Sunday, November 30, 2008

The New Angkor Market

This is the New Angkor Market on National Road No. 6. It's near all the big hotels and has some souvenir shops in the front. Once you walk towards the back, it is just like any Cambodian market.
The first thing I noticed were the hammocks. These are very common in stalls in Cambodia, for the shopkeeper to sleep in. Sometimes they speak to you while still in the hammock, not bothering to get up to answer your questions. I guess it can be boring or tiring working in a shop all day, so the hammock is there to provide relief.
The buckets are filled with varieties of prahok or fermented fish paste. Sometime prahok is listed as Cambodian cheese in some restaurant menus, but don't be misled--it is nothing like cheese. I think at some point a Westerner must have compared its taste and odour to smelly cheese and that is how the name stuck.

A pig's head on display at the shop selling pork. I wonder why they do that--do people buy entire pig's heads?
And the second-hand clothes shop. Most Cambodians cannot afford new clothes, so they buy second-hand ones. Many of the clothes are actually donations, from Korea, Singapore, anywhere. I once met a Cambodian man who fished out a copper toned coin from his trouser pocket. It was a Singapore $1 coin! He had found the coin in the pocket of the trousers which he had bought at the market for USD2. I am sure the pair of trousers was a donation from Singapore.

When they arrive in Cambodia, however, it becomes a business. Wholesalers sell the donated clothes by the kilo, which end up at retail shops like this. They can cost anywhere from 1000 riels (25 US cents) to a few dollars an item. Sometimes you can find market stalls that sell clothes for as little as 400 riels (10 US cents) or less. The clothes here are all long-sleeved, because the weather in Cambodia now is cool. "We say it is winter in Cambodia," said my friend Sophon.

Recession Special: 50 cent beer!

My neighbour across the road is Viva mexican restaurant. They recently lowered their beer prices to USD0.50 a mug, with a sign announcing "Recession Special". Yay! These are the restaurants around the Old Market that are now offering 50 cent beers, in case you are interested.

1. Easy Speaking on Pub Street
2. Khmer Idea on Pub Street
3. Viva - both branches on Pub Street and next to Soho casino
4. Cambodian Soup Kitchen on Pub Street
5. India Gate restaurant on south end of Sivatha Boulevard

One restaurant owner told me business has been quiet with the lock-down of Bangkok's International Airport, which will remain closed until Monday, at least. I think the Thais are pretty amazing. I cannot imagine this happening in another country, where protestors get their way and the armed forces let them. The Thais may not have democracy, but they surely have freedom.


Cambodia's very own Ikea!

The Merlion in Cambodia

I was amazed to see The Merlion in Siem Reap. The Merlion is an imaginary creature with the head of a lion and the body of a fish. It is a symbol for Singapore (original name Singapura — meaning "lion city" in Sanskrit and Malay). It was designed as an emblem for the Singapore Tourism Board (STB ) in 1964. You can find out more about the Merlion here: Visit Singapore.

The Merlion outside Siem Reap's new Ree Hotel looks exactly like the one in Singapore. It even spouts water! A quick bit of Googling and I found out why...the four-star hotel is owned by Singapore's 3T Investment Holding Co Ltd, reports The Phnom Penh Post. It was formerly known as the Preah Khan Hotel and the Post reports that "At one stage the [4 year old, 140 room] hotel was advertised for sale for $US16.2 million, and an agent said this was due to 'financial difficulties'."

And this is what the original Merlion looks like, in its home at One Fullerton, by the Singapore River.
Photo from Wikipedia.

The Eucalyptus in Cambodia

While walking to pay the electricity bill along National Road number 6, I came across this eucalyptus tree. I recognise it from its smooth bark and remember seeing koalas eat the leaves when in Australia. I was surprised because I thought it was a cold-weather tree. I guess Cambodia's dry season is cool enough for the eucalyptus.

I did a bit of research and found that Cambodia has plantations of eucalyptus trees. In 2000, Cambodia's Phea Phimex Group and China's Chinese Farm Corporation Group agreed to plant eucalyptus trees for the purposes of making a paper plant on concession land amounting to 300,000 hectares in Kompong Chhnang and Pursat provinces in Western Cambodia, reports Chinese newspaper the People's Daily. The companies have the concession for 70 years.

World Rainforest Movement recorded villagers' protests and preference to retain control of their land instead of relying on one crop and one company for livelihood. The article, by Chris Lang, gives a good overview of decades long attempts to develop a pulp and paper industry in Cambodia.

Lang's blog notes in June this year, Thailand's Siam Cement Group told The Bangkok Post that the company had started planting eucalyptus on pilot areas in Laos and Cambodia. “We are looking to secure raw-material supplies in the long term after there is no more area for eucalyptus in Thailand,” Poramate Lamroogroj, managing director of Siam Forestry Co., said.

What happens to rubbish in Cambodia

This is how rubbish is typically disposed of in Cambodia--burning. The Cambodians are indiscriminate about burning rubbish, they burn anything and everything. You can see there are cans, plastic and plastic bags being burnt. I especially hate the smell of burning plastic. It's toxic and I always have to go indoors when the neighbours start their burning in the evenings. I am even seriously considering not eating the fruit and vegetables from our garden because all that burnt plastic etc goes into the soil which is absorbed by the plants. Imagine eating the poison!

The problem is that the garbage collection company charges a lot of money to dispose of garbage. They wanted USD20 a month from us foreigners and I was told locals are charged USD5 in our area. The garbage collection company in Siem Reap is called MICC.

