kale (kailan). We always only get stems too.

I had a fantastic time with the volunteers, updating myself on Singapore happenings and speaking Singlish (Singapore English) with my compatriots. When I described my yuppie lifestyle back home, everybody understood at once. About being a consumer and being seduced by beautiful things you do not need, just cos it’s there, and you can afford it. Some said I had inspired them to do something with their lives. I get that a lot, that I am inspiring, brave etc. But really, for me it was a very simple, personal decision at that point in my life to want to make a difference. I think it will come at different times for different people. Many people in their 50s especially, I have found, have achieved personal satisfaction and are ready to help others. Although I am sure there are those who never awaken and live their whole lives unconscious, as automatons, going through life earning money in order to spend money on many things we do not need. (And I know about needs now, seeing how the Khmers can live with just 3 outfits and a small basket to hold all their worldly possessions).

They also understood parental pressure. One of the volunteers came with his parents and he was saying in front of his mom, “She would never let me live here” and his mom was nodding furiously. Exactly like my parents. Which is why it is always a question I get from Singaporeans and no one else: “What did your parents say?”

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Trip to Takeo Province

I had gone to Takeo province, a two-hour bus ride from Phnom Penh with Sok Lee, a very Westernised young Cambodian woman. We had met at an event where we had to make lamps out of natural products and recycled garbage (ours was made out of strips of leaves and coloured plastic woven together—very pretty!) I had gone with my Canadian friend Jolene, an artist, who was the brains behind our team’s design. Jo will be exhibiting a dress at a rubbish recycling fashion show—I’ve had a sneak peek and it is gorgeous. She may just win the contest!

Taking the bus to Takeo is easy. We met at 9am at the Sorya Bus Station near Psar Thmei (Central Market). Tickets cost us 8500 riels (it was only 7000 for the trip home for some strange reason). The bus was comfortable and the air-con worked! The only complaint is that although the road was paved, it was paved only with gravel, which made for a very bumpy ride. My back got really itchy from all that vibrating.

Sok Lee invited me to join her and two other men from an orphanage, to check out a piece of vacant land. We all had ideas of transforming the land for some use, either for the orphans or for Riverkids.

Takeo turned out to be as hot as Phnom Penh and everywhere I could see brown (as opposed to green) padi fields. Ming (Aunty) Vee, our housekeeper, informs me at her province, Baray in Kampong Thom, people start planting rice in May and it’s harvested after three months. The cycle begins again, but the hot season is not conducive for rice growing. Poor families who have no rice to eat during this period have to borrow, sometimes at 100 per cent interest. Ming Vee says they used to borrow 5 bags of rice but have to pay back 8 bags when planting season starts again.

The highlight of my trip has to be taking a lemorque (large cart with wooden planks laid across for benches and towed by a small motocycle). We got on board at the main market in Takeo and waited till the cart was filled with people. We finally took off but continued picking people up along the way. I counted 35 persons. At 500 riels (12.5 cents US) per person, the motocycle driver was making good money!

What struck me was how cooperative and friendly everyone on the lemorque was. Everytime someone tried to board, the rest would make space, lifting heavy baskets to place on their laps, just so that person would have a place on board. I can imagine people would make faces in Singapore. It always struck me as strange how on public buses in Singapore, people would insist on sitting on the outside of a two-seater, to deter others from sitting with them. It’s a big contrast to say, Hong Kong, where at restaurants, you would be seated next to total strangers and everyone would just get on with their eating.

The locals were very friendly and interested in learning about my country and kept staring at this barang. I got a bit uncomfortable when scrutiny turned to my age, marital status and why don’t I have any children? Khmers tend to have a very simple view about such things. Get married by the time you’re in your twenties and have many children. The expectation is the same for both men and women. And if you’re married but childless, they assume you’ve got fertility problems.

However, things will change in Cambodia, as they have in Singapore. Already with Sok Lee I can see how modern Khmer women can become. She is so tech savvy, she was chatting online through her phone on the bus! And she had a 1GB MP3 player which she used to record conversations with locals. It was just like being with a Singaporean.

We visited Sok Lee’s relatives and it really made clear how little there is to do for rural people. They get up early to farm and stop during lunchtime because it’s just too hot. Every house we visited people were sleeping, mostly under the house. There was one woman, a widow with five children. After lunch, they all slept under the house. She works at a garment factory so on most days the kids are left to their own devices. And there are no toys, no TV, no nothing. But kids always find a way to amuse themselves, running around the land, inventing simple games. Just like the kampong days in Singapore. We used to play with marbles and five-stones, 5 small bags filled with rice which we throw and catch, similar to the peanut game Aidan played with his bartender friend in an episode of Sex and the City). Then there is cha-tay and Cambodians play with the exact same toy, a small round rubber pad with feathers sticking out vertically. You’re supposed to keep kicking it and not let it fall to the ground. I suppose it’s not bad. Perhaps it is us city folk who don’t know how to enjoy life, with our stresses and excessive, useless, stimulation.

The land was good for growing palm trees, and you can sell the palm oil, palm sugar and can even make craft out of the leaves. The only problem was hiring someone we can trust to look after it and possibly children. It’s a big problem as everyone we know works in Phnom Penh. Eventually we decided we had to wait and see with regards this land.

I did do one thing though. I saw two very skinny and neglected puppies and arranged for them to be brought to Phnom Penh. I’ve since given one to Sipha, Bloom’s trainer and the other to Neang, the one who used to live in the cement bag house. I am so happy to hear she has upgraded yet again, to a USD15 a month room, with running water and electricity.The wee skinny puppy will have a good home with her as she loves dogs. She is always kissing and hugging Nessie and Austin, and I am happy she now has a dog to call her own.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Bloom Cafe and The Naked Chef

Here I am in my garden café enjoying the cool morning. The rains have started, signalling the end of the hottest season in Cambodia (my private self yells, “Yay!”, while my business self moans “Oh no…”) Would people walk into a garden in the rain?

I had opened the café for three days last week. We had one walk-in customer on the first day, which was encouraging. Deidre said Bloom café is “an oasis” and that she would be back. She works for Licardho, a leading human rights organisation here. It just so happened that my friends Dale and Kerri were around to give me moral support, so everyone got to know everyone. I really hope Bloom can be a place for introductions. For me, one of the best things about living in a place like Phnom Penh is meeting like-minded individuals. Many of the expats come here to help this country and I really enjoy talking with them. Our conversations are so different from those back home, when I was in a corporate job and talk was always about business. I get really annoyed at how much time I wasted when I think back on those networking sessions when everyone was pretending to be interested in the other person and making conversation in the hopes the other party would be useful someday. We really didn’t care about the other person at all.

The second day, a group of four French expats (one from France, one from Congo and two from Ghana) walked in to have coffee. They live just across the street but we have never talked until that day. I found them, especially the two women from Ghana, to be just lovely and now we wave everytime we see each other. That’s the thing about people, I think we don’t mean to be rude—we’re mostly just shy but give us the right circumstance and we open up. Especially us women, nattering on about clothes, haha!

