Friday, October 31, 2008

iPhone adoption rates highest among lower-income

My good friend in Singapore, Jimmy, is so in love with his iPhone, he has a blog "The Singapore iPhone Guide". iPhoneinSingapore

I was interested to read this post about the iPhone's take-up rate in the US: "A new study from comScore shows that the iPhone adoption has risen highest among households earning less than US$100,000 a year (over the months of June, July and August 2008).

Under US$25,000, increase is 16 percent
US$25,000 to US$50,000 per year, increase is 48 percent
US$50,000 to US$75,000, increase is 46 percent
US$75,000 to S$100,000, increase is 3 percent
Above US$100,000, increase is 16 percent"

Just like in Cambodia. Khmers are mobile phone-mad. You will find that in Cambodia, the expats have the crappiest phones and the Khmers have the fancy ones.

I once spoke to a girl who works in a massage place after her fancy phone rang. I asked her how much it cost her and she said more than USD100. Her salary? USD40 a month. I asked how she could afford it and she said she saved for a year. Unbelievable. Handphones here are just like designer handbags in Singapore. The newspapers and magazines (in an ill-disguised bid to please advertisers) routinely write stories on how Ms X, Y, Z went without lunch for months so they can buy the latest "It Bag". I feel sorry for these sheep-people.

One of the Bloom staff members used to drive me crazy by always telling me he wanted an expensive phone (and an expensive motorbike). I had given him my expensive clamshell Nokia from Singapore, because he bugged and bugged me for it (at that time I had two phones). He then sold it for USD50, with the plan to upgrade to a better phone. Then I gave him another one (because I keep getting old phones from Singapore) and he said he wanted to sell it too!

Somedays I think, I am not here to help a Cambodian buy an expensive phone or a motorbike. Other days I think it's up to people how they want to spend their money.

Anyway, jimmy also does interviews with Singaporeans who write programmes for the iPhone. Here is one guy: Interview

And here is my USD20 second-hand Nokia. I am a sad Mac :( [I don't know how to make crosses for the eyes...]

Siem Reap floods

A Western man was just pacing outside the Bloom shop here, on his mobile and telling his friend about the floods here in Siem Reap. He said he has never seen anything like this in previous years. And you know why? Human development.

After yesterday's heavy rain which flooded roads here, I saw three big trucks with sand going past our house. Cambodians who can afford it keep adding sand in order to elevate their land, without considering what they are doing to their surroundings. I took these photos to show what is happening. When the house pictured adds the sand and elevates its land, where do you think the water will run to? Down the street of course, adding to that lake (puddle does not describe it) which is already just outside to the left of its entrance (you can see the owner has already dug a little drain for the water to flow out of his house into the street).

So the puddles just keep changing places. House A is elevated, leaving the water to run to neighbours B and C. B and C then add sand and the water is pushed further along. The problem will never be solved until they start digging proper drains (and even then, it won't be solved, given the Cambodian habit of littering, causing clogged drains).

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Cambodia to double military spending after clashes with Thailand

I wonder how much thinking went into this. It seems a knee-jerk reaction; a matter of face. Is this the right time for increased military spending, when Cambodia (or any other nation, really) can ill-afford to waste money. Where will the money come from? Donors will probably cut contributions as they struggle to get their houses in order. (I can hear the Cambodian government saying already, "Don't you worry--we have the money".)

PHNOM PENH AFP – Cambodia will double its military budget next year to about 500 million dollars following a deadly firefight with Thailand at their disputed border this month, a lawmaker said Wednesday.
Parliament is set to approve the new military budget in a session in early November, said Cheam Yeap, head of the parliament's finance commission.
"We need our soldiers to have enough capacity to protect our sovereignty and territorial integrity and have proper equipment and weapons," he told AFP.
"We also want our soldiers to have better training and to be better equipped with weapons and other military tools," he said.
The lawmaker added that Cambodian soldiers also needed new bases and better pay from the government.
But the decision to vastly increase military spending will likely rankle many international donors, who provide about 600 million dollars per year for the impoverished country's national budget.
Many of Cambodia's Cold War-era weapons mis-fired during the October 15 firefight between troops on disputed land near the ancient Preah Vihear temple which left one Thai and three Cambodians dead.
While Thailand has a 300,000-strong armed force and a well-equipped air force, Cambodia's much smaller military is badly equipped, badly trained and disorganised, according to a Western military official in Bangkok.
Tensions between Thailand and Cambodia flared in July when the 11th century Preah Vihear temple was awarded United Nations World Heritage status, rekindling long-running tensions over ownership of land surrounding the temple.
Although the World Court ruled in 1962 that it belonged to Cambodia, the most accessible entrance is in Thailand's northeastern Si Sa Ket province.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Singlish in Cambodia

I find it really funny when I meet Caucasian men who have Khmer girlfriends and wives who then start speaking broken English. At least, they do when they speak with me, because they assume I am Khmer (it is hard to believe they'd resort to such talk when speaking to another Westerner). Just the other day a Western man came into the shop. This is an example of the conversation:

"My girlfriend, she no money. She ask me for money go buy food. My girlfriend marry when she 14 and when she 18, her husband say he want younger girl so he go."

Hahahahaha! I always have to keep from laughing.

Actually it reminds me of Singlish (Singapore English). In Singlish, we drop "unnecessary" words, like articles, prepositions--anything that gets in the way of us trying to quickly get our message across. So we say "Where you come from?" for "Where did you come from."; "Where you going?" for "Where are you going?"; "Why you so like dat", instead of "Why are you so [annoying, petty, greedy--add your own adjective here]". Or "Cannot, meh?" for "Why can't I do what I like?".

Singlish is a mixture of English, Malay, Hokkien--aiyah anything lah.

I love, love, love Singlish! It's what makes us unique and it's colourful and funny. I am so happy it refuses to die despite the Singapore government's efforts to try to get us to speak proper English.

When I hear Singlish in Cambodia, I often smile. I miss it so much. I miss saying "Aiyoh" ("oh dear"), "Alamak!" ("oh no!"), "Buay tahan" (I cannot stand it), "See buay sien" (so boring) etc etc. Alan used to tell me when I get together with my Singapore friends, all he hears is gibberish. And I like it that way!

Rain, rain go away

There was a great big storm early this morning which uprooted one of our papaya trees. It was probably too top heavy because it had so many fruit. Maybe we should have plucked some instead of waiting for them to ripen. As a point of interest, Cambodians like their fruit green (unripe). Green papaya is pickled or used in salads. So is green mango. In fact, green mango is eaten raw, with a salt-and-chilli mixture. I have a theory that in this country fruit is eaten before it has a chance to ripen because during the time of war, people had to eat whatever they could get their hands on, and if you wait for a fruit to ripen, you may not see it again.

I took the second pic to show the giant earthworms (we also have giant millipedes, thick and long--you don't see these anymore in Singapore!). They come out after the storm and there are earthworms everywhere because the rain floods their homes (holes).

The others show the roads leading to my house. Sigh. I have to wade through puddles and avoid the mud. You can see how I walk, my feet not touching the tips of the shoes in an effort to keep my feet mud-free. When it rains very heavily, like today, you cannot even walk without getting your shoes soaked. In fact I had to take a moto to work today because the roads were so bad. Even the paved road leading to Sivatha Boulevard was flooded.

To youn or not to youn

I left a post on another website detailsaresketchy on how some of the Cambodian Bloom women would refuse to sell used aluminium cans to Vietnamese rubbish collectors, saving them only for a Cambodian collector (when I had the cafe, I would give the cans to the Bloom women to sell for them to buy fruit or snacks to share). When I asked why, these women would tell me because "youn ot-la-or" ("Vietnamese no good") or "m'nu koick" ("bad people").

Anyway, this post led to a response from a person (obviously Khmer) who blustered on about "hate" and how "youn" is just a descriptive term and different languages have different words for the same object and stop picking on the word "youn" as used by Cambodians.