In Phnom Penh, it is CINTRI, a private company owned by CINTEC of Canada. CINTRI has the deal to collect rubbish in Phnom Penh for 49 years, beginning in 2002. In addition, CINTRI has signed a deal with the electricity body of Cambodia, EDC, to collect its rubbish collection bills via EDC's collection network. This means your rubbish collection fee is tacked on to your electricity bill. So as long as you have electricity, you will be charged for rubbish collection as well--no hiding there. We were charged the foreigner rate of USD20 in an area where locals paid between USD1 to USD5. When I complained to the landlord, he went to CINTRI who then explained that it was "villa" rate we were paying. However, I know for a fact our neighbouring villa-dwellers who are Khmer paid only USD5.

Someone I know compared these garbage collection companies to the Mafia. In the entry on the mafia, Wikipedia notes: According to historian Paolo Pezzino: "The Mafia is a kind of organized crime being active not only in several illegal fields, but also tending to exercise sovereignty functions – normally belonging to public authorities – over a specific territory..." (my italics).

Fed up of foreigner prices, we decided to start a compost in Siem Reap, and all organic waste goes there. The rest, like juice cartons and paper, are recycled into wallets and other accessories which we sell at Bloom. Milk bottles and cans are sold or given to the independent rubbish collectors who drag their wheelbarrows around the village. The rest, like glass bottles, which the collectors won't accept, we put into public bins in town.

Cambodia's expensive electricity

We had a blackout at around 2am one day. We noticed it because the fan went off. We expected to get the electricity back soon, as unlike Phnom Penh, power cuts in Siem Reap rarely last more than half an hour. But we did not get power back even in the morning. At 8am, the landlord came round, telling us someone had stolen the cable to our house. The photo shows the power cables that provide electrical current to the houses in our neighbourhood. Any one of those could be ours!

Anyway, our poor landlord had to pay USD200 to replace the cable. He wasn't particularly fazed. Just said matter of factly the cable was stolen, as does happen in this country and off he went to buy new wire.

Electricity costs in Cambodia are among the highest in the world, and only about 15 percent of the country's 14 million people are connected to the power grid, according to the World Bank.

I found this report that noted in 2003, Cambodia's electricity costs was second only to Japan in the Asian region.

"The Philippines ranked fifth in terms of having the most expensive electricity in the Asian region at US cents 9.17 per kWh in 2003. Japan, as the most expensive, was followed by Cambodia, Hongkong and Vietnam."

Here in Siem Reap, we pay 820 riels or 20.5 US cents per kilowatt hour. Our monthly bill for a house with a small fridge, TV, computer, hot water heater and fans (we hardly ever use the air-con) is USD65. In Phnom Penh, we paid "foreigner rates" (about 10% higher) of 870 riels or 21.75 US cents per kwh. The good thing about Siem Reap is there does not seem to be a foreigner rate.

Cambodia's industrial electricity rates are also very high, and it is one of the reasons cited by companies who choose to invest in places other than Cambodia. This 2004 article reporting data collated by the Jakarta-based Asean Centre for Energy shows exactly how high Cambodian rates are vis-a-vis other ASEAN countries:

Cambodia - 12.58 to 15.72 US cents per kilowatt hour (kwh).
Myanmar - 8.14 US cents/kwh; set at fixed rate
Singapore - 4.16 to 6.69 US cents per kwh.
Philippines - 3.35 to 10.84 US cents per kwh;
Lao People’s Democratic Republic - 3.51 US cents per kwh; set at fixed rate
Thailand - 2.94 to 7.13 US cents per kwh
Brunei Darussalam - 2.88 to 11.54 US cents per kwh
Vietnam - 2.83 to 13.96 US cents per kwh
Malaysia - 2.63 to 10.52 per kwh.
Indonesia - 1.71 to 4.38 US cents per kwh

Rubbish bins in Cambodia

Sign by the river in Siem Reap cautioning against littering. Rubbish bins by the riverside. Home-made bin, made of bamboo. And made of wood. And my favourite, a bin made from recycled old tyres. I want one of them!

Thailand-one of the 20 world's most dangerous places?

Following the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the UK's Telegraph newspaper showed in photos "20 places which are among the most dangerous places to visit on Earth". The picture above is Thailand, image number 6 on the Telegraph's slideshow.

The Telegraph puts Thailand up with Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Palestine. This is their reasoning:

"Major political demonstrations and a temporary state of emergency have affected both of Bangkok’s airports. The area around Government House and nearby Ratchadamnoen “Nok” Road, including the area around Metropolitan Police headquarters and Parliament should be avoided. Fighting also broke out last month on the Cambodian border at Preah Vihear and tensions remain high. Civil unrest and frequent attacks continue in the southern provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and Songkhla – the Foreign Office advises against all but essential travel to these areas."

Hookworm in Cambodia

This is the Hookworm, so called because of its teeth, which hooks onto intestines, sucking out blood. Photo credit:

Hookworms are endemic in Cambodia with a prevalence 20 -30%, according to this 2007 report.

On the BBC this morning, I watched a program on hookworms and how they infect farmers and children, who go around barefoot, in small villages in Brazil. The worms enter through the skin and stunts physical and mental growth. It can also cause anemia, and for the farmers in Brazil, infection means they feel tired and will not be able to work on their farms.

I am sure the situation is similar in Cambodia, where children routinely walk barefoot, even in the cities. I always used to tell Sipha's youngest daughter to put on her shoes when she joined us at the market. She never listened and her mother too, was not bothered. At that time, I did not even think of hookworms, just of infections, should she have a cut and pick up something nasty from the disgusting grounds of the wet markets, strewn with rotting vegetables and meat.