One of the women said to me, “You have the best garden in the city!” It is a very pretty house. I am lucky to have a garden with actual grass—very rare in the city. I find Phnom Penh to be like Singapore in that way. In Singapore, most people cannot be bothered with gardens and pave their outdoors. I suppose it’s much easier to maintain (cutting grass is a pain, but I love pottering around the garden) and busy city people cannot afford the time to prune and water and what have you.

But mostly it was my friends who patronised, which was very, very helpful. I shut the café after the three days to take in all the feedback and to improve till we reopen again after the weekend. The main things I changed were things on the menu, but even lighting and fans. These are things you won’t realise until you actually open. The prefectionist in me kept putting off Bloom café’s opening because I was so nervous things would go wrong. I now realise that things go wrong anyway, despite your best intentions and you just have to go with the flow.

The cook I had hired for dinners told me the day before Bloom café was due to open that she had been given an ultimatum by the boss of the other nearby restaurant she was working at—either work here or there. R had wanted to supplement her income by taking on a part-time job working evenings at Bloom after her shift at the other place ended. As Bloom is just down the street from her other workplace, it would have been ideal for her. I had already voiced my concerns that the boss of the other restaurant would not be happy, but she reassured me numerous times that it was no problem, because it would not affect her work there. I had assumed she had told the other boss.

Turned out she hadn’t, and he later found out, thus the ultimatum. R chose to stay at the more established place, leaving me without a dinner cook on opening day. Fortunately, my day cook is very understanding, and stayed on the whole day. Chanto was previously a cook at the posh Malis restaurant, near Norodom Boulevard, which specialises in Khmer dishes. R would have made a good complement as she specialises in Western food. I was fortunate that Chanto had also trained at the Intercontinental Hotel here in Phnom Penh (for USD20 a month!) and so made a fantastic Oven Baked Bread with Goat Cheese, Mushrooms and Caramelised Onions, topped with Herbs! I mention this only because it was so good Dale had to stop herself from ordering a third plate!

Before R had joined, she had insisted on signing a contract, because there isn’t one where she works, which led to all sorts of issues. I was very disappointed, therefore, when she broke the contract. I shouldn’t generalise, but if this is any indication, I do not understand what a contract means for a Khmer. Presumably I am bound to my word, but not the employee. In another country (the US, namely!) I could sue R and maybe even the (Western) owner of the other restaurant, for inducing R to breach the contract. But this is Cambodia, and we cut our losses and move on.

I probably have not written about Bloom cafe’s mission and all that. The easiest way to understand what we are doing is to think of The Naked Chef's project in London. I think Jamie Oliver's restaurant is called “Fifteen”. I am shamelessly copying Oliver because he has demonstrated that it is possible to train street children in a kitchen through in a profitable restaurant. The Bloom café team (the cook, waiter and Ming Vee, our housekeeper who has been so supportive) all understand the plan. I am planning for half the profits to go to staff and half to return to the business so we can expand and start training “Ait-Jai” children. I call them “Ait-Jai” children because these kids, some who look like 6 year olds to me, go around calling out “Ait-Jai” as they walk around pushing a large wheelbarrow-like cart, collecting rubbish which they fill in the cart. (For Singaporeans, it is like the Karang-guni men we used to have. Now of course, they drive around in big trucks).

Five empty soft-drink cans can fetch 300 riels (less than 10 cents US). I have been told successful “’Ait-Jai” collectors can make 10,000 riels (US2.50) a day, although with so much competition, it is hard to believe they are able to make so much often. Because of the money, one of the challenges Riverkids faces is convincing parents to let their kids go to school instead of collecting rubbish.

The other day R told me her husband saw an “Ait-Jai” man around her age (mid-20s) who had died on the street, they suspect, from sniffing glue and starvation (many street teenagers sniff glue, which makes them lose their appetite). R had cried when she told me this. So many Khmers feel for their fellowmen but are unable to do anything about it. They tell me all the time “Kampuchea bpi-bak” (Cambodia, difficult).

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Khmer New Year

This is how the Bloom team spent Khmer New Year 2007. I had decided that all Bloom workers would take a day off from work to cook for and play with the children at a small orphanage I recently discovered. There was some drama prior to that day. I had told the team days in advance that this is how we would spend that day off, only to be told, as the day was approaching that so-and-so cannot make it because her brother will be in town, that so-and-so would be leaving for the province etc etc.

I was very annoyed and explained to the team that the day we were going to spend at the orphanage is a work day and I was giving them an extra day off specially so we can spend it with the orphans. I told them we're all lucky: we have families we can spend this special time with, and we have work so we have income and it is not too much to ask of the Bloom workers to think about their fellow Cambodians during this holiday. Actually, what I really wanted to say was "Why should I help all of you if you will not help your own people?" I was very disappointed with the behaviour but bit my tongue.

In the end, everyone turned up, even Get Ready trainees from Riverkids Project (the anti-child trafficking NGO that whose young women we trained in sewing). We even brought along Austin and Nessie, our dogs, who added a lot of cheer to the event. We had a great time, the women and our helper, Ming Wee spent the morning peeling, chopping, cooking and washing and we had Khmer curry with noodles, French loaves, stir-fried vegetables and fruit. We also played games with the children and I was glad Sareoun took time to plan the games and purchase the materials needed for them.

I had invited Jolene and Stuart, our Canadian friends to join us and Jo, an artist, taught the children to make New Year cards that they hung all over the small orphanage, called the Hope Orphanage Association. It is an incredible story. A Khmer man, an orphan himself, decided to start his own project, taking in kids from all over the country. As is typical in Cambodia, orphanages take in not only orphans but also children from poor families. This is why on this day, about half the children were absent--they had gone back to the provinces to be with their families. Sophon and I wanted to work more closely, through Riverkids, with this particular orphanage as we saw how they were struggling, but Sophon was concerned about separating children from their families. In Cambodia, you need to make sure you have the families' permission for this. I am sure, however, this orphanage has the gratitude of the parents, as they not only feed the children but also provide home tuition. I was told one of the older kids won a scholarship to study computer skills.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Pyongyang Restaurant

Picture this: Phnom Penh 2007, North Korean restaurant. Waitresses in short red capped-sleeve dresses take turns to wait at tables and to burst into song and dance and play the electric piano and violin on stage. The tunes? From upbeat North Korean songs (one can only surmise they're about dear leader and the glorious motherland), to Russian classical music to Mandarin love songs ("nuren hua", literally "woman flower") to Neil Sedaka's "Oh Carol!" (the strangest version I've heard, some parts did not even sound like Engrish, I mean, er, English). The karaoke screen constantly displayed the Chinese characters "hechang 4544", or "group singing 4544".