It's not worth going into. The only thing worth pointing out is intent and context is important is determining Hate Speech--speech intended to degrade, intimidate, or incite violence or prejudicial action against a person (definition from wikipedia).

The word "youn" is not racist in itself (I have been told it comes from the Vietnamese word that refers to the Vietnamese rice hats). Words are just words until they are used in context, when intention comes into play. The word "bitch" as it occurs in a dictionary is just a word, until it is spat by a man at a woman. This is why it is ok for a black (African or African American) person to use "the N-word" when addressing another black person, but not acceptable for a person from another race to address a black person in this manner. It is because in the latter instance, the intent is suspect.

In the example I used, I say clearly the context: not selling the cans to one group of people versus another. The intent is referred to when I said the Cambodian women told me why they would not sell the cans, because Vietnamese are "ot la-or".

So if a Cambodian uses the word "youn", make sure you know what context it is in and also his/her intention. And hand on heart, dear Cambodian reader, when you use the word "youn", are you sure it is not a loaded term for you?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Cambodian Property Prices relative to other Asian countries

Follow up from the previous post on property prices in Cambodia. The first list below shows where Cambodia stands vis-a-vis other Asian countries (actually the research is based on the administrative/financial centre for each country). You can see that Phnom Penh's prices are outrageous--almost two times those of Kuala Lumpur's. This is despite the fact Malaysia allows foreigners to buy property (min value MYR250,000 and up to two residential properties) whereas in Cambodia foreigners can only buy leases. Which is why some Chinese speculators pay USD30,000 for a Cambodian citizenship (or so I was told by an American lawyer living in Phnom Penh), which enables them to freely trade in land.

I think Cambodian property prices here will collapse. We are not even talking about a correction. The prices of land across the country is led by prices at the high end. So prices in Kandal, Battambang where-ever, follow prices in Phnom Penh. People think their land is worth more because Phnom Penh's land is worth such and such. They'll be in for a shock when Phnom Penh's prices fall dramatically.

In a way I feel sorry for the ordinary Cambodians. Sipha (the one I sacked) for instance, kept asking me to buy property in Phnom Penh (and put it in her name--cunning!). She insisted Cambodia is different, when I explained to her how property prices are cyclical. I had told her about Singapore's boom in the 1990s and the crash in 1997 (caused by the Asian financial crisis), which led to a 30%-40% drop in property prices. She said, "Srok Khmer, ot." Only rise and rise. Property prices can only go up for ordinary Khmers like her, because that's all they've seen happen. That is why she went and bought land near Sihanoukville for USD3000. If she had borrowed money to buy it, she'd be in a spot. Sadly Cambodia is no different from the rest of the world when it comes to the boom-bust cycles of property prices.

Asia: Square Metre Prices

Hong Kong 16052
Japan 15851
India 11413
Singapore 10723
Taiwan 4424
China 2697
Cambodia 2503
Thailand 2492
Vietnam 2070
Philippines 1939
Malaysia 1366
Indonesia 1354

Source: Global Property Guide

And here, also of interest, is the comparison of the countries' gross national income and purchasing power parity (which takes into account the relative cost of living and inflation rates).

Asia: Gross National Income and PPP

Singapore 48,520
Hong Kong 44,050
Japan 34,600
Malaysia 13,570
Thailand 7,880
China 5,370
Indonesia 3,580
Philippines 3,730
India 2,740
Vietnam 2,550
Cambodia 1,690

Source: World Bank, Oct 2008

Falling property prices in Cambodia; will oil save this country?

It's started to happen. There are businesses around Siem Reap's old market area and beyond that are closing down. One is an Indian restaurant ("Bangladesh, Madam, not Indian," sniffed a competitor).

Today I noticed Enjoy Villa, the Australian-Khmer guesthouse around the Central Market area had a big padlock on its gate. I asked the tuk-tuk guy parked beside the guesthouse what happened? Did it shut down? He said yes. The website is still in operation, so I have no idea what's happened. The Angkor Airways office around the same area is also up for rent, as well as numerous others.

Businesses operating on thin margins will find it harder and harder to survive. Businesses that signed on leases at high prices will also find it a challenge to make money. As businesses struggle, rents will have to fall, because otherwise landlords will face the prospect of having no tenants.

As rents fall, so will property prices, because a piece of land is only as good as what you can extract from it. Except for those people who buy residential or business property planning to live in them or run a small mom and pop shop, the value of a property is what you can rent it for.

That's why if you cannot get a good rent for your property, you'd probably won't be able to get a good selling price for it either.

Still, I think property prices in Siem Reap will not be as badly affected as those in Phnom Penh. At least in Siem Reap there is something that gives the property here real value, namely tourism. In Phnom Penh, it seems to me, property prices are driven by speculation. I am not a real estate agent and I don't have all the facts, but from what I've read, property in Phnom Penh have been snapped up by mainly Korean and Chinese speculators in the last few years, which accounts for the skyrocketing prices.

Speculators are not long term investors. When prices fall, they panic and pull out in order to cut their losses and in order to park their money on something else that seems a better bet.

The Korean won is at its lowest in a decade. As for China, GDP growth has now slowed for the last five consecutive quarters. As demand from the US (still China's top export destination) falls, the economy could be heading for a severe downturn. Two weeks ago the government said that half the country's toymakers had gone out of business.

Of course the Chinese are great consumers themselves, but even then indicators are that growth is slowing. There is falling demand for steel and the Chinese housing market is in a downturn:

"Numerous other property companies around China are similarly beleaguered. The Chinese press says that in September around 100 homeowners in the eastern city of Hangzhou stormed into the offices of Vanke, a big developer, to demand compensation for falling prices. In March a company in the southern city of Shenzhen caused a stir after it cut prices by 20%, by coughing up the difference to about 25 previous buyers of its property. Others have resisted giving cash, but have tried to calm homeowners by offering discounts on management services....In recent weeks 18 cities, including Hangzhou and Shanghai, have introduced measures to prop up the market." TheEconomist

Properties in areas such a BKK1 will suffer fewer losses because land there is limited. As long as there are expats around, there will be a demand for good houses in safe areas.

Maybe the only thing that will save this country is the oil. Because the Cambodians don't have the expertise to drill the oil, American expats (or whoever) will need to come in, and these guys are not going to do the work for peanuts. That'll bring more US dollars into the economy. It'll be just like when the NGOs first came into this country.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Taxi service in Cambodia

I saw this taxi the other day in Siem Reap. It looks just like the one Kerri and I took once in Phnom Penh. It was 11pm and Kerri's tuk-tuk had a flat. Instead of bargaining with the motodops, we decided to try the new taxi. We flagged one down near the Russian Market. At one point, Kerri put her hand on mine and whispered, "What does that 40.00 on the taxi meter mean? I hope it is not 40 dollars..." I asked the driver what it meant and he said "4000 riels". Phew. So it is 4000 riels, or USD1 when you board the taxi. By the time we arrived at Kerri's house, it cost us just under 6000 riels. We were so happy we paid him 8000 riels, or USD2. We were happy because we got to ride in air-conditioned comfort for an even cheaper price than we would have had to pay a tuk-tuk, or 2 motorbikes to take us home!

I think the taxi is worth taking for short distances but may be more expensive than a tuk-tuk for longer distances. More on the taxi services here:

"Chinese investor launches 1st taxi company in Phnom Penh" (Xinhua News Agency July 12, 2008)
Chinese businessman Hu Guangxi on Friday launched the first taxi company in urban Phnom Penh at 1 million U.S. dollars, which is expected to upgrades the city image and enrich residents' traffic choices.

Governor of Phnom Penh Kep Chutema said at the opening ceremony that Global Cambodia Trade Development Co. Ltd. generates new investment in the transportation field of the city by inaugurating the service.

"This is also the first time that metered taxi cars enter Cambodia and the company is highly committed to serving the customers well even the price of gasoline is a little bit high now, " he said.