The poor farmers and people like Sipha probably would not even know what hit them, when they do get hookworms. The farmers in Brazil call the illness caused by hookworms, "Big Yellow", presumably because they turn pale and sallow from the blood loss.

While hookworm infection is rarely fatal, anemia can be significant. This is why in Cambodia, there is a focus on treating women. Almost half of Cambodian women of reproductive age (47%) and more than half of pregnant Cambodian women (57%) are anemic, according to the study linked above.

"The consequences of anemia in pregnancy are serious, reducing a woman’s ability to survive bleeding during and after delivery (postpartum hemorrhage). Anemia may result in premature or lowerbirth weight babies with a higher risk of death and cause weakness, fatigue and reduced physical ability to work. The amount of blood lost is directly proportional to the number of worms infecting the host. A moderate infection of hookworms approximately doubles the iron losses of a child or menstruating woman."

Even though the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene reported a study on the low efficacy of Mebendazole against hookworms in Vietnam, in Cambodia, hookworm infection is treated, to some success, with Mebendazole:

"The prevalence of anemia decreased from 62% to 12% and from 57% to 26% in children 5 to 11 years of age in two rural primary schools in Kampot Province, Cambodia, after oral weekly supplementation with iron-folic acid tablets for 20 weeks and with vitamin A and mebendazole twice per year. In 12- to 15-year-old children, success was less marked. The prevalence of hookworm infestation did not change, but the number of eggs in the stool decreased drastically. The intervention had no significant influence on stunting and wasting. An integrated community approach including mass deworming, health education, and multi-micronutrient supplementation was very effective in reducing anemia in Cambodian schoolchildren and should be adopted on a larger scale." Abstract from here: Food Security and Nutrition Policy Support, German Technical Cooperation (GTZ)

One thing the authors failed to add was improved sanitation as part of the integrated approach to reducing anemia. As the BBC programme noted, doctors in Brazil are fighting an ongoing battle, so long as there are no proper toilets. Indeed, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, many people in Mississippi in the USA had hookworms because of the lack of proper sanitation facilities.

It should also be known that hookworms can also infect dogs, and while the canine variant rarely develop into adulthood in humans, you could get this from the lavae.

I was told by a healthcare person once that I should take de-worming tablets twice a year, so long as I am in Cambodia. Of course I forgot because worms aren't a big problem where I come from. But this morning, I popped two tablets of albendazole. I'm also going to buy the de-worming pills for the Bloom team and their children. I bought them some pills when I first arrived but they must need new ones now.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Santa display in Siem Reap

I was surprised to see this Santa display outside a shop near the center market. Christmas has come early to Siem Reap.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Angkor Photography Festival 2008

Yesterday my friend Deborah Groves, an Australian photographer based in Siem Reap, asked me to join her for the launch of the 4th Angkor Photography Festival.
The site of the event: the FCC--which had glasses of wine on offer for USD2.50. There was also a buffet meal but I did not check out how much it was. I did notice the Cambodian mothers with children hanging around, as the grounds of the FCC are not fenced.
People sat on mats watching the slideshow presentation of the photos. I spoke with a Dutch man who is with Foam, the Museum of Photography in Amsterdam. Actually, we got to talking because he was teaching me to switch off the flash on my camera in order to take clearer photos of the slides--I was amongst photographers after all! I asked if he came here specially for the festival but he said he was here already for a holiday. He assumed I was Khmer and said, "I think the next presentation should be by a Cambodian photographer". (There was some speech going on at that point in time).
The first photo shown on the slides. I left soon after as I did not "get" those photos at all. I asked Deborah what makes the photos special, and she said it is like art, some people will like it and some won't. Well, the photos I saw did not "speak" to me at all. But I was wondering if it had to do with the presentation- a slideshow where each photo was shown for what 5, or 10 seconds, displayed against a background of French music. Maybe I would have appreciated the photos better if they were hung up and I could take my time?

Will Siem Reap be 2000 feet above sea level?

Hahahahaha! This question occurred to me after seeing this today. The area on the right where all the sand is used to be a lake, where water buffalos would roam and soak. It is now piled full of mud. You can see the lorry bringing in more sand to dump on that bit of land. Houses here keep adding sand to elevate their land to avoid the floods and to build new buildings, as I explain here.

When will it stop, when Siem Reap is 2000 ft above sea level?

BBC: Rising food prices in Cambodia

I saw on BBC news this morning a segment on the rising food prices in Cambodia. The reporter followed a widow struggling to feed herself and her two young sons in Kampong Chhnang province. The report noted that rice has doubled in price from a year ago while fish and vegetables have risen 50%. The report said the Cambodian government would be giving handouts of rice. But obviously handouts are not sustainable.

I checked with a Cambodian I know who said rice used to cost 1200 riels a kg a year ago but now costs 2000 riels. She buys rice for 100,000 riels, or USD25, for 50 kgs of rice, which feeds her family (10 members) for a month. She confirmed that fish and veg have increased by 50%. (I am not in a position to judge prices because I have to buy my meat and veg from the Old Market here in Siem Reap, which is notoriously more expensive. This is because I do not have transport, and this is the most accessible market for me. Besides, I often get fleeced).

But prices have fallen from before the election, said this woman. Before the parliamentary elections in July this year, rice was 2500 riels a kg. The price of fish is also seasonal she said, depending on the supply. For instance, during the upcoming dry season, the price of fish will be higher. Fruit is currently more expensive, because of the fighting with Thailand, which supplies some of the fruit.

I could not find today's news segment online but the BBC also did a Special Report in October, called "Cost of Food: Global Roundup". The report pointed out that many farmers do not benefit from the higher prices of rice.