It was most surreal. And disturbing. Was this the confirmation I needed that my patronage was propping up an evil regime? While most people cannot visit North Korea, any tourist in Phnom Penh can have a try of North Korean cuisine and a glimpse into the strange life of the North Koreans. (My friend Maria was one of the few to visit, as a TV journo and got to attend the ultra-nationalistic Arirang Festival).

The restaurant is reportedly owned by the North Korean government, and your money (all in USD of course) goes straight to Pyongyang, leading us to joke that we should perhaps pay in counterfeit USD, North Korea being notorious for printing counterfeit US dollars in the laughable hopes of "destroying the US economy".

The food was nothing to shout about, although our group got into a tizzy over a particular dish. Sophon had ordered fried duck, which looked nothing like any duck we had ever seen. The meat was more fibrous than stringy (as in the case with chicken or duck), and looked more like beef or pork. To complicate matters, it arrived on a hot plate in the shape of a cow. Our worry was, of course, the dog meat on the menu. Could the waitress have got our order wrong? Did she mean "dog" when she pronounced "duck"? Dale was very funny, making animal sounds, "quack-quack, and not woof-woof?", to the waitress in hopes of ascertaining the meat dish before us.

Most of us in the group had already tried the meat before we realised it was a strange looking and tasting duck. I was wondering if our dogs Austin and Nessie would ever love me again. A Canadian I knew who had to eat dog meat to prove to his prospective father-in-law that he truly loved his South Korean wife told me dogs can smell it on you, once you eat dog meat. From then on, he insists, he was rejected by every dog he met!

The waitress insisted it was duck breast and not dog meat, but most of us had gone off it--better safe than sorry! The thing is, dog meat dishes were not more expensive than any of the other meat dishes on the menu, so who knows?

The restaurant, at #400, Monivorng Boulevard, is not far from where we live, and we all went there because it's a novelty. There is much Japanese and Chinese influence on the menu. Besides Kimchi and Korean soups, you can get sashimi and sushi. We had mostly Chinese styled fare: pork ribs and lamb skewers, eel (just like the Japanese teriyaki sauce covered unagi), vegetables and steamed prawns. It was expensive too, about USD12 to USD15 for a small dish. The worst thing about the place were the smoking South Korean men. I felt I was in Greece all over again, where one has to eat while trying not to choke on cigarette smoke.

The waitresses were beautiful and one told us she was from North Korea. They had porcelain skin and were tall and slim. One can imagine many a South Korean businessman trying to strike up a relationship with these singing, dancing beauties. One thing that struck me was how everything, from their dresses, to their shoes, to their scrunchies, were exactly alike, reminding me of the Singapore Airline hostesses, who have to dress identical to their colleagues, down to matching luggage and nail polish.The customers, mostly South Korean expatriates, were obviously enamoured, and were snap-snapping away with their digital camelas (oops, cameras). One party was celebrating a birthday and at one point all the waitresses broke into a trilling Korean Happy Birthday song.

Which led us to a discussion on the lives of these waitresses. Can they have relationships with foreign men? Dale was told by a French hotel-owner here that the women are not allowed out of the embassy, and possibly the restaurant. Where do they sleep? At the restaurant dorm or the embassy? And I suppose they don't have passports, so how can they elope?

Watching them sing and dance their hearts out made me think of those shows about China under Mao, and actresses like Joan Chen, Gong Li who were former national performers. These waitresses are the lucky ones, they get to escape North Korea. The first North Korean restaurant opened in Cambodia in 2002 in Siem Reap and apparently business is so good there is another one newly set up in Bangkok.

So what's the connection between Cambodia and North Korea? Former king Sihanouk was a close ally of the late North Korean leader Kim Il-sung and when he was ousted in a military coup in 1970, he was offered asylum in North Korea and given a grand residence in the country, surrounded by North Korean bodyguards. Even today, his bodyguards are trusted North Koreans.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Questions I get about Cambodia

I get a fair number of emails from people who read "Cambodia Calling". I always reply to emails because I think it's only polite when someone has taken the time to write to you.

Some of the questions I get about Cambodia really amaze and amuse me. One of the stranger ones must be:

Q: What's their habit of bathing? i mean in Hot or Cold water?

A: All the Cambodians I know bathe cold water. Perhaps it's because they cannot afford to pay for hot water, but I also think it's because of tradition. My maternal grandmother, who was half-Thai and half-Malaysian Chinese, always frowned upon her grandchildren who insisted on having a warm bath. It was her belief that cold water keeps you healthy. Our housekeeper Wee, bathes cold water at the washing area where the washing machine is. For some reason, she does not like to use the bathroom. She's from Baray Province, Kampong Thom, and perhaps is used to bathing in the open. For modesty, she wraps a kroma (like a sarong, but with small chequered print, usually in red and white) around her.

And another:

Q: Do they sell clothes suitable for casual wear?

A: Yes of course! Cambodia has a big garment industry, and produces many casual clothes for big brand names. You can buy casual clothes cheap at the Russian Market. I pay no more than USD2 for a T-shirt and USD3.50 for a pair of men’s trousers.

Other common questions:

Q: Is Cambodia dangerous?

A: I've found Cambodia to be a very safe country. If you've watched Ian Wright on Cambodia, at the end of the programme, he confesses to feeling foolish for thinking Cambodia was a dangerous place to visit. It might have been in the past, but visitors will find Phnom Penh and Siem Reap especially to be very tourist-friendly. And in the cities, many people speak English. Even motodops (motocycle drivers who ferry customers).

I’ve also found the Khmers to be very, very, honest. I’ve never ever been cheated when I ask for the bill at a restaurant, for instance, the way I’ve been everywhere else in Asia when restaurant owners “miscalculate”.

Cambodia is much better than say, Bali, in terms of having to fend off touts and “white man price”. I remember being so tired and cynical that whenever I was offered the right price in Bali, I wanted to pay that person more, just to reward him for his honesty. In Cambodia, there is a market rate (USD1-2 for tuktuks for instance) and this rate doesn’t ever stray very far.

Like anywhere else though, you can find trouble in Cambodia if you go looking for it.

Q: Are there ATMs in Cambodia?

A: There are ATMs here. I have a bank account with ANZ Bank here in Cambodia, and can withdraw money at the local gas station, Total. As long as your bank card has a Cirrus sign at the back, you will be able to access your home bank account. Of course, credit cards can also be used. Check the bank fee first.

Q: What’s the food like?

A: Cambodians eat a lot of fish and you can find whole grilled fish (“trey ang”) almost everywhere. Soups are also very popular, I quite like Khmer sour soup with fish. Singaporeans who like “kiam chye” (salted vegetable) will be pleased to know Khmers love it too. Some Chinese dishes are also common, like stir fried sweet gourd with eggs, stir fried morning glory (kangkong—no sambal here though!). BBQ meat is now very popular and I love to eat BBQ pork with rice (not quite char siew, but for me, even better) at the market (only 2000riels, or 50 cents). Cambodian pork curry and Amok (a special curry dish) are some of the more famous dishes.