"I strongly believe that it will have success because the price is reasonable," he added.

While taking a Global taxi, customer has to pay about one U.S. dollar for the first two kilometers, some 0.1 U.S. dollar for every additional 200 meters and 0.1 U.S. dollar per three minutes for waiting or during traffic jam.

This investment, totally from China, also helps provide job opportunities for the local people as it needs human resources with professional skills, said the governor.

All the drivers should know at least two foreign languages, including Chinese, because they work for a Chinese company, he said.

"Greeting words are a necessity," he said, adding that the company's drivers all have official licenses, which can guarantee comfortable driving and least accidents.

Hu Guangxi, general manager of Global Cambodia Trade Development Co. Ltd., said that "we invest in the taxicab field in a long-term view. Cambodia has political stability and fast economic growth and Phnom Penh is the center of politics, commerce and culture of the country."

"We guarantee safety for clients and also buy insurance for them," he added.

Andre Lim, Hu's Cambodian partner, told Xinhua that the company will run only a dozen white taxis on the streets of Phnom Penh at the first phase and in late September the number will be up to 60.

Lim was confident that his service can compete with the traditional types of taxis in the city, like tuk-tuks (motorcycle with a trailer) and motorcycles, as market research told him that the people here are becoming richer and taxi cab turning into an affordable tool.

Public transportation like bus, subway and taxi cab has been absent here for years, as the city is small and the number of consumers is limited. One could only order a taxi car at the Phnom Penh International Airport in the suburb.

Meanwhile in the past three years, Cambodia embraced double digits of economic growth and more investors are coming in.

As skyscrapers started to be constructed one after another, Phnom Penh is marching towards modernization, just as the government planned.

"Metered taxi cars just add an updated and mobile color to the scenario," said Hu Guangxi.

My tuk-tuk driver in Siem Reap

This is Phoen (pronounced "Pern"), my tuk-tuk driver here in Siem Reap. He's an old man who speaks no English, so that is why I choose his tuk-tuk over others. The other drivers have a better chance at earning money because they speak English. Phoen lives with his second wife and their four children who all attend school. He was the one who built the shelves and tables in the Bloom shop. We went shopping for planks of wood which he then sawed and nailed together. He's a good guy and I would recommend him but I know how important it is for tourists to have an English speaking driver. I've tried teaching Phoen English but he does not seem interested.

In Phnom Penh I use Sophal--a tuk-tuk driver I've known for 2 years now. He's like a friend, someone I can rely on. My mom always said "chu wai kao peng you" ("you need to count on your friends when you are away from home"). You can find Sophal's pic and phone number, if you want to hire him, in a blog entry way back in 2006. He's very honest and I can vouch for him.

Chinese speaking tuk-tuk driver

I was surprised to come across a Chinese sign stuck onto walls along the road to my house so I took a photo. It says "Good Day to You! I am a tuk-tuk driver! I can speak Mandarin! My name is ANDY Wang (Little Wang)". And then there are his phone numbers.

It also says $55 and if you go with him for 3 days, he will throw in one free day. $55 for 3 days works out to $18.33 a day, which is above market rate (tuk tuk for a day is between USD13 and USD15, but only to the main temples, not those further away). If you take Andy's tuk-tuk for 4 days, it's a fair price (USD13.75 a day).

I think the sign was written for Andy by a Chinese customer. Which probably means he provided good service to his Chinese customer. A tuk-tuk driver told me how his Korean customer posted information about him online (in Korean) which really helped his business.

I have been trying to figure out how to write in Chinese in Blogger. I found this site and it seems so simple but after changing my settings to enable transliteration, no button popped up on the post editor. I have no idea why, but on my browser (Safari) I am also unable to add links--nothing happens when I click on the link icon. Maybe it is time to switch to Firefox. Those of you who want to use another language on your blog can check this out: Make your blog speak your language

Graffiti art in Siem Reap

These walls were painted by Tony, a Khmer who was born in Switzerland. It took him about a month to finish the job. I like the art, I think it brightens up the place and is something unique for Cambodia.

Tony came to Cambodia to find out more about his culture. He is a tall lad and he tells me he is often mistaken for a Japanese. He can speak and read Khmer as he had learnt it from an old relative in Switzerland. He does not know much about the war here though, as his parents had left the country by then. They were Cambodian government scholars are were studying in France at that time. Today his mother is a chemist for the Swiss government.

Tony is a professional graffiti artist and he approached Sok San Palace for work. He told me he was paid over a grand for this particular job. In Switzerland, he charges 10 times that amount when companies commission his work. Tony wanted to spray paint the Bloom shop but I almost fainted when I heard his fees!

Apple now has more cash than Microsoft

This is a new Apple shop opening in Siem Reap on Sivatha Boulevard. It's called Future World. Siem Reap already has one authorised Apple reseller, called iONE (also on Sivatha). iONE is also found on Phnom Penh's Monivorng Boulevard and I went in to compare prices recently. The seller told me the prices are the same in Siem Reap as in Phnom Penh but there are better freebies offered at the Siem Reap shop. Recent freebies included an LG phone and an iPod Nano.

I am an Apple user, not for any lofty reason than for the fact that Apple users are less vulnerable to viruses--hey, I no longer have an IT helpdesk! I've always been a PC user until I moved to Cambodia, simply because schools and offices use PCs in Singapore (unless you work in design). I found it a little annoying in the beginning when I first switched to a Mac, because I was frustrated with the limited software available for the Mac. This is especially the case in Cambodia, where you can get pirated PC software but hardly any for the Mac.

Since using a Mac though I have been a fan. My white MacBook, the cheapest one I could find (SGD1899 or USD1261, if you must know, bought in Nov 2007) has served me well and doesn't crash or hang or have any of the problems I used to have with my Dell notebook that the office provided--patches were a real annoyance.

By the way, Apple, with a market cap of USD85.8bn (23rd Oct), has enough cash now to buy Dell (market cap USD23.5 billion). Which is funny, given that 11 years ago, Michael Dell, when asked what he would do if he were Apple’s CEO, answered: “What would I do? I’d shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders.” Fortune Blogs

I also read how Apple is performing vis-a-vis Microsoft: Microsoft's quarterly revenues grew by 9%, compared to Apple's non-GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) revenue increase of 75.1% year over year. And no wonder, if my Singaporean friends are anything to go by. So many of them bought themselves an iPhone (I use a simple, second-hand, no camera, no radio, no nothing Nokia, which cost me USD20 in Phnom Penh).

From "Apple earnings, profits, and cash embarrass Microsoft" By Prince McLean
"While Microsoft executives like to talk about Apple as an insignificant company with less than 5% of the worldwide market share of all PCs and servers sold, the Mac maker now has more cash than Microsoft and earns more than half of its profits and over three fourths its revenues.

For the quarter ending in September, Microsoft released revenues of $15.06 billion, net profits of $4.37 billion, and a reserve of cash, cash equivalents, and short-term investments that added up to $20.7 billion.

Apple reported $7.9 billion in revenues and $1.14 billion in net profit, but those numbers don't include most of its iPhone business, which is hidden away in subscription accounting under GAAP rules. For that reason, Apple also released its real earnings: $11.68 billion in revenue and $2.44 billion in net profits. The company also reported a cash position of $24.5 billion.

Microsoft's quarterly revenues grew by 9%, compared to Apple's non-GAAP revenue increase of 75.1% year over year.

Anti-Rape Condom

This bizarre device was invented by a South African woman, Sonette Ehlers.

RAPEX (TM) was developed to empower women to defend themselves against rapists. It also helps to identify the rapist, as it can be removed only surgically. See Rape Stop for more information. The prototype was launched in 2005 in South Africa. I tried searching online to see how popular the device is but could not find much information. I guess desperate times call for desperate measures. And how desperate is the situation?