"The reasons are complex, and vary from country to country, but they underline a simple fact: whereas driving up the price of other smallholder agricultural commodities such as coffee or rubber often does enrich those who work the land, it rarely works that way in the case of rice.

"Many small rice farmers do not actually grow enough for their families to eat so they still have to buy rice at market prices. In Cambodia, for example, despite the government's pride in becoming one of the world's ten largest rice exporters, only a third of rice farmers produce any surplus they can sell - and one fifth of the population does not get enough to eat.

"This led to a bizarre situation where the government planned to sell 1.6m tonnes of locally grown rice on world markets this year, but was also forced to ask the Asian Development Bank for a $38m food security aid package for Cambodians who could not feed themselves."

Courier companies in Cambodia

As you know, Bloom sells bags all over the world, and we have to send our bags overseas frequently.

This is my experience with courier companies in Cambodia.

The first one I used was a big one, with the usual three letter name (why is it so many courier companies have three letter names?). Because it is so large and established, I almost accepted the quoted prices without question. I assumed that multinationals have standard rates and procedures.

But of course, having lived here long enough, I decided to ask for a discount. Incredibly, they said ok, and reduced prices by about 30% (!)

This delivery cost me over USD2000 and was delayed. First, it was Pchum Ben so Cambodian customs did not work, and customs said there was a backlog when they *did* return from their holiday. The boxes finally left Cambodia but took more than a week, instead of the three days I was promised, before my customer, Amnesty International, received the package. The explanation given was that the bags were held at customs at the other end.

Finally, 14 bags were missing when the customer counted the bags. I checked with the courier company which said they did an investigation and found no wrongdoing. They believed the mistake was on our part, that we had counted the bags wrongly.

The courier company only provides you with empty boxes, and you have to do all the packing yourself. In our case, this meant there were no witnesses as to how many bags were in the boxes. The result is that the company could disclaim responsibility, even though the package is supposed to be insured.

So, if you are sending packages overseas, make sure there is someone from the courier company who counts the items with you and signs off on the number of items in the packages.

Finally, when it came to paying the bill, I was asked to go to Phnom Penh to make the payment, even though there is a Siem Reap branch. When I asked why, I was told the Siem Reap branch is just a sales office, but all payment has to be made personally at the head office. I found it ridiculous.

After 2 weeks, when I did not go to Phnom Penh, an employee personally delivered the invoice to me at the Bloom shop here in Siem Reap, asking me to pay up--"urgent" was written on the invoice. And guess what? I would be able to pay in Siem Reap after all.

This employee then asked me if I would be doing a bank transfer, which he said would involve bank fees (not true if you transfer within the same bank, in our case, ANZ) or pay cash. When I told him I would deposit the cash into his company's bank account, he told me I could just pass him the cash, "more convenient for you", he said (yeah, rrrright). I bet he would have absconded with the money. My friends have had their driver disappear over $30.

Anyhow, because of the problems with courier company number one, I switched to a second, Cambodian run company which I had used previously with no problems. It too, has a three letter name.

This time, something happened when I was trying to pay the bill.

I went to the bank with the details provided by the employee of this courier company--the sales person in charge of the Bloom account, whom we shall call X. The ANZ bank teller told me X had given me a 6 digit number instead of an 8 digit one. Six digit numbers are for personal accounts and 8 digit ones for companies. So X had given me his personal bank details, expecting me to deposit the money into his personal bank account.

I called X up on his mobile and handed the phone over to the ANZ bank employee. The bank employee then asked X for his company's name and the company's bank account details, saying I had forgotten to bring the account information. He also asked X for the company's phone number.

He then called up the company and spoke with the boss who then proceeded to provide the company's bank account information. So I deposited the money into this account.

The bank employee told me such scams are very common and that is why the bank is alert to such things. If I simply filled in the deposit form without first explaining that it was payment to a company, the bank would have proceeded to process the deposit. Because I had used another company previously, I noticed the invoice provided by X on behalf this second company was very bare, lacking details such as the SWIFT code and bank account name, which is why I made sure I told the bank it was for a company, not for an individual.

You have to be on your guard all the time in Cambodia. Honestly, even with MNCs, you have to realise nothing is for certain and nothing is straightforward.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Superstitions and Mental Illness

Hok Lundy's family plans to buy the area where the helicopter crashed and killed the Cambodian police chief, reported the Phnom Penh Post. They are doing it to "guard his spirit".

The 90x80m vegetable plot in Svay Rieng province is owned by the mother of Keut Sophy, the chief monk of the nearby Svay Chek pagoda. The monk is asking a hefty USD150,000 for the "haunted" vegetable plot. Listen to this:

"At night I would dream about a dark magician from Svay Rieng town coming to use magic on my family's land," he said.

"One night I invited seven monks to bless the village, and then the next day Hok Lundy had his crash."

Locals believe the family will pay whatever the price because said one: "Khmer people believe that when someone dies, their spirit remains in that place."

The Khmers are a very superstitious people. Our former housekeeper Navy used to tell me our house is haunted. The basis for her belief? Our dog Austin whines when we leave the house. "But when I look outside, there is nothing there. Your dog sees ghosts and that is why he cries," she said to me in Khmer.

I tried to explain to her Austin--and only Austin, out of the five dogs we have--whines because he is attached to us because he is our first dog. He grew up with us as playmates, as his pack, since he didn't have any other dogs to play with. But of course Navy prefers her explanation.

The husband of one of the Bloom women killed their two sons, the water buffalo and then himself, all in one day. When you ask Khmers why, they say it's because he was possessed by an evil spirit.

A more scientific explanation is he was suffering from some mental illness--depression, schizophrenia, etc. But none of the Bloom women believes this.