If you don’t like Khmer food, you can always eat at the many, many Chinese, Vietnamese and Western restaurants in town.

Q: Do they have proper grocery stores?

A: Yes and the variety of Western food is even better than some supermarkets back in Singapore. It’s the French influence and also the fact that the supermarkets here cater to the Western NGO crowd. As there are many many Koreans here, you can even find speciality Korean stores. There is also a Japanese section at Lucky supermarket.

Q: How's the transport there?

A: There is no public transport system. Travel within the city is negotiated between individuals. You can travel by moto (cheapest and shouldn’t cost more than 2000riels one way anywhere in town), cyclo (like a trishaw, and more expensive, as should be in my view, as it takes more effort, with the cyclist, usually a very fit old man pedalling you around), or tuktuk (a small carriage drawn by a motobike). Of course you can rent you very own car or SUV or bicycle if you like.

Travel between the provinces and between major towns is also very convenient. There are many bus companies and you can even take a ferry up the Tonle Sap to travel to and fro Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. You can also fly to major towns.

Q: For money, should I change US dollar or Khmer money?

A: Change money at home before you come. The rates are generally better. Change to USD. Riels are not available in Singapore, so it’s probably the same for your home country.

Q: How's the Internet connection?

A: Public use at Internet cafes is incredibly cheap (you can get it for 1500 riels an hour at some places) and usually quite fast and reliable. There are also wi-fi spots in larger hotels and restaurants. It’s only expensive for home use. I’ve written about my Internet costs elsewhere in the blog so I won’t repeat it.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Popular Singer Shot

Friday was a sad day for some of my Cambodian friends in Phnom Penh. A leading pop singer Pov Panha Pich, 23 was shot and critically injured. Rumours are that the attack was the result of a love triangle. But friends tell me unlike other Cambodian pop songstresses, Pov Panha Pich has never been tarred by negative publicity, so the shooting came as a suprise. According to my friends, Panha Pich was first rushed to Calmette Hospital in Phnom Penh but later moved to a hospital in Vietnam at her mother's insistence. I was also told that her driver was killed in the attack, but I could not find anything in the online news to confirm this.

You can see Panha Pich's photo here:

Acid attacks and murders are common in Cambodia among those involved in love triangles. Below is another incident, that happened in 2003, involving a pop star who was shot in the face twice. She later died. You can read about it here.

So they found oil in Cambodia

But it's not good news, I fear. Call me a cynic.

Update: I had originally posted the entire AP article on my blog, for the convenience of readers, but have since realised I'd better stop publishing news articles on my blog before someone tells me they want money for their copyrighted materials.
Anyway, so I did a google search to find the original article to point readers to it. Here it is, on IHT's website:

And here's an updated news article: 02/22/asia/AS-GEN-Cambodia-Offshore-Oil.php

One more by Radio Free Asia:

Friday, February 23, 2007

Chinese New Year, and conversation between mainland and overseas Chinese

Chinese New Year fell on Sunday the 18th and I spent the new year with Pauline, who came to visit last week. I decided to follow her to Siem Reap, and find out more about the town while she went to the temples. I’d gone to the temples last July with mom and dad and had no desire to go again. I keep wondering about some guy I saw on TV who was filmed on his 11th visit to Angkor Wat. What does he see that I don’t?

We took the speedboat up the Tonle Sap. You can get tickets at USD25 one way at the ferry terminal along Sisowath Quay, just across from the Mekong Express bus company. The boat takes 6 hours, the same as the bus trip. At USD25, it’s pricey and the only reason we booked tickets for the boat was because the Mekong Express had run out of seats. I had forgotten it was peak season and did not book the bus seats in time.

It was quite an experience. The boat was packed to the brim. People filled the seats and the deck. Of course, all were tourists. Pauline and I had gone early enough to get seats at the back of the boat, but just as we were about to start the journey, a couple of Australian men came along and said we were in their seats. Like the typical trusting Singaporeans that we are, we dutifully gave up our seats, even though I checked the tickets again and failed to see any seat number.

I approached one of the crew and the guy told me “No seat number” before going into a room and shutting the door in my face. Left to our own devices, Pauline and I moved to front and found a couple of seats with a plastic bag filled with snacks on them. We were not sure what this meant. Actually, I would have removed the bag and just sat down. Earlier, I had wanted to move a sweater I saw occupying a couple of seats but Pauline thought it was better to just leave it. I really hate people like this, people who “book” seats by leaving their personal items on them. In Singapore, you’ll find idiots everywhere in the foodcourts, staking their claim on tables or chairs by leaving a packet of tissue paper, or umbrella, or whatever they can think of. It’s very selfish behaviour and so far, I have only observed Asians doing this. While we were hesitating, a Spanish woman told us, “Just take it, they cannot do like that.”

True enough, the seats “belonged” to a couple from Hong Kong, who came to reclaim them after a while. By that time, I had moved on to the deck to get away from the freezing aircon (for those planning to take the boat, sit at the back or bring a sweater). I ended up chatting to a woman from Shanghai (actually she was from Xi’an, but has lived in Shanghai for over 10 years). It was most interesting.

Shirley grew up during the time of the Cultural Revolution in China and was telling me how confusing it was for her generation when they found out everything they had been taught was “upside down”. If you didn’t have principles, or a worldview, I suppose was what she meant, it would have been difficult to adapt to the changes taking place at the time in China. “Life is the best teacher,” she said.

Shirley is a university grad and now a salesperson with Hewlett Packard. At 36, she is a year older than me—the day we met was exactly the last day of the year of the Dog, the year in which she was born, while the very next day—Chinese New Year—would have been the first day of the year of the Pig, the year in which I was born.

She told me about the many online discussions now about what it means to be Chinese. The Cultural Revolution put a dent (stopped its progress for a while) in Chinese culture and questioned the value of aspects of Chinese culture. Her generation is debating these issues and trying to understand what it means to be Chinese.

I told her it’s the same for me, trying to figure out what it means when I say I’m Chinese. In Singapore, I consider myself Chinese first and Singaporean second, but when I’m overseas, I think of myself as Singaporean first, and Chinese second. I suppose one way of identifying one’s self is to distinguish from others. But I also think my government’s emphasis on race has something to do with the fact that in Singapore, I consider myself Chinese first.

Anyway, it was just fascinating listening to her describe Vietnam in 1998 when she visited the country. She said it was so interesting (“youqu”). Being in Vietnam then was like stepping back ten years in China. She believes Vietnam is a decade behind China as Vietnam, too, opens up to capitalism.

She also told me about being lucky in that she managed to buy an apartment for under USD60k in 2001, just before prices skyrocketed. The place is now worth three times as much. She and her brother bought the house for their parents at the time when the Chinese government wanted to encourage home ownership. Prices were low and buyers would get back their income tax. I was impressed with her and her brother’s filial piety.