In today's news from South Africa:
- Of every 25 men accused of raping a child or adult woman, 24 walk free - and one in every eight rape suspects is under the age of 17.
- Only 4.1 percent of reported rape cases resulted in a conviction.
- One out of every 10 child rape cases reported to the police resulted in a conviction. "Police rape study results drown victims' hope"

I tried to find the percentage of women raped in SA but you know what? The most recent SA government statistics on rape was in 2000. The government placed a moratorium on government crime statistics in 2001 stating that they needed "reassessment". Anyway these are the figures, which you can find here: Stats South

From the report: "...Stats SA calculated that 55 000 South African women were rape victims in 1997. This figure translates into 134 women raped per 100,000 of the total population in 1997. (Since some women were raped more than once, the actual incidence was 143 per 100,000 of the population.)" (page 1)

The report then cites the International Crime Statistics study (1996) by the International Criminal Police Organisation ICPO-Interpol which showed South Africa leading the world in rape with 50,481 cases reported to the police. Only the US has more reports, in absolute terms, with 95,769 cases. But the US has a much bigger population, so in terms of the number of rapes per 100,000 population, the figures are 36.1 for the US, and 119.5 for South Africa (so more than 3 times more than the US).

The Stats SA report concludes: "The figures obtained from the Victims of Crime survey in 1998 give a similar proportion [to the ICPO-Interpol study] if children are excluded. (page 28) [It means if children (below 18) are included, the statistics are even higher]

Of course these statistics are over a decade old, but as I've said, the SA government has stopped releasing data on the subject. For more updated statistics, I found these, compiled by Oprah Winfrey's team of researchers for her website:

- In South Africa, more than 1 million women and children are raped every year. (The London Times, October 14, 2004)
- Each and every day in South Africa, at least 50 children are victims of rape. (South African Press Association, June 2005)
- More than 90 percent of rape victims know their attackers. (South African Press Association, June 2005)
- A young girl born in South Africa has a greater chance of being raped than of learning how to read. (BBC News, April 2002)
- In South Africa, one in four girls faces the prospect of being raped before her 16th birthday, according to the child support group, Childline South Africa.

The Pretoria News article noted that National Prosecuting Authority head Mokotedi Mpshe admitted under oath that South Africa's justice system was failing its child rape victims:

"Instead of having made vast progress since 2000, dedicated (child rape) courts have declined in numbers; SAPS (South African Police Service) Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences Units have been redeployed; trained forensic social workers employed by the police have become quite scarce; (some) magistrates have become obstructive; the system of district surgeons was abolished (giving rise to a loss of expertise); and the need for training of all remains, with language barriers exacerbating every identified issue."

The South Africans have a term for recreational gang rape: "Jackrolling". The Cambodians too, have a name for it: "Bauk". A worker at AFESIP (a large anti-sex trafficking organisation here in Cambodia) once told me they picked up a teenage prostitute who had been gang-raped by 40 (yes, you read correctly) men and then left for dead around the upper riverside area in Phnom Penh.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Zimbabwe's 100 billion dollar note

This is Zimbabwe, where inflation is 231 million percent a year. Unemployment is 80% and a third of country’s population left it. They started printing a - get this - 100 billion dollar note. All that cash the man is carrying is equal to USD100. (The exchange rate is 25 million Zimbabwe dollars for 1 US dollar.) Photos from Humorland

It would be funny if it wasn't so sad.

I watched an episode of BBC's Newsnight earlier this year. It was presented by Jeremy Paxton and the programme showed blurred out pictures of the injuries of members of the Zimbabwean Movement for Democratic Change who have been tortured by Mugabe’s JOC central committee. Buttocks and palms beaten with rods to expose muscle and bone. If you have a strong stomach you can see the photos here: Archbishop Cranmer's Blog

Even under such extreme circumstances, you will find heroes. And proof of the rigged Zimbabwean elections. Guardian

I am finding I need to add a new label for my posts: "Evil".

Politicians' Dangerous Liaisons with rich men

This is so funny!

"Peter Mandelson has more than two euros to rub together. But even people as well-off as them feel impoverished in the presence of the billionocracy. Perhaps that is why the smell of big money so often sends politicians off their heads.

I remember Tony Blair sitting between Bill Gates and Bono at a Davos summit and moaning that he had gone into the wrong profession. Though his holidays always generated a bad press, Mr Blair had a weakness for wanting to live like one of the super-rich. He would have been better off taking Cherie for a wet week in Wales because those blingy holidays rarely made him happy. He would return from wealthy men's villas moaning to his intimates about how unfair it was that he, with all the responsibilities of leading a G8 country, was so impecunious compared with the super-rich."

By Andrew Rawnsley, The Observer

Noam Chomsky turns 80; interview with the BBC

(Photo: The Observer) My friend Marie told me about this interviewed aired today (UK time). Marie and I did our MA theses together at university in Singapore and I almost wrote mine on Chomsky, specifically trying to examine the link between his theory of language with his politics. (There is no link--I'm pretty sure Chomsky's politics would be the same regardless of his theory of language).

(As a humourous aside, there was a chimpanzee called Nim Chimpsky who learnt 125 signs. Nim Chimsky died of a heart attack in 2000 at age 26.)

I did not do the thesis on Chomsky in the end, but on conservative English philosopher Michael Oakeshott (1901–1990). Anyway, that was a long time ago, but Chomsky has always remained one of my heroes. He's just so disciplined. I remember being so impressed reading his books because this is one person who spends hours and hours reading and reading in pursuit of the truth. And speaking out for it.

You can listen to the interview here .
Listen (26mins 30secs)
Last Updated: Saturday, 25 October 2008, 06:32 GMT

"American thinker Noam Chomsky talks to Carrie Gracie on The Interview

Noam Chomsky is one of the great thinkers of our times.

Now aged 80 he tells Carrie Gracie how his ideas were shaped in particular by the Great Depression, the Spanish Revolution and working at his uncle's news-stand in New York.

And he takes her on a whistle-stop tour of linguistics and American politics and explains why he admires Bolivia."

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Chinese Blogger Beaten To Death By Government Officials

(AP Photo)
I just saw this piece of news. To all those idiots who still tell me it is a free world--wake up and smell the blood.

Chinese Blogger Beaten To Death By Government Officials
by Duncan Riley on January 11, 2008
A Chinese blogger has been beaten to death by Government authorities for the crime of attempting to record a protest on his mobile phone.

When Wei was present at some sort of confrontation or protest by local villages against municipal authorities when more than 50 municipal inspectors turned on him, attacking him for five minutes.

According to CNN, the killing has sparked outrage in China, “with thousands expressing outrage in Chinese Internet chat rooms, often the only outlet for public criticism of the government.”

The Chinese Government has moved swiftly to detain those involved, arresting 24 municipal inspectors whilst investigating more than 100 others in relation to the incident. Notably (for China) the story was published by the official state news service Xinhua, in what is believed to be an attempt to head off dissent over the mater by demonstrating that the Chinese Government does not condone those involved in the beating.

(image credit: AP/ CNN). Source: techcrunch.

Confucian Ethics, the family and charity

(Drawing of Confucius).
In case you're wondering why I have suddenly become so prolific in my blogging, it's cos I work in the Bloom shop in Siem Reap and it's been really quiet. I was talking to someone from a large organisation, easily the largest in Siem Reap, and he told me tourist arrivals for the month are down 25% compared with last year. Partly it has to do with the conflict with Thailand, partly to do with the global economy.

Still, I see a lot of elderly American tourists. A couple came in the other day and I swear, they were the oldest looking people I had ever seen. But they were still lucid, even if a little hard of hearing. These two women from California work with a women's group in Kenya. They teach the women to make beaded jewelry which they then sell in the US. The Kenyan women in this group have all got AIDS.

I was struck by how healthy these Americans looked--they must have been in their 70s, at least. Asians I find, tend to look young for a longer period of time, then suddenly we crash and look old. Westerners seem to age more gradually. Of course this is a generalisation. My second aunt has always been a beauty and still looks graceful even in her 60s.