At the Bloom cafe once, I met a very kind Cambodian man who lived for 30 years in Paris where he worked as a doctor. Now that he is almost 70, he has decided to return to Cambodia to help his people. He visits the countryside every weekend to meet with sick people and dispense medicine. He told me that many, many people in the countryside are mentally ill. They are depressed from the war (post-traumatic syndrome) and from the inability to make a living after the war. You have to remember that some of these people have suffered for years, through the Khmer Rouge, civil war, and continue to suffer even in times of peace as they struggle to feed their families.

I remember reading that doctors in California know of 150 Cambodian refugee women who went blind during the Khmer Rouge period. They were so overwhelmed with pain their minds just blocked out any more images, as reported by this New York Times article.

What compounds the problem is the absolute dearth of psychological help for the mentally ill. Where can the average Cambodian go for help if he or she is depressed? Turning to drink to cope is probably the most popular way. In Phnom Penh, young men who go to the city from the countryside in search of work, but who fail, turn to glue-sniffing to stave off hunger. Sometimes they die from starvation on the streets.

I remember seeing this naked Cambodian man who was standing on a road divider in Phnom Penh. He was stark naked, "a mad man", said the Cambodian friend I was with. He was so lost, yet there is no one to help people like him. When I moved to Siem Reap I used to see this man, perhaps in his 50s, filthy, with matted hair, roaming the Old Market Area. He disappeared about 6 months ago. I asked what happened to him and learned he was Thai and had been here for years. Then he vanished just like that. No one knew what happened to him or where he went, and no one cared.

Very, very sad.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Race and all that

In business, as in life, you meet all sorts of people. At the Bloom shop, the worst people I have encountered are the immigrants to Europe. These immigrants are just like the nouveau riche: arrogant, snobby and rude because of their new found status (wealth in the case of the nouveau riche). Yesterday one woman who looked ethnic Indian came into the shop, declaring she is from Sweden before proceeding to ask all sorts of questions about Bloom. In contrast, the white guy she was with, who is also from Sweden, was extremely polite and respectful.

I normally like questions from customers, because it means they are interested in what we are trying to do at Bloom. But questions for the sake of showing off their English or questions asked in a dismal attempt to show they know all about Cambodia, I have no patience for. Especially when it is clear these people have no intentions of purchasing anything. They're just bored, or want to give the Cambodians a hard time.

At the Bloom shop in Phnom Penh it was a Vietnamese woman, who was working in Singapore, who behaved in this rude, dismissive manner.

However, people like this are few and far between, which is why I remember every one of them. Far more common are the travellers who like what we are doing and buy our bags, who spread the word and join Bloom Bags Facebook Group. Incredibly, we have almost 300 members! It's quite an achievement when you compare Bloom Bags with other groups on Facebook that sell similar eco-bags. I am so encouraged to know there are many, many people out there who care about other people and the environment and want to show their support for our cause.

Just a couple of days ago, I met a lovely customer who was born in France to North African and Indian parents. We got along so well, we've become firm friends and meet almost everyday. She is absolutely beautiful but she told me about the racism she faces all the time. She has an Irish husband and a gorgeous young son. (People of mixed races are much better looking, in my opinion, probably because they are born from a wider gene pool. In Singapore, Eurasians--persons of European and Asian descent--often get jobs on TV and a friend of mine who studied media studies grumbled at the opportunities offered to Eurasians because of their outstanding looks.)

As an Asian with a white partner, I could commiserate. Everywhere we went on holiday, everyone always assumed I was the leech, sucking up a white man's money. Things were so bad in Bali, I wanted to print a T-shirt that said "I'M THE ONE WITH THE MONEY." My corporate job paid more than Alan's one in academia, so I paid for all our holidays.

And every time we were out, the waiter would speak only to Alan, assuming I cannot speak English. When the bill arrives, they'd go to him. And even after *I've* paid, they'd go to Alan to return the change. Incredible. I am the invisible woman.

Except when I am with a white person who complains about bad service. Then it is me they take it out on. Once, I was with a Finnish friend at Saem restaurant (it's now closed) by the riverside in Phnom Penh. We both ordered the same drink, a mango shake, but my friend insisted it tasted bad. The milk was off, she said and told the waitress she would not pay for the drink and asked to exchange it for a cup of tea. The Khmer waitress pulled a long face. Many Khmer service staff can be quite rude to customers, showing their temper when you complain. I have so many stories from customers, I am actually thinking of starting a blog reviewing restaurants in Cambodia.

Later the waitress said to me, in English, "Why you don't want to pay". Flabbergasted, I said what do you mean, it's not me, it's my friend who said that. Why are you asking me, not her? Indeed I had been quietly sipping away at my mango shake without complaint (perhaps it is because I have more plebian tastes, so it takes a lot to make me complain about food).

I was so angry, I told the Khmer woman: "You are so stupid, because of one lousy fruit shake you make your customers unhappy. I come here all the time and take all my friends here," I added. It's true, I used to take all my friends to that restaurant. "I will never come here again!"

The thing is, and this is what was pointed out by the French woman I mentioned earlier, when you are rude, or throw your weight around, these people back down. They behave exactly like bullies, who pick on people they perceive to be weaker. In my case they think "small Asian woman versus big Westerner" or "less rich Southeast Asian (I think the Japanese, and maybe Koreans, Cambodia being overrun with rich Koreans, get more respect) versus richer Westerner". And bullies will back down when you stand up to them.