I think it’s a fascinating time to be Chinese in China—things are changing all the time (right now the people are protesting online about changes in income tax laws). And despite the government’s efforts to control, if not stop, debate, the Chinese seem to be a very politicised lot, which I think is great.

I remember visiting Beijing for the first time in 2001. I loved it so much, I applied for a job with the English language China Daily newspaper. They offered a sub-editor’s position for USD500 a month, with a flat thrown in. It would have meant a big pay cut at the time and I wasn’t ready for it. My main concern then was not having enough money for holidays outside China. I do think about Beijing now and again and would love to visit the Chinese capital if I have the chance again. My good friend from secondary school, Khim, now works there and it'd be nice to visit her in autumn.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Donors and their donations

I had reread my post on why Bloom is not an NGO and decided I should clarify what I meant. I think for sure there are NGOs that do good work. These are very clear about their mission and very transparent about what they do with donations. An example is Riverkids ( The project aims to stop child trafficking in Cambodia and you can see where all you money goes on this website (Disclosure: I am a trustee of the project, which is in the midst of being registered in Singapore as an NGO. In fact, I agreed to be a trustee because I know Jimmy and Dale, the couple who run RK, very well and know them to be extremely honest and genuine).

However, there are many, many, charities, NGOs and the like that are not what they appear to be. Singaporeans have found this out, to our disappointment and detriment, only in recent times. The National Kidney Foundation, the most successful fund-raiser amongst charities in Singapore, got into a lot of trouble and various heads are now being sued for misusing the charity’s funds. In short, Singaporeans are a very generous lot, and have donated millions to the NKF, only to find out in the last year or so that the NKF gave its CEO an annual SGD600,000 paycheck, or about USD390,000 (an amount the wife of former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong called “peanuts”—one wonders what world she lives in when this is “peanuts”), first class airline tickets and other excesses. We were also deceived as to the percentage that actually went to supporting kidney patients.

(As an interesting aside, the only reason we now know about the NKF is because the CEO, TT Durai was dumb enough to try to sue Singapore Press Holdings, the publisher of the Straits Times, Singapore’s main newspaper. The suit was over a report that mentioned, among other things, gold-plated taps in an NKF bathroom. One wonders how long Durai would have got away with things if he had not sued SPH, as he had previously won lawsuits over an ex-employee and volunteer).

When in Singapore, I read in the news another charity was under scrutiny. Youth Challenge had declared its executive president’s salary to be under SGD60,000 a year but he in fact, had received over SGD20,000 a month. Vincent Lam also had a country club membership and housing loan subsidy. His salary accounted for more than half the total funds, SGD442,287 raised by the charity in 2005. Vincent Lam has since resigned.

Are you outraged? Good, do something about it then. The first thing you should do is, at the very least, please—if you are going to donate to a charity, do some research. Ask questions. Find out where your money is going. Is the charity or NGO audited? Does the charity exist for staff or for the group it is supposed to help? By that I mean, how much are staff salaries? How much, especially, is the president or CEO, or MD paid? How much are local people working at the NGO paid? How much money actually goes to the cause?

I’ve found to my horror, that some NGOs in Cambodia, are no different from MNCs back in Singapore and Hong Kong. The top guys, usually expat, get fat salaries and perks, while local staff are paid according to local salary scales. It’s more forgiveable, if you really want to be charitable, for an private company to remunerate its managers this way, but my opinion is that its complete bullshit to say NGOs and charities need to pay this kind of money to attract talent. That is exactly the argument used in defense of Durai and Lam—that they were good at their jobs, that the organisation needed to attract and keep people like them.

People who enter into the NGO or charity sector should do it because their hearts’ are in the right place, and not for the money. It’s the same argument as politics. People should enter politics, be MPs and PMs because they want to make a difference, because they want to do something for their countrymen, and not because they want to further their careers and earn a big salary and an even bigger retirement package.

(It was hard to find any recent report on Singapore ministers’ salaries on the Net, but here is Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post 2003 report: “Even after the cuts in 2001, the [Singapore] prime minister still earns a reported gross salary of about S$1,030,000 per year, and that is before the variable component is taken into account. The Singapore pay rate compares favourably with that received by United States President George W. Bush, (US$400,000 per year), and Britain's Tony Blair (US$262,000). They also leave in the shade the remuneration reportedly received by Thailand's Thaksin Shinawatra (US$32,000) and Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad (US$65,000).” Meanwhile, the average Singaporean salary is about USD 27,000 annually, or SGD 3,444 per month, according to the Singapore ministry of manpower.)

Of course, as we all now know, many enter into the charity sector precisely for the money, because there are so many mugs out there—irresponsible people who just want to give away money so they themselves feel good, and not because they really care that what they do makes a difference. I say “irresponsible” because such behaviour is not without consequences: you’re propping up an organisation and the people behind it even as they exploit other people for their own end.

In the context of Cambodia, it is even more important you know what your money is doing because NGOs are prevalent and corruption is rampant. According to Human Rights Watch, foreign aid accounts for about half of Cambodia’s national budget. Last year, donors increased their annual pledge in 2006 to USD601 million, from USD504 million in 2005. Cambodia’s largest donors included the European Union, Japan, the United States, France, Australia, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Germany. Here is the latest article I found on Cambodia and foreign aid.

EU increasingly impatient with Cambodia over anti-corruption law
dpa German Press Agency
Published: Tuesday January 23, 2007

Phnom Penh- International donors are increasingly impatient with delays in implementation of a long-awaited anti-corruption law, German Ambassador to Cambodia Pius Fischer said Tuesday. Fischer, who is the acting European Union (EU) president, called it an important issue for EU policy in Cambodia and could not be sidestepped. 

"We strongly advocate the fight against corruption and the early adoption of an anti-corruption law in Cambodia," he said after addressing a seminar on EU-Cambodian relations in Phnom Penh. "We cannot debate any longer. For 10 years the royal Cambodian government has discussed a law against corruption. Now is the time to act and implement that law." Fischer also warned that implementation was as important as the law itself, and donors would be happy with no less than a politically independent anti-corruption body which can "locate, integrate and develop cases against corruption." 

Endemic corruption has consistently been cited as a major hurdle to Cambodia's development. Last November, Berlin-based Transparency International ranked Cambodia at 151 out of 163 countries in its 2006 corruption perceptions index survey. 
The group made its ranking on a definition of corruption as "the abuse of public office for private gain." Cambodia scored just 2.1 points out of 10, earning it the second lowest position in Asia, ahead of only Myanmar.

Donors have repeatedly threatened to withhold funds from aid-dependent Cambodia if it continues to delay adopting the law. The government promised a new law by the end of last year but later announced that it needed to make changes to the penal code first. 

As well as being an important donor to Cambodia, the EU is also a powerful trading partner, ranking as Cambodia's second most-important destination for exports and its sixth leading source of imports, according to 2005 trade statistics, with Germany at the top of the list.

© 2006 dpa German Press Agency

So please, don't be lazy. Make you and your money count for something.