The other thing that occurred to me is how these elderly Westerners spend their remaining years. The old people I know from home spend their time going on short holidays, playing mahjong, shopping, enjoying their grandchildren. Some, like my mother, do charity work, but it is often a hobby than a real commitment. Very few do what these Americans do. Part of the reason I think, is family relationships. Life revolves around the family much for for Asians than for Westerners.

It is in the teaching of Confucius (circa 551-479 BC) that family relationships is the basis of society. The five principal relationships that govern society according to him are: (1) ruler and subject; (2) father and son; (3) elder brother and younger brother; (4) husband and wife; and (5) friend and friend. Confucianism was the official philosophy of China for 2000 years and is entrenched wherever there are large settlements of Chinese, including Singapore. It also strongly influences North Asian culture. I recently met an English man who teaches English in Korea who believes Korea to be "the most Confucianist society".

For Confucius social order will come about when people learn to perform their familial roles properly. And the emperor's role was like that of a father, he would love his subjects as children and they in return would respect and be loyal to him. There is much discussion about Confucian ethics and its role in the economic success of the Asian Tigers. Here is one opinion. Fareed Zakaria was an editor at Newsweek International and managing editor at Foreign Affairs

"I remain skeptical. If culture is destiny, what explains a culture's failure in one era and success in another? If Confucianism explains the economic boom in East Asia today, does it not also explain that region's stagnation for four centuries? In fact, when East Asia seemed immutably poor, many scholars -- most famously Max Weber -- made precisely that case, arguing that Confucian-based cultures discouraged all the attributes necessary for success in capitalism.

"Today scholars explain how Confucianism emphasizes the essential traits for economic dynamism. Were Latin American countries to succeed in the next few decades, we shall surely read encomiums to Latin culture. I suspect that since we cannot find one simple answer to why certain societies succeed at certain times, we examine successful societies and search within their cultures for the seeds of success. Cultures being complex, one finds in them what one wants."

Here is another one, from the perspective of a lecturer from Guam:

The only other thing I want to say now is the Confucian idea of filial piety: obedience to, respect for, and loyalty to one's parents. In fact, my mother said to me once after I moved to Cambodia, "shenme jiao rujia sixiang" ("what is Confucian ethics"). The thinking is that if I was a really filial daughter, I would stay by the side of my parents and take care of them. Even Cambodians have the same view of familial loyalty. So many of them have told me if they were me, they would spend all their money and time on their family, not on other people.

There is debate on whether the Confucian emphasis on the family excludes universal love, or love for mankind, but in this aspect, I am more inclined towards the teachings of Mozi (pronounced "Mor Tze", not "Mo Zee") (Drawing of Mozi). Mozi argued that benevolence comes to human beings "as naturally as fire turns upward or water turns downward", with one important caveat--provided that persons in position of authority illustrate benevolence in their own lives. The foundational principle is that benevolence, as well as malevolence, is requited. (see Wikipedia's entry on Mozi for more

Here are quotes from the Analects, a compilation of Confucius' teachings:
4:20 Confucius said: "If, for three years (after your father's death) you don't alter his ways of doing things, you can certainly be called 'filial.'"

And this one where family members protect each other from the law:
13:18 The Duke of Sheh told Confucius: "In my land, there are Righteous men. If a father steals a sheep, the son will testify against him."

Confucius said, "The Righteous men in my land are different from this. The father conceals the wrongs of his son, and the son conceals the wrongs of his father. This is Righteousness!"

In Singapore, the law steps in to ensure filial piety, at least in its letter (not spirit). In Singapore, old people (60 and above) can sue their children for cash and care, under the Maintenance of Parents Act, passed in 1997. The courts often rule in favour of the parents. No wonder children are seen to be insurance policies where I come from. My mother often says to me if you don't have children, who will look after you in your old age? Well, I will.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The community Riverkids works with

These photos were taken at the community not far from "speun Chrouy Changvar" (the Japanese Friendship Bridge). This is the group Riverkids ( works with. RK is the anti-child trafficking NGO set up by my Singaporean friends and it provides education, skills training, food and even housing for children who live in this community. Most of the children collect rubbish which can be sold, such as aluminium cans and plastic bottles and cardboard boxes. Their parents are often messed up--staying at home to gamble or watch TV while making their children work.

It is very challenging for RK to work with the parents, some of whom forcibly drag their kids away from the classroom and to get them working on the streets. The parents also ask for money in exchange for letting their kids go to school. RK gives rice and other provisions instead of money, which has worked out well in most instances.

Many people in this slum also take drugs. Those adults who are also rubbish collectors leave their children on their own during the day, which makes them easy prey to bad people.

You can see the electrical wires which are strewn all over the place, a definite fire hazard. See also the walls of the huts, which are sometimes just cement bags or tarp.

Bloom recently took in an intern from RK who is training to sew bags with us. She has polio and a blind mother and an older brother who beats her. She is not unique in that regard--many in the community have multiple problems.

US is the only industrialised country where the young are less likely to be as educated as their parents

- "The United States is now the only industrialized country where young people are less likely than their parents to earn a diploma, the report said, citing data compiled by the international Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development."

- One in four (25%!) of kids drop out of school and this has been the case for at least the last 5 years.

- Among minorities the rate is more than 1 in 3 (more than 33%!)

- Johns Hopkins researcher Balfanz said the dropout problem is driven by "dropout factories," schools in poor communities where kids face challenges inside and outside the classroom.

Full report here:

Reading by streetlamps

Guinean students study under the lights of the Conakry airport parking lot in June. (Rebecca Blackwell/The Associated Press)

These are young men who are trying to read and study at night--some of them walk miles to find lights in their country. This place is the parking lot of the Conakry airport, which stays open for an Air France flight that arrives around midnight. In Guinea, 4/5 of the population has no electricity at all, while the remaining 1/5 get sporadic service. Cambodia is paradise compared to Guinea--we have been having 2-5 hours of power cuts daily at the workshop in Phnom Penh, while in Siem Reap there is hardly ever power cuts where we live and work.

I came across the photo on this site:

I actually met a few Guineans earlier this year in Siem Reap. They came over for a dance performance which was held at Abacus restaurant. Guineans speak French so I did not manage to communicate very much with them.

Tubing in Laos and healthcare in Cambodia

This English lady came into the shop and told me she had hurt her foot while tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos. Tubing is where you sit on an inner tube (the inside of a tractor tire) and float down a river while stopping at bars along the way. I have never done it but plan to--it sounds like fun!

Except for a couple of caveats: don't get too drunk and drown and don't miss your last stop.

This customer told me if you miss your stop you may get lost, so you need to look out for the very last stop sign. She also said if you float too far from the river bank, don't worry because small Laotian children will dive in and haul you back.

You can read about tubing here watch a video of it on youtube.

Anyway, so this customer scraped her foot during the water ride. She did not see a doctor in Laos, only when she got to Siem Reap because by then her foot had become inflamed. She went to the Royal Angkor International Hospital.

She paid USD260 for the first visit to the doctor--USD100 for consultation alone. Thereafter she had to go back everyday to get her wound dressed and each visit was USD36. She went back twice before deciding it was not worth the money, since all the nurses do is clean the wound with saline and apply antibiotic cream. She figured she could do it herself since you can get these things cheap at pharmacies all over town.

Luckily this young woman has travel insurance. Imagine paying USD400 to fix a scrape! I asked if the international hospital employs Western doctors--is that why it is so expensive? She said only Asians tended to her, although she is not sure where they are from. So anyway expect these prices if you visit an international hospital in Siem Reap.

At the other end, Cambodians pay 5000 riels (USD1.25) for a consultation with a local doctor in a clinic. You wonder if the doctors are any good since corruption taints everything in this country.