Another friend, a Western woman, agreed. She told me about a policeman here in Siem Reap who confiscated the books from two street kids who sell books. To get the books back, the kids will have to pay the policeman. My tuktuk driver in Phnom Penh had his seat confiscated for the same reason and had to pay USD5 to get it back. Anyway, my friend was having none of it and told the policeman she had paid for the books, so legally they are hers and if he does not bring them back in half an hour, she would call her lawyer and file a report with the tourist police. He backed off.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Today is World Toilet Day

A toilet-shaped house in Suweon, named "Haewoojae" which means in Korean “a place of sanctuary where one can solve one’s worries“. Photo from

The Phnom Penh Post reported on Monday that poor sanitation costs up to 10,000 lives a year in Cambodia.

"Economic Impacts of Sanitation in Cambodia 2008", said that in 2005, only 22 percent of Cambodians had access to a latrine, and there were still "more than 11 million Cambodians living with an unimproved latrine or with no latrine at all". The problem is most pronounced in rural Cambodia, where 84 percent of the population lives, but only 16 percent of those can access adequate sanitation.

Yesterday, a Time article "Toilet Tales: Inside the World of Waste" reviewed a fantastic book written by British journalist, Rose George, entitled The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters:

"Toilets are a privilege that nearly half the world lacks. At least 2.6 billion people around the planet have no access to a toilet...not a public toilet, not an outhouse, not even a bucket. They defecate in public, contaminating food and drinking water, and the disease toll due to unsanitized human waste is staggering. George notes that 80% of the world's illnesses are caused by fecal matter: A single gram of feces can contain 10 million viruses, 1 million bacteria, 1,000 parasitic cysts and 100 worm eggs. The consequence is often diarrhea, which is a mere irritation in the West, but in the developing world a lethal condition that kills 2.2 million people a year — more than AIDS, tuberculosis or malaria."

George argues for sanitation to be put at the top of the agenda for global development, because untreated sewage often ends up poisoning the clean water in developed countries. In India, "untouchables" (Indians from a low caste) like one woman named Champaben who can only find work cleaning the country's dry, filthy latrines, regularly contract dysentery, giardiasis and brain fever from her exposure to human waste.

There are things we can do with human waste. Biogas, energy created from the fermentation of human waste, can be used as fuel for electricity and cooking fires and Toto of Japan, the maker of the world's most advanced toilets, even uses human waste as a marker of health--their toilets can check your blood pressure at the same time!

And this is Singaporean Jack Sim, a retired entrepreneur and one man dynamo who founded the WTO (World Toilet Organization) in 2001.

I remember how people laughed at him when it was reported that Sim had a personal mission to ensure the cleanliness of Singapore’s public toilets when he started the Restroom Association of Singapore in 1998.

Today, the WTO is a network of 151 organizations in 53 countries. In 2005, Sim worked in association with Singapore Polytechnic to found the world’s first ever toilet college to train people in toilet design, maintenance, cleaning, and eco-friendly sanitation technologies.

WTO declared Nov 19--today--"World Toilet Day" to highlight the desperate need of the 2.6 billion people in the world who need access to latrines.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Cambodia's poor quality rice

The Phnom Penh Post on Friday reported on how the poor quality of Cambodian rice was hurting exports.

"Chan Tong Yves, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, said poor rice cultivation techniques, rural poverty and outdated post-harvest technology makes Cambodian rice poor in quality compared with other nations.

"Foreign markets depend on phytosanitary (SPS) certification to prove that export products are free of disease or harmful chemicals. We have not been able to control SPS quality to conform to international standards," he said."

I have always thought Cambodian rice could not compare with Thai rice that we used to eat in Singapore. I was amazed when a Singaporean woman who had lived in Cambodia for a few years insisted on buying Cambodian rice to bring home.

The problem I have had with Cambodian rice, even the expensive variety, is that it becomes stodge when you cook it. It's starchy; not light and fluffy.

My mother told me there is difference in "Old Rice" and "New Rice". I have no idea what she means and I've also forgotten which one I was to look out for. But me, the "Google Queen", found this report by experts from the Department of Grain Science and Technology, Central Food Technological Research Institute, Mysore, India.

"Rice from freshly harvested paddy cooks rather pasty, loses more solids in excess cooking water and swells less, as compared to aged/old rice. Steaming (or curing) process for fresh paddy was developed to hasten aging process. Old rice is normally priced 25-30% higher than the new or steamed rice. Accidental or intentional mixing of new rice with old rice affects cooking quality. Hence, a series of tests were developed that could easily differentiate the extent of their admixture for quality control purposes."

The scientists went on to describe the rice tests, which they are "useful for quality control in trading rice."

Back to Cambodia. "Our rice quality is based on two classifications: simple rice and polished rice," Mao Thora, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Commerce, told the Phnom Penh Post, before adding that simple rice was suitable for export to Africa. (Only Senegal so far has agreed to buy rice from Cambodia).

Polished rice is rice with husks completely removed and I guess simple rice, the one suitable for Africans, is rice with some of the husk removed.

I am no rice expert, but I wonder if rice is treated the same way as fruit in this country. I mentioned in another post how fruit is eaten before it has a chance to ripen because I believe it is a hangover habit from the war, where you'd eat anything you can get your hands on, and if you wait for fruit to ripen, you'd never see it again.

Perhaps Khmers are still so hungry, or have a hangover habit, that they don't wait for the rice to age, leaving us with only New Rice, not Old Rice?

Siem Reap Airways banned in Europe

The European Commission has banned Siem Reap Airways International from airports in Europe, citing the carrier's lack of safety standards, reports the Phnom Penh Post .

This was the bit that really scared me:

"The EU announcement acknowledged that Siem Reap Airways did not provide service to European countries but stated that the carrier "does not operate in compliance" with Cambodian safety regulations."