Stealing and Conspiracy

Much has happened in the last week. It all started the weekend I returned from Singapore with my dad. Bloom’s workers had offered to go home the afternoon of the blackout and return on Saturday morning to make up for it. They had initiated this on their own accord while I was away. I was very impressed and thought it was very decent of the workers, so I offered to cook for them. I had thought pork curry was a favourite, but they communicated to Wee, our housekeeper, that they wanted a dish of fish soup with mango (it’s quite nice, but I think nicer without the mango). So we had that and mixed vegetables.

It was a nice bonding session, and part of the reason I wanted to provide everyone lunch. There were already indications there was some trouble while I was away. Wee, our housekeeper, had complained to me about Sipha, Bloom’s trainer, and mentioned that other women were also upset with Sipha. (Because my living quarters is in the same house as the workshop, my housekeeper gets too close to the workers for my comfort, a problem I am trying to sort out as well).

Anyway, after lunch, Sipha and Edany decided to finally visit Tuol Sleng (or the S21 Museum), because I live just round the corner from Tuol Sleng. Just like how I kept putting it off because I was afraid I would get depressed (I finally went, with my friend Swee and her cousin Jinyang), they too did not visit it till that day.

While they were gone, the other women all stayed back and one of them started telling me she saw Sipha stealing from me. Another one backed her up and Wee was getting all excited, putting in her two cents worth. I explained to them it’s hard for me to do anything, as I did not see the alleged act with my own eyes. I do not like to accuse people without evidence. The only thing I can do is to be more alert and try to catch the person in the act. There were a whole lot of other complaints, ranging from Sipha sleeping on the job to her asking one of the women to fetch her drinking water.

Sipha is the first person I hired, and I’ve known her for more than four months now. Because we often go to the market together (one of her skills is she is a good bargainer), I’ve had many more opportunities to interact with her. I trust her and think she’s responsible and honest. Of all the workers, I am closest to her and consider her my right hand woman.

When Sipha returned from work on Monday, I asked her whether everything was alright at work. She said, don’t worry, everything’s fine. Sometimes, I do not know if she says these things because she is so obtuse and unaware of what’s going on, or whether she just doesn’t want me to worry, or whether she’s afraid I’d sack her if things don’t go well. It’s probably a combination of factors.

I decided to just speak openly with Sipha now. After the workers had all left for the day, I told her I was aware of problems with some of the women. Then everything came tumbling out. She was told by one of the women that another of had stolen a clutch purse (I had bought this as a sample) from the workshop. Together with another two workers, she persuaded the guilty party to bring the item back to the workshop, because they were worried Sipha would get into trouble, as she’s responsible for the materials.

Sipha was shocked when I told her what some of the others had told me and asked that she be allowed to sit down with everyone to sort things out. I wasn’t sure about this because in my experience, all this talking usually does no good once the damage is done and the trust is broken between people. Anyway, the next day, I asked the other women whether they were ok about sitting down together and sorting out our issues in the open, once and for all, and in front of each other.

They agreed, so we all sat down on the floor, and with my friend Sophon as our interpreter, tried to air our differences. I thought it was a good cathartic session in one sense, and a few of the women cried, and I must confess, as did I. I told them, “Perhaps you think I am rich. Yes, I am rich, compared to all of you. But my money is limited. I don’t come from a rich family. I’ve told everyone how my parents had to struggle just like you.” (It always upsets me to think about my parents’ hardship earlier on in their lives. It also makes me feel guilty because I sometimes think my parents would be happier if I kept on at a good job and gave them a big fat allowance so they can just do what they like and not worry).

“We worked hard and saved our money. That’s why I keep asking everyone to save money, to think of the future, so your children and you, can have a better life later. It really breaks my heart (“knyom cheu jert”) when I think you would steal from me.”

I explained to them that they’re not cheating me, but cheating the business, each other, and ultimately, themselves. Because Bloom is not an NGO and we do not get donations, we need to make it work on our own and within the budget. If we fail, I can go home and get a job, no problems. But what will happen to all of them?

Later, I explained to Sipha, it’s alright if one of the women stole from me. I do understand, because she is so poor. There are rumours she had done it before at Hagar, had stolen a pair of shoes belonging to a teacher, to sell. For me, it’s alright if she had stolen, as long as she knows it is wrong, and won’t do it again (apparently she had returned the allegedly stolen item after much persuasion from the others). And I believe she won’t.

I have been told that stealing is only to be expected, because people here are just so poor. It may be expected, but it’s still not right. And that’s what I want our workers to know. Because we work as a team, one person’s actions at Bloom affect all the others. One of my good friends, an Australian who’s been working with Khmers on and off over the past 6 years, kept telling me to tell the workers that I too, am just an employee, that I report back to people in Singapore, that the money is not mine, and that I am accountable to others. The reason is to avoid the workers thinking I’m rich and taking advantage of me. I really, really appreciate the advice, but it’s hard for me to lie. It’s too hard for me to be pretending to be something I’m not. I wish I could, and I have thought seriously about it, because it may make my life easier. In the end I decided it’s just too difficult for me to pretend day in day out, for goodness knows how long. I’d much rather be honest and deal with the consequences. I also strongly believe the truth will always be known anyway (the Chinese have a saying--“zhi shi bao bu zhu huo”, or paper can never contain fire).

The meeting went ok, with everyone promising to work in solidarity, but I could tell there was still bad blood between the two main antagonists—Sipha and one of the women.

“Sorry” is the hardest word

The next day, Sipha was in tears because she felt since the meeting, another member of the team had joined forces against her and showed her disespect. It emerged that Bonthuen has been resentful of Sipha ever since she recommended I hire Saren as production manager. Bonthuen wanted that job and blamed Sipha for not giving him the chance. To cut (another) long story short, I told her to take Bonthuen out for lunch and gave her some money for this. Sipha was to explain to Bonthuen exactly why she thought he was not ready for that job. She should also remind him that it was she who brought him into Bloom and she would not have done so had she not thought he was a good worker. I also told Sipha, I would say sorry to Bonthuen, say sorry if he felt hurt, but all she was doing was thinking about what’s best for the business—which is completely true. I told Sipha saying sorry doesn’t cost her any money and makes other people feel better, like you understand how they feel. Initially she refused, she kept insisting she had done no wrong. I’ve been told it’s not in Khmer culture to say sorry and it’s true I’ve found the Khmers to be a very proud people.

The lunch worked and Sipha reported that Bonthuen apologised repeatedly to her for being difficult. As for the issues between Sipha and the other worker, I decided to call in the experts and got Chhorvy, Hagar’s reintegration manager to mediate between the two. I was very direct and brought up the alleged stealing incident when I saw the women were not going to and kept beating around the bush. I wanted it all in the open and we move on. The session was short and everyone was very civil. At the end of it, they both apologised to me for making me upset, but they refused to look at each other when they spoke. I hope we did resolve our problems on that front, but only time will tell.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Silk Village across the Tonle Sap

Today, Sophon took us to a village across the Japanese Friendship Bridge to show us how silk is woven. The village is similar to others all over the country [for Singaporeans and Malaysians: villages here are just like Malay kampungs, with wooden houses on stilts to avoid the floods. But I am told that “kampong”, as in “Kampong Thom”, means “port” in Khmer]. This village has a congregation of houses on stilts with looms below.