However, I think Khmers themselves know when a doctor is good because you can tell from results. Khmer doctors also do not need to have a degree, in my opinion, because they learn from experience. And in this regard they are sometimes better than Western doctors, especially when it comes to local diseases. To give you an example, when we lived in Phnom Penh I used to take my dogs to a Khmer vet who has had no formal education. But because Parvo virus is common in Cambodia, he managed to save Austin simply because he has dealt with so many similar cases (Parvo survival rates for puppies, Rottweilers and Dobermans are 30-50%). A Western vet who has had little experience in Parvo, on the other hand, may not be as well-placed to care for the animal. Although I am sure Isabell, our German vet here in Siem Reap, would disagree!

Phnom Penh - second worst historic city to visit

Phnom Penh was voted 2nd worst historic destination in
National Geographic's 2008 "Places Rated" Destination Stewardship survey!

Why am I not surprised...I've met people who have described the place as "a dump", a "shithole" etc etc. However it is not for its pollution or rubbish or cramped streets packed with motorbikes that earned PP the distinction. NatGeo says it is because of "government indifference". That's why we moved from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap after a year and a half, although I think Siem Reap will soon be on the list. Lack of regulation means hotels, guesthouses, restaurants etc are sprouting up everywhere and anywhere.

Number one on the NatGeo survey is Central City, Colorado. I've never been, only to the Grand Canyon in Arizona which is a gorge carved by the Colorado River. It seems casinos have moved in and changed the character of Central City (I'm curious to see how casinos will change Singapore's character when they open next year)

While we are on the topic, I wonder where Dubai stands...

Cambodian Property Speculators

At a dinner recently an English expat who is married to a Cambodia woman disagreed with me for petitioning to stop the Beong Kak Lake evictions. His argument is that the Cambodians who are being forcibly removed from the lake have no legal right to the land in the first place, so what is there to petition about? It turns out this expat owns quite a number of parcels of land around Cambodia and has been upset to find squatters on his land on numerous occasions--one of which has been turned into a car wash.

In fact, under Cambodia's 2001 Land Law (Article 30), occupation of land for five years or more offers strong claims of ownership (it is 12 years in Singapore, if I am not wrong, the same for the UK, since Singapore follows the British legal system in large parts, although I have to say I have not been able to verify this online). It is called "Squatter's Rights".

Article 30: Any person who, for no less than five years prior to the promulgation of this law, enjoyed peaceful, uncontested possession of immovable property that can lawfully be privately possessed, has the right to request a definitive title of ownership.

Of course, as Amnesty International points out, having the right to request a definitive title and actually getting title are two quite different things. Poor people usually don't know their rights, much less understand or have the means to go through the process of acquiring a title deed. You can read more about Cambodian land law and its problems here.

I have no sympathy for land speculators--they're just gamblers.

More importantly, land speculation causes problems for this country. Three reasons: it creates a lot of unproductive land, land which could otherwise be used instead of just left "sitting there" waiting for the price to rise; ordinary people are priced out of the market; and finally, it contributes to land grabbing by the rich and powerful.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Setting up a Workers' Cooperative in Cambodia

Me (front left) and the Bloom team.

This is an interview I gave to Singapore-based Currently in Singapore there is a flurry of interest and activity (some state-sponsored) in social entrepreneurship--there is even a "Social Entrepreneur of the Year" competition. I'll write more on Singapore and this "sexy" topic (to use a term from my journalist days) in another post.

1. Tell me about your organization Bloom and how it addresses problem(s) you are trying to solve in Cambodia.

Bloom is a social enterprise set up in September 2006 to provide jobs for poor Cambodians, especially women. I first came to Phnom Penh for a holiday with my friend Dale Edmonds, who runs Riverkids Project ( and during that trip I witnessed an impoverished mother trying to sell her new-born baby for USD100. The woman was subsequently jailed and I decided there and then I would start a business that would provide good wages for single mothers--may they never know such desperation.

2. Coming from Singapore where social entrepreneurship is still poorly understood, what was your inspiration to establish Bloom?

I am not so concerned with social entrepreneurship. From day one I have been aiming to set up a workers' cooperative. A workers' coperative is a cooperative owned and democratically controlled by its employees. There are no outside owners in a worker cooperative -- only the workers own shares of the business. This is why I have rejected cash offers in exchange for equity--I want Bloom to remain in the control of our workers.

In a workers' cooperative, workers own the business, govern and grow it. They control the resources and determine the work processes and the prices of their products and services. Before Bloom can get to the stage of a workers' cooperative though, our Cambodian team needs to learn business skills so the cooperative will be viable. As well, they need funding. These are the areas where I can play a part. This is the reason why I am completely transparent with the workers about Bloom--if the cooperative is to work, they will need to know *everything* about running the business. If you really want to know more about workers' cooperatives, you can find out more from Spain's Mondragon Cooperative Corporation. The MCC is Spain's seventh largest corporation and the largest in the Basque Country. In 2006 the MCC contributed 3.8% towards the total GDP of the Basque Country.

3. What were the initial challenges you faced (e.g. cultural differences, red tape, personal sacrifices etc.) ? How did you overcome them?

Language is a big challenge. The people I hire are poor with little education. Some are illiterate, so the only way to communicate with the team is to learn to speak Khmer. Other problems especially for a Singaporean is the initial shock at how lawless this place can be--you need to adapt fast and play many things by ear or you won't survive. You need to be clear what your ethics are--do you, for instance, pay a bribe so you can continue with your work or do you think you're thereby feeding a corrupt system? Do you keep your head down and avoid trouble or do you speak up when you see injustice? When you move to a new place, you need to figure out the rules governing that particular society.

3. How do you get the community involved in supporting your efforts?

Which community are you referring to? I work with the community of ethical consumers through guerilla marketing. I have no advertising and marketing budget, so I have to spread the word about Bloom creatively. I have a Facebook group with more than 200 members and Amnesty International ordered a lot of bags from us after stumbling across my blog. Bloom's customers are largely ethical consumers--in that way we are somewhat preaching to the converted, but I hope through this group of "opinion leaders" (to use a marketing term) other consumers will realise there is a way we can shop without hurting other people. As I say in the Bloom Manifesto, "We believe if you know the truth, you would not be an accessory to the exploitation of workers." I genuinely believe that most people would not want to be involved in something, much less buy it, if they know that someone else was hurt in the making of that item.

4. What is your greatest source of inspiration?

To see justice for working people all over the world, and by justice I mean fair wages and fair working conditions. I watched a fascinating movie the other day starring Vanessa Redgrave and Angelina Jolie. It's called "The Fever" and it tells of a posh English woman who has never thought about things, specifically economic relations, as she swans through life, buying white linen sheets and collecting art. She realises, quite out of the blue, that the coat she wants to buy from a shop did not just materialise from nowhere. The coat has a history--the culmination of all the work that went into the making of the coat, the people who made them and how much they were paid and the conditions under which the people made them. This determined the value of the coat, not some arbitrary price set by the department store. But modern day consumerism detaches consumers from all this. We see a coat and we only think, "I like that coat; it's not expensive" without thinking further how the coat came to be and why it is priced what it is.

4. What is your greatest achievement so far? Tell us about an incident which has made your sacrifices worthwhile.

Getting the order from Amnesty International. Amnesty is an amazing organisation and if you have watched JK Rowling's speech to this year's graduating class at Harvard, you will know she talked about how life-changing working at Amnesty was for her. You can watch the speech on youtube or read it here:

This is what she said and I am repeating it because I find it powerful:
"Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s minds, imagine themselves into other people’s places.

Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise.

And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.

I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces can lead to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the wilfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.

What is more, those who choose not to empathise may enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy."

As for sacrifice, I don't see any of what I am doing as a sacrifice. If you believe strongly in something, you will take steps to achieve it. The hardest thing is living your life truthfully and not making excuses.