The airline does not even operate in compliance with Cambodian safety standards, never mind European ones!

This reminds me of the time I joined my friend Pauline on a boat trip from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap and they how kept piling people on to the boat, even though all the seats were filled. Fortunately the only bad thing that happened to us was that we lost our seats and had to sit on the deck for 6 hours.

Siem Reap Airways International is a subsidiary of Bangkok Airways International.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Steung Meanchey

I accompanied a friend a while back to the Steung Meanchey local police station (called "sangkat" in Khmer), where she was applying for her ID card. The police station was packed with people that weekday morning. To speed things along, my friend paid a bribe. On the spot the local policemen expedited the processing of her case.
I also saw these two boys squatting next to a strange-looking thing, which my friend told me is a musical instrument. The boys were waiting for their ride and my friend urged me to give them money, which I did, because I felt embarrassed.

Steung Meanchey is infamous for the only rubbish dump in Phnom Penh. It is a terrible, terrible place and you can find out more about the people living there from Canadians helping Cambodian youth. If you are really interested, you can google "Steung Meanchey" and you'll find photos of hell on earth. I will not link to any, because I get angry at photographers who see the dump as a photo opportunity, but do nothing once they've taken their "human interest" shots and leave the dump.

But there are good people helping the community at Steung Meanchey Dump, such as Nuon Phymean, who was chosen as a candidate for CNN's Hero 2008. You can vote for her here and visit her organisation here. Photo of Nuon Phymean from

Copper in Cambodia

It seems copper has bacterial and fungus-fighting properties. Companies in Chile, the world's largest copper producer, are experimenting with new products that take advantage of these properties, products like copper socks, towels and poles for public transport systems.

"One Chilean entrepreneur, Joaquin Ruiz, has invented copper sponge filters to be used to purify water used on salmon farms to eliminate disease and fungi, and reduce the use of large amounts of costly antibiotics currently employed to do the same job.

"That means huge savings. Instead of using large quantities of antibiotics and germ killing agents, with this you are just putting up a simple sanitary barrier," Ruiz, the developer of the Metal Foam sponges, told Reuters."

It would be great if Cambodia could do the same to purify water here. I don't know what the costs are like but it is financially viable if used to kill Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a bacterium which occurs in HIV patients, including in HIV-affected children in Cambodia

"If you prevent one MRSA infection, you save $21,000, so your return on investment will be very very short, perhaps one patient," Michael Schmidt, of the University of South Carolina medical school to Reuters. "So this is going to be a fairly efficient and inexpensive solution to combat infections."

I wondered if this could be a new industry for Cambodia, so I googled Copper and Cambodia. I found this : "In addition to natural gas and petroleum, Cambodia has geologic environments that have the potential to host resources of bauxite, copper, gold, granite, kaolin, limestone, pagodite, peat, sand and gravel, silica sand, slate, tin, and zinc (World Investment News, 2004).

An Australian company, Oz Minerals, is already digging for the mineral.

"Oz Minerals is currently earning 80% in the Shin Ha joint venture with a local Cambodia company.

Within the Shin Ha JV, early stage drilling, surface sampling and geophysics at the Okvau-Oput area in north-east Cambodia, has identified a promising trend of gold mineralisation. Further drilling to delineate the size potential of this discovery is planned for early in 2008. Other gold areas in Cambodia, including Phnom Chi, 100km west of Okvau, are also being explored, along with an area prospective for copper."

Copper was also found in the Kampong Thom area, according to .

Massages and Money

More fascinating stuff about the Moral Molecule, also relevant to Cambodia--land of USD5 an hour massages. [Personally, I like Blue7 here in Siem Reap, where competition has driven the prices down to USD4 an hour. In Phnom Penh, Kerri and I go to Dai Prom Shop, near the Russian Market, for USD3 (!) an hour for a traditional Khmer massage where you get twisted like a pretzel).

Anyway, back to our story. Our neuroeconomist hero Paul J. Zak now wants to test if getting a massage makes people more likely to sacrifice money to help another person and if so, why?

Previous research by his team found that "monetary transfers denoting trust" caused the brain to release oxytocin. Zak's lab even showed "a positive relationship between the amount of oxytocin released and the amount people choose to return to the person who trusted them-even though they were under no obligation to do so."

With the massage, THOMAS (The Human Oxytocin Mediated Attachment System) was on steroids. "Those who were massaged and trusted sacrificed 243% more money to the person who trusted them compared to those who were trusted but not massaged. And the change in blood levels of oxytocin strongly predicted this behavior."

The experiment also found women to be more affected by touch: they had larger changes in oxytocin and sacrificed more money to those who trusted them.

So, if you are the owner of a massage centre in Cambodia, you may want to add a tip box or even a charity donation box (on second thoughts, scratch the latter, this being SCAMbodia!). And of course, you'd want to target the more susceptible women customers.

You can find details of Zak's fascinating experiments here.

How cons work

I found this article on a Psychology Today blog relevant in the context of the orphanage and NGO scams here in Cambodia. (See Orphanages for non-orphans and Volunteer scams in Cambodia on this blog).

Paul J. Zak is a neuroeconomist and director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, CA, who writes a blog on the Moral Molecule--his lab in 2004 discovered a measurable and manipulable brain chemical called oxytocin that drives moral behaviour. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker calls the desire to help others, or avoid hurting them, our moral instinct. It is how we can live and work together, cooperating with complete strangers.

On his blog, Zak explains how he fell for a con when he was in high school. It all boils down to "THOMAS", The Human Oxytocin Mediated Attachment System.