We had breakfast at one of the popular Khmer restaurants across the bridge. There are many, many guesthouses and restaurants here. The prices are not especially cheap, which makes it perplexing why Khmers would travel all the way here for a meal. Sophon says it is the fresh air, but with all the motobikes, it didn’t seem that fresh to me…Apparently, the guesthouses are there also for Khmer men who have mistresses over that side of the river...

I learned that the silk threads are loaned to the weavers by middlemen, because they’re too expensive. It’s too much for the weavers, who are given the thread by the middlemen. At the end of the month, the weavers are paid only for their labour. Each person can make two parcels of cloth (each parcel is about 1m x 3.6m) a day.

There are varying qualities of silk, and you can expect to pay between USD5 and USD9 per metre for pure silk. Most of the weavers in that village though, use a combination of polyester and silk threads, which is much cheaper.

To get to the village, you have to first get across the Tonle Sap. We took Sophal’s tuktuk across the Japanese Friendship Bridge then travelled for about 20 mins until we reached a bit of road that led to a ferry. The ferry would take us across another River, I assume it's the Mekong this time. There are no signs to the ferry "terminal", just a shack with a few men and their motos. The men were playing cards when we arrived and offered to show us around the village and then take us back to Phnom Penh for USD6 a moto. It’s pricey but cheaper than what some of my foreign friends paid (USD25 each) for an organised tour to visit the village.

The ferry we took had benches all around it with a lot of space in the centre for motos to get on. It took us just 10 mins to get across and once across the motodops took us to a few houses where we could watch the silk being woven and also buy the products. I bought a parcel of silk mixed with polyester that was 7.2m long for USD20 from one house. A parcel of pure silk was going for USD120—too much for me!

On the way back on the ferry, one of the motodops told Sophon that a Frenchman had bought a piece of land by the river and built a house there. The poor fellow's house then fell into the river during the rainy season!

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Why Bloom is not an NGO

I’m so happy to be back in Phnom Penh with Alan and our dogs again. Phnom Penh is so cool and dry now—the weather really reminds me of Australia. I was freezing at 8:30am in the tuktuk on the way home from the airport. Mornings have been so cold Alan says jokingly it’s just like being in Scotland! You’d never know we were in the tropics. Singapore never gets this way. It’s always humid, even when it’s windy. I’m writing this at 3am and it’s so cool it feels like there’s aircon switched on.

I got stopped at customs this trip because I had packed my lace and trimmings and stuff in boxes, thinking proper luggage would add unneccesary weight. I was asked to open the boxes and had to explain why I was bringing in so many accessories. Fortunately, the official let me off after I explained in Khmer what they were for. I did not know how to say “social enterprise” in Khmer, so I said “NGO”, even though strictly speaking Bloom is not an NGO. It got me thinking that there really are so many benefits to registering as an NGO. Cambodians, especially, really seem to respect NGOs, or at least “get” what NGOs do, i.e., ostensibly, they help Cambodians.

I had resisted registering Bloom as an NGO, despite the advice of many friends. My friends were exactly right, that life would be easier here as an NGO. You don’t have to pay all sorts of licenses and taxes for one, and of course, you get donations (free money). Plus, the label facilitates many activities (as I had just learnt at customs).

I didn’t register Bloom as an international NGO, even though it’s very easy and straightforward, having seen my friends at Riverkids do it. I didn’t because very simply, I think this country has too many NGOs. Cambodia is, to a large extent, an NGO economy, which is to say there is so much money from NGOs in this country that if they were to pull out, Cambodia’s economy would be severely affected (if the garment factories were to leave at the same time, it’s not a joke to say the economy could collapse).

One thing that bothers me is how reliant Cambodians are on foreign aid. One of the most common phrases you will hear as a foreigner is “Som, mui roi” or “Please, (give me) 100 riels.” Maybe I am making too much out of a simple beggar request, but I am convinced it’s more widespread than that—it’s almost like part of the culture here to ask foreigners for handouts.

As I always tell Bloom’s workers*, Cambodians have to learn to be self-reliant. What happens if economies turn bad, and donor nations cut aid? I wanted to demonstrate to our workers that a social enterprise is possible, that Bloom’s workers are capable of running a successful business. I wanted our workers to know they can make money even after I’m gone. It’s the old adage about teaching a person to fish rather than giving him a fish.

Of course this is just a dream at this point, since we’re not yet profitable. My aim is to hand the business over to Bloom’s workers* when we are profitable, so I can move on and hopefully, start a similar project elsewhere. Just writing this is making me stressed. I feel I really have to make Bloom work because there is so much at stake.

*I use the term “Bloom’s workers” or “our workers” and not “my workers”, because as Alan reminds me, the workers do not belong to me. I do not own them. I have also started using the term “workers” consciously, rather than “staff”, because I think there is pride in being a worker. In Singapore, we have come to associate the term “worker” as belonging to a low-class profession, so everyone says “staff”, as in “the company staff”, or even worse, “executives”. I fail to see how being someone who executes is better than being someone who works.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Back to Cambodia!

I've been busy packing for my trip back to Phnom Penh tomorrow morning (my cheapie flight is at 7am! argh!). My luggage will be overweight, because I went on a shopping spree in Johor Bahru, Malaysia (the Singapore dollar is twice that of the Malaysian ringgit, so it makes things really affordable.)

Jetstar, the budget airline I am flying, allows 20kg check in, and every additional kilogramme costs SGD8 (USD5). DHL's Jumbo Box (up to 25kg) to Cambodia costs around SGD200 and that's door-to-door delivery. The cheapest way to send things appears to be via Singapore Post--SGD100 for 20kg. But, as Singpost does not have a branch in Cambodia, there is no guarantee it will arrive. Sigh. So for the moment I am lugging things with me on the plane. Thankfully my dad has offered to come to PP--just to help me carry the bags!

What's in my bags? Beautiful lace and other ornate trimmings (to add on to our bags), embroidered organza cloth (I think they'd make beautiful table runners), and many other accessories. One challenge in running Bloom is accessories are hard to find here in Cambodia. I buy cloth from Orussey Market but even then the variety is limited. Oh yes, I even bought cloth from Chinatown in Singapore to bring back to PP!

We're lucky in Singapore in that we have a dedicated art supplies store that sells anything you could possibly need to make craft. In Phnom Penh, the closest we get is IBC (International Book Centre). I will miss also Singapore's excellent libraries--in fact the library was the first place I visited when I arrived! I think it's such a privilege to have a place where we can just read for free, and read about anything under the sun. And then there are the bookstores: Borders and Kinokuniya and Times (Monument Books is expensive and does not carry any of the books I'm interested in).