6. What is your vision for the future?
The future of Bloom? For it to be a successful workers' cooperative.

7. What do you see as the greatest challenge that lies ahead, in reaching your goals?

So many. Mainly the organisation of the workers' cooperative. People are so different, with different motivations that it is impossible to get them to cooperate without conflict. The role of the manager can also be confusing for workers, if they see themselves to all be on the same level. Also, people have to put aside their own self-interest for the sake of the cooperative. One scenario for example, is the workers wanting to keep all the profits instead of reinvesting it into the business. I am taking things one thing at a time though. The first step is to ensure the workers are also good entrepreneurs in addition to being good employees. Workers have to be helped and trained so that they understand their duties as a boss as well as those as a worker.

8. What are some of the ways in which people from around the world can help you achieve them? (this could be in volunteering, funding, advocacy, contributing specific skills etc.)

Be conscious; be aware of the economic relations that exist between people. Take time to think about important matters. As an educated person, you really have a responsibility to lead your life consciously.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Cambodian Sex Trade: "70 per cent of local demand rather than sex tourism"

I was interested to read today's news article by Al Jazeera on the child sex trade in Cambodia. I had pointed out in an earlier post "Sex trade in Cambodia, Childish Khmers and the Blame Game" (10 April 08) how local demand and the participation and complicity of local authorities is driving the sex industry in this country. But here are excerpts from Al Jazeera's report, which can be found in its entirety here:

"Mu Sochua, a politician with the opposition Sam Rainsy Party and a former minister for women's affairs, told Al Jazeera that most of Cambodia's sex industry was supported "by local customers".

"And some of these local customers are high-ranking officials. You have the military, the police and civil servants. you have rich businessmen who have lots of money," she said.

The involvement of high-ranking officials has been one reasons, NGOs say, that the sex industry has thrived in Cambodia.

"Very often these brothels and criminal networks are being supported and protected by high ranking officials," Mark Capaldi, from Ecpat International, an orgnaisation working to eliminate child prostitution, said.

"The problem is not just as abusers but also the impunity and lack of law enforcement in closing down these brothels and karaoke bars."

Daniela Reale, an advisor from Save the Children, told Al Jazeera: "The reality is that we do know local demand is the force driving this abuse.

"We also know it is around 70 per cent of local demand rather than sex tourism"....

...But while the arrest and conviction of foreigners make the headlines, most child sex trafficking supplies local demand, Mu Sochua said.

"It is easier to catch a foreigner and also the government wants to have showcases to make itself look good - that Cambodia is actually taking care of this problem of human trafficking, which is really not the truth," she told Al Jazeera.

Bus/Taxi from Bangkok to Siem Reap

I've finally got around to writing about my trip back from Bangkok to Siem Reap. I had gone to Bangkok with my mother and we carried Bloom bags over to meet with a customer from LA, actually from Hollywood. My customer is associated with the movie "Shanghai" which stars John Cusack, Gong Li, Chow Yuen Fatt and Ken Watanabe. The movie moved location to Thailand after the Chinese government refused to give permit to film in China because of concerns over the script.

In Bangkok we stayed in Pannee Lodge guesthouse on Khao San Road for 1350 baht (USD40) for a double room. It was expensive--you can get much better deals if you shop online before your visit. If you don't, you'd be like me--I was exhausted and just wanted a clean place to lie down after a nine-hour trip from Siem Reap. (See "Taxi/Bus from Siem Reap to Bangkok" on this blog.)

Anyway, we stayed in Bangkok for five days and I almost booked a bus from one of the travel agents in Khao San Road, despite everything I had read about dodgy agents in Bangkok. This guy offered us 500baht (USD14.50) per person for a direct bus from Bangkok to Siem Reap. I was tempted because I had paid 300 baht (the right price is 200baht) for the bus from Aranyaprathet to Bangkok and another USD35 for a taxi from Poipet to Siem Reap, and all I was thinking was how much money I would save!

Fortunately common sense prevailed and I said no, we'd make the trip without an agent. I found out from the Internet that the bus to Siem Reap leaves Morchit Bus Terminal, which is near the Chatuchak Weekend Market. We left the guesthouse about 8am after breakfast and flagged down a taxi. The taxi driver was quite reckless and I was convinced we would get into an accident--we did. Fortunately the accident took place just outside the bus station so mom and I paid the driver, hopped off with our bags, and left the two men arguing as to who was in the wrong (it was our guy).

There are ticket booths all over the station, outside and inside. We made the mistake of approaching one on the outside, but the nice lady told us to look for booth number 25 inside the terminal.

We went in and found number 25. I actually stood in line while trying to confirm with the other people in the queue if it was the right bus. As usual, nobody could speak English and I did not get very far. Fortunately, my anxiety led a Thai woman in uniform (she was some sort of usher who helps people in the station) to approach me. She told me we were in the wrong queue and to move to the next one. It was only later when I approached the window that I could see a handwritten sign saying "Bangkok-Ongkharak-Aranyaprathet: 9:30".

The ticket cost 236 baht (USD6.86) and said "premium" on it. It also showed the bay number, 116 (see pic1) . The bus bays are just behind the rows of ticket booths and it was not difficult to find ours. The bus looks exactly like the one in the photo (pic2). It does not look like much, but the seats were clean and spacious. In fact we were very happy with our seats. We were also given a snack box, which contained a thick slice of bread with some kind of butter-like spread and a small sealed cup of distilled water. There was also a wet tissue and a packet of instant coffee and sugar, but no hot water. Is the coffee supposed to go with the lukewarm water? I didn't want to try out.

There was a telly on the bus playing a Thai-dubbed Japanese show which thankfully they turned off before we started moving. I also took a photo of the bus times which were displayed on the bus.

Soon after we left the bus terminal, the bus started picking up Thai passengers who stood all the way. Obviously this is no express bus, but I've read that this is typical of the buses going to Aranyaprathet. They fill up the bus seats and then pick up and drop off more passengers from various points. There is no bell, so the passengers simply call out to the driver. It was not much of a bother except like bus passengers everywhere, people tend to crowd in the front instead of moving towards the back. As a result, me and mom, seated up front, had some unpleasant whiffs of body odour.

As with the bus ride up, the bus stopped for uniformed policemen who boarded the bus to check our passports. A couple of men got off the bus at this point--I am not sure why though. Perhaps they were illegals?

The bus did not stop for a toilet break but there is a toilet on board. After 5 hours, we finally arrived at Aranyaprathet. From the bus station, you will have to take a tuk tuk--the border is simply too far away (6km). We hopped on one and another group of Europeans we met at the station hopped on another. The drivers agreed to USD1 per tuk tuk (but I eventually paid USD 2, because it was quite a distance he took us).

The tuk tuks then took us to a building with the sign "Immigration Department" or some such thing. The drivers insisted we had to get visas here before arriving at the border. I told our driver that Singaporeans do not need visas and that was when both drivers turned their attention to the Europeans, trying to convince them they had to get their visas here.

We kept saying "no need, no need" and after about 5-10mins, they finally gave up and continued on to the border. They then dropped up off about 1km away from the checkpoint, where another scam laid in wait.

This time the tuk tuk drivers dropped us in front of a little shack with a round stone table and stone seats. We were told by men who were wearing tags in an effort to look officious to fill up departure and arrival forms there. Because the men were Cambodian, I easily started a conversation with them and they let me sit and fill up the forms. By now, the Europeans were savvy, and said no thanks and proceeded to the checkpoint.

As for me, while filling in the forms, the men told me they could help me get a taxi from Poipet to Siem Reap. One of them insisted the price was USD60. I said, how can that be? I paid only USD35 from Siem Reap to Poipet. He said it is because of the police, who demand tax from the taxi drivers. I said no, the taxi is only USD40 (a French customer had told me this was the amount she had paid) . This guy then said, yes, before it was USD40, but now, it is USD60 "because of the fucking police," he spat. He said it with such conviction I almost believed him.

There was another younger man, a boy, really, who was listening to all this and who kept saying, "It is ok bong-srei (elder sister), you can take a taxi from the other side" (once you get across from the checkpoint is what he means). When I said I would take the taxi if it is USD40, the first guy told me to hold on while he calls his boss. While waiting for his boss to decide, this guy proudly showed off his gold bracelet, worth USD200. I decided he must make good money scamming tourists.