He explains: "THOMAS is a powerful brain circuit that releases the neurochemical oxytocin when we are trusted and induces a desire to reciprocate the trust we have been shown--even with strangers.

The key to a con is not that you trust the conman, but that he shows he trusts you. Conmen ply their trade by appearing fragile or needing help, by seeming vulnerable. Because of THOMAS, the human brain makes us feel good when we help others--this is the basis for attachment to family and friends and cooperation with strangers. "I need your help" is a potent stimulus for action."

Interestingly, Zak's lab has a term for these con-people: Bastards. Exactly the name I called them in this post: The dangers of volunteering in Cambodia. There really is no other word for these people, whom Zak likens to sociopaths.

So if you have been conned while volunteering in Cambodia, don't beat yourself over it. You were just acting on a natural stimulus. And Zak says only 2 per cent of people are bastards (why does it seem higher in SCambodia??).

He concludes: "THOMAS causes us to empathize with others, the key to building social relationships. Russian playwright Anton Chekov said 'You must trust and believe in people or life becomes impossible.' I'd say that's about right-just watch for the occasional con."

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Palm Juice and Palm wine

At the cooking class I wrote about, Joannes, the executive chef at the Hotel de la Paix told us Palm is the national plant of Cambodia. Indeed, Wikipedia's entry on the tree lists Cambodian Palm as one of its names. The photo, from Wikipedia, shows the palm fruit trees around Angkor Wat.

Every part of the palm can be used (just like the coconut, as I was taught as a child in Singapore). The fruit can be eaten, the juice drunk, and the leaves converted into mats , baskets, writing material etc. The trunk makes good construction material and the young plants can be eaten.
This is the palm juice. It was sold by a man on a bicycle we encountered on a drive out of Phnom Penh. I saw this man buying the drink which was poured into some wooden cup. I didn't want the wooden cup so I gave him a mineral water bottle.
The juice is very sweet. In fact Cambodians make wine from the fruit, which I find also too sweet for my liking. There is also beer made from palm juice.
Here is an interesting article about palm wine's potential income for Cambodia which notes that the country's largest palm wine producer, Confirel, expects to earn US$500,000 this year, up from $250,000 in 2007. Last year, the company exported between 4,000 and 5,000 bottles of wine to the European Union. There roughly three million palm trees in Cambodia and 300 families in five communities in Kampong Speu and Kandal provinces supply the palm juice, said a Confirel executive. The company would like the Cambodian government to promote the drink. But palm wine is not a priority for the Cambodian government. "Palm wine is not a product we are encouraging for export because it is a small industry.... We are helping to upgrade the quality of palm sugar," Mao Thora, undersecretary of state at the Commerce Ministry, told the Phnom Penh Post.

The amazing cyclo drivers!

These are photos of the cyclo driver who brought the cane furniture I had bought for the cafe in Phnom Penh (a cyclo is like a trishaw, except the seat is in front and not on the side of the cyclist). I was just fascinated at how Cambodians are able to pile everything onto cyclos and motobikes and bicycles. Just today, a man walked with his bicycle, which was loaded with 3 super-single mattresses and a whole lot of pillows and bolsters. You can see the cane table and chair and even a rack piled onto his cyclo. Amazing.

Giant Street Puppets

I took these photos on the first day of the Water Festival in Siem Reap. These giant puppets, one male and one female, are carried through the streets, accompanied by musicians and a lot of people dressed in their finest, some carrying giant umbrellas and food baskets. My Cambodian friend tells me this bon (festival) is for donations, usually for a temple.

Our house in Phnom Penh

I found these pictures today which brought back memories. This is the beautiful house we rented in Phnom Penh when we first moved to Cambodia. It's on St330, near the Tuol Sleng genocide Museum. It's a 3 and a half storey semi-detached house with a beautiful garden, with grass. Most houses in Phnom Penh have concrete driveways. In that regard they are like Singapore houses, because people cannot be bothered, or don't have the time, to do gardening. Everyone thought we paid more than what we actually did--the Korean man who rented the house just before us dropped by one day and was upset to find out we had paid less than he did! We got it for less than what it would have gone for because we paid 6 months in advance. Also, the landlady was such a lovely lady, she gave me a hug the first time we met. I guess she liked the fact I was here to help Cambodian women.
The house was so beautiful, all my friends asked me to open a cafe, which I did! My mother said, "You can't cook, you can't sew, what are you doing opening a cafe and a bag shop?!" Bloom cafe only existed for less than a year, however, as Alan and I decided to move to Siem Reap, for a quieter life. We handed it over and sold all the furniture and kitchenware--including a new, huge fridge that I miss now that ours is tiny--to a group of Singaporeans from Singapore Airlines, who have turned it into a guesthouse/cafe. I was happy to hear Changiville (that's the name) is doing well. It's a beautiful house, and one of the bathrooms is marble! But the beautiful bouganvillea is gone :(
My idea of moving the living room outdoors! So I moved the cane sofa furniture that came with the house in the garden, which was really pretty. Changiville's decor is a bit different now, with small tables--guess not everyone thinks an outdoors living room is a bright idea (imagine moving the furniture every time it rained!) This last pic is the patio, with a small fish pond. We had guppies, goldfish and suckers that my dad bought at a tropical fish shop near the Russian Market.At one time, we combined the workshop with the cafe, so the women were sewing in a room in the downstairs so customers could actually see them at work. Later, the Bloom sewers and Riverkids shared a nearby house, and a few of the older Riverkids girls learnt to sew with the Bloom women. That was a nice set-up. I do miss those days when there were young women and children around. Our dogs Austin and Nessie miss them too because they would spend the day at the workshop and come home at 5pm. Just like day care.


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