What else will I miss? The food! Really, the best thing about Singapore is the food. I lost 5 kgs since moving to Cambodia, but put on 2 kgs in only 2 weeks back home! Food is fantastic in Singapore--it's a mixture of Malay, Indian, Chinese, Eurasian and Western. And I had to eat them all! I've got to get recipes from mom for the cafe. I'm thinking Bloom's signature dish could be a Singaporean one. Hmm, maybe Laksa.

Of course I'm going to miss my wonderful family and friends incredibly. But the much lauded public transport system? Well, while waiting for a bus the other day, I thought, if this was Cambodia, I would not have to wait, just hop onto a moto and away we go.

I'm excited about going back to Phnom Penh and seeing Alan and our dogs again. I also can't wait to show Bloom's workers all the stuff I bought and see their excitement. We're always excited when we can make things that no one else is making in Cambodia.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Fugly Singaporeans

The Internet is a wonderful thing. I've been away for seven months but have still managed to catch up on home news. I don't read up on Singapore much in Cambodia because surfing is so expensive and I'm also more focused on Cambodia. How expensive? Well, we pay USD50 for 600 megabytes a month for cable broadband access. If you want unlimited download at 512kbps, it will cost you USD1000 a month. Yes, yes, I know I've griped about Internet charges in Cambodia before, but I just can't help it.

Anyway, so there was this incident involving an MP's daughter Wee Shu Min. The MP is Wee Siew Kim. Check out
or Wikipedia which has an entry on Ms Wee. Wee Shu Min, an 18 year old, had posted comments on her blog criticising Derek Wee (no relation), a 35 year old university grad working for an MNC. Derek had written about his insecurities living in Singapore. Here are some gems from Wee Shu Min:

"derek, derek, derek darling, how can you expect to have an iron ricebowl or a solid future if you cannot spell?

"if you're not good enough, life will kick you in the balls. that's just how things go. there's no point in lambasting the government for making our society one that is, i quote, "far too survival of fittest".

"please, get out of my elite uncaring face.

19th Oct 2006
posted at 12:08 PM

Wee Shu Min's blog shut down after the hullabaloo. And here is her dad Wee Siew Kim's attempt to apologise:

"But she wrote in a private blog and I feel that her privacy has been violated. After all, they were the rantings of an 18-year-old among friends.

How interesting coming from an MP. Where was Mr Wee to defend Chen Jiahao, who had to shut down his blog after being threatened with libel from Philip Yeo, chairman of Singapore's Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR). In his similarly, "private blog,", graduate student and 23 year old Chen Jiahao had criticised several government policies, including the A*STAR scholarship system and Yeo’s justifications of them. You can read about the affair on the Reporters Without Borders website.

(This entry was previously called Sinkapore. I took the name from posters at one of my favourite sites on Singapore, But I've now changed it to "Fugly Singaporeans" because it's more accurate.)

I wanted to add my own experience to the catalogue of "Fugly Singaporeans". I had gone to meet my friend Leon at Lau Pa Sat, a hawker centre in the financial district that is Shenton Way. As I don't have a Singapore mobile any more, I have been using my mom's. The battery died while I was waiting for Leon to turn up. I was panicky because I wasn't sure about our arrangements. So I approached a table of young women in their 20s (who in Singapore are called "executives") and said, "I'm very sorry, my handphone battery has died and I need to contact my friend. Can I borrow your phone and pay you for the call?"

To which they responded flatly, "No phone." I managed to borrow another lady's phone and Leon finally came. And then, unbelievably, I saw one of the women taking out her handphone. I was furious and stormed up to them, "Why did you lie to me? If you didn't want to lend me your handphone, say so. Why lie?"

They were shocked and the guilty party muttered, "I never answered you, it wasn't me who said I had no handphone," indicating it was her friend who had lied. Can you believe it? Does this person believe this absolves her of guilt? Not answering is a cowardly way of not saying she did not want to lend her handphone.

Anyway, this incident left me incredibly disappointed. What is the point of having paved roads and shiny cars and buildings and a good education system when people are rude and ungracious? It was a real eye-opener coming from Cambodia where people have so little yet are generous and kind. I can tell you that it is the people that makes a place, not cars and buildings and roads. I couldn't wait to go back to Cambodia.

Jimmy said he was glad I told them off. He mentioned someone had written to the papers about a similar incident. I've found the letter here.

It's appalling how Singaporeans just turn a blind eye to other people in need. Just recalling this incident makes me want to jump onto the next plane to Phnom Penh, where a tailor had kept my friend's iBook for 3 hours, after she left it at the shop. A friend says in Singapore, the shopkeeper would say, "What iBook, where got iBook?". We had a good laugh about it.

It starts with a spark

I just got off the phone with my friend Pauline who is the sweetest person. She was encouraging me to update my blog because she knows of people who read Cambodia Calling. She said someone she knows actually flew to Cambodia after reading this blog and subsequently uploaded photos of Cambodia onto *his* own blog. I think that is so great! "It's like a spark," said Pauline. "What you do generates awareness and interest in Cambodia, even though you may not even realise it."

I've been feeling stressed out over Bloom because Channel 8, the main Singapore Chinese channel, did an interview with me. The series focuses on Singaporeans who change careers. I'm stressed because I've been thinking, it'd be so embarrassing if I fail, if Bloom fails, cos I've been on TV and all that. I know it's silly, but these feelings are real. Anyway, Pauline says she is telling me from the bottom of her heart that I would not have failed. Even if the Bloom shuts down, the women have learnt a skill and have gained some pride (when I think how Neang has changed--she's the one whose abuser husband left her for her friend--I think Pauline is absolutely right).

Anyway, so I'm a bit emotional about the whole thing. I'm very happy my friends get it. Someone told Alan about me, "You've got to give it to her. A lot of people talk about it, but she's doing it." Comments like this really help me because there are days when I think it's just too difficult, and I feel like coming home to Singapore, where life is so comfortable and making money so easy.

Ok enough about me. Poor Alan has been living without electricity since yesterday. They cut off the electricity at our house in Phnom Penh because we didn't pay the bill. It was entirely my fault. I had left the bill in the letter holder but failed to tell Alan about it. Then I left for home in a rush (I only booked my ticket the day before I was due to fly). Alan only found out what had happened at 6pm when our neighbour passed him a letter saying we had been cut off. It was Friday evening and we're not sure if the electricity department works on weekends. So Alan may have to be in darkness for the weekend too. I feel so sorry for him and Wee our housekeeper and our puppies. But Alan's taking it well. "Just like being in the Boy Scouts," he said. Sometimes he puts me to shame with his positive attitude.

So that's the other thing--utilities get cut off fairly quickly in Cambodia (the bill was a week overdue). So if you're in Cambodia, remember to pay your bills on time!


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