Saturday, September 30, 2