In any case, his boss said no go. When I had walked away, the guy actually drove his motorcycle up to me and tried to bargain one last time. "50 dollars ok, bong-srei?"

Of course I said no and continued walking. I was just amazed--they must make such good money from the scam they would even turn away a fair price for one of their taxis.

While walking towards the checkpoint many other taxi touts came up to us. I was so annoyed by then I said loudly in Khmer, "I always thought Cambodians were honest (smao trong), but you're not. I live in Cambodia, helping Khmers and yet you still try to cheat me." I was really quite pissed off. Anyway, two of the men seemed shocked and one said in Khmer, no, no, we will charge you a fair price, USD40 for the whole taxi. It was the price I was willing to pay all along so I agreed and they helped mom and I with our bags.

When you get to immigration, another scam--we were asked to show our passports to two men in uniform sitting at a table on the side of the queue to the immigration counter. They flipped open our passports and said we needed departure and arrival cards and that they would fill it in for us for 100 baht (USD2.90) each. I said no and they didn't pursue the matter. You get the feeling everyone is just trying their luck and if it doesn't work off, they shrug it off.

At the immigration counter where we get the passports stamped, another officer tried to scam my mother. As she was on a tourist visa which was expiring soon, the officer told her she needed to pay for a new one. My mom told him she would be leaving Cambodia before the visa expires so don't worry about it.

Finally, we were able to walk out of the whole nightmare towards the taxi (which is really a private car, a Toyota Camry). The drive back was uneventful except for two things:

1. The driver's cellphone kept ringing and a couple of times he impatiently told his caller in Cambodian that he has a customer ("p'new") who understands Cambodian ("cheh Khmer") so could not talk now. He was referring to me, obviously. I kept wondering what he had to hide; have I been scammed?

2. The driver stopped at a little provision store for us to use the toilet. Just 10 minutes before stopping at this little shop there was a large stop with toilet signs. I think that was a free toilet but the driver insisted on stopping at the shop where they charged 500riels (12.5 cents US) or 5baht (14 cents US) for the use of the toilet. We noticed other taxis had also stopped and some customers bought drinks and potato crisps. For their cooperation, the taxi drivers received a free car wash--at least that was all I saw.

After 3.5 hours we arrived safely home. I hope this has been useful for those of you planning the trip. Just keep your wits about you and know that practically everyone on route will be involved in trying to milk gullible tourists and first time travellers.

Only 1 in 10 Cambodian graduates get work

I'm glad AFP did a story on the Cambodian education system. It is a complete joke, run for profit and not for education. I wish Cambodians would stop wasting their money on useless degrees. Having said that, a good friend of mine, Khim, gave me SGD2000 (about USD1333) and I am using that money to pay for Sina's education at the Human Resources University in Phnom Penh. Sina, who works with me at Bloom, is a star, an absolute gem and that is why when I found out he had enrolled in university to study English literature, I said I would help find funding for him.

I have a Cambodian friend who is studying at Build Bright University, a well-known--and expensive--one in Phnom Penh. She told me they cheat during exams, copying answers from books and from each other and the invigilators do not care. I questioned Sina about this and he said his uni does not allow cheating, which is a relief. I also know that USD40 gets you a pass in secondary school. Families think they are helping their son/daughter by paying for a pass but they are only harming them. Imagine if the kid pays to get to the next level and is ill-equipped for that--he/she will be stuck in a vicious circle of failing.

Expat friends who teach English at private schools tell me how disinterested students are and how demoralised they feel because as teachers, they are not making a difference, but go through the motions of pretending to impart knowledge. Teachers are also under pressure to keep grades up because parents want to see progress in their children's reports and school owners want to see enrollment rise, not fall.

Then there is the problem when students do get funding. Sina, for instance, fell asleep during one of his papers recently, to my dismay. When I asked him why, he said it was because he had to work during the day and stayed up all night studying, so he was just exhausted. How can I scold him for that? I know it is incredibly hard for young Cambodians like him who have to work and study at the same time. The problem is that there is a fee for each examination, so failing an exam means more expense, as you would have to sit for it again.

A good friend of mine (Australian) who raises money annually for boys who live and study at pagodas in Siem Reap told me how disappointed she was this year to find out many of the students take the money and do not study hard or even drop out. One boy decided to drop out to busk at the park here in Siem Reap! He gets about USD10 a day playing a traditional Khmer musical instrument for tourists. My friend had to return the money to some sponsors as she could not, in good conscience, pass on money that would not be used for what it was intended for.

Cambodian education is such a sham that some graduates earn only USD80 in their first jobs. Seriously, as an employer, I would never hire a Cambodian based on their paper qualifications. The only good thing I can think of about a Cambodian university education is that it may improve the student's grasp of English. In the case of Sina, I do think it is working. As an employer, I look for attitude--a willingness to learn and to work hard. Honesty also rates highly, as does initiative and problem solving skills.

Anyway, here is AFP's article:

Cambodia's higher education dreams confront reality
Oct 5, 2008
PHNOM PENH (AFP) — She has two years to go until graduation, but already Cambodian student Chhum Savorn is filled with a sense of dread.
The 21-year-old decided to major in finance, hoping she would acquire skills to help develop her country, which is one of the poorest in the world.
Instead, she thinks her education is nearly worthless -- classes are mostly packed with indifferent, cheating students and led by under-qualified professors.
"The low quality of my studies means that I can't help the country, and I'll even have a hard time getting a job that pays enough to help my family," she says.
A growing number of eager young Cambodians are finding themselves duped into a higher education system that suffers from weak management and teaching because it is geared more toward profit than learning.
As a result only one in ten recent graduates are finding work, a worrying figure in a country trying to rebuild after decades of civil war.
Cambodia's schools were obliterated under Khmer Rouge rule in the 1970s when the regime killed nearly two million people -- including most of the country's intellectuals -- as it emptied cities in its bid to forge a Communist utopia.
But as the country rebuilds and the economy grows, it is inundated with institutions peddling low-quality education.
In 2000, there were ten post-secondary institutions in Cambodia. Now there are 70 private and state-run universities.
Most programs offered by those institutions are dismal, says Mak Ngoy, deputy director general of higher education at the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports.
"We are not yet satisfied with the current quality of our education," Mak Ngoy says.
"I think increasing the number of higher education institutions is a positive sign, but we are struggling with the hard task of strengthening quality," he adds.
Qualified university professors complain that many students rarely do their work and cheating is rampant.
A number of students are content to pay for a degree and do not realise the benefit of a good education, says Lav Chhiv Eav, rector of Royal University of Phnom Penh, the oldest and largest state-owned college.
"Some students are scared of studying hard and think what they need is any degree, not quality. The final result will be joblessness," he says.
Most of Cambodia's universities are small-scale institutions with limited of capital, poor facilities and little discipline.
So far, the education ministry has ordered the closing of four institutions that called themselves universities, but gave little education to students.
Five years ago there was an attempt to fix Cambodia's higher education institutions, with the formation of a national university accreditation committee.
The committee was formed to force institutions to adhere to strict education requirements, but the World Bank pulled its funding for the scheme when it became clear the body would not be independent from government control.
With little official oversight, the quality of many Cambodian universities has worsened, while the number of Cambodians seeking a diploma has shot up.
More than 135,000 Cambodians are currently enrolled in some form of higher education, says the education ministry, compared to just 25,000 eight years ago.
But only one in 10 recent university graduates have found work, according to the Economic Institute of Cambodia, as the country remains mired in poverty despite the double-digit economic growth.
Ma Sopheap, officer at the Asian Development Bank, says Cambodia will have trouble luring foreign investment if it does not start producing more qualified graduates.
"If the low quality of higher education continues, it will affect Cambodia's economic development," he says. "Then there is no way to reduce poverty."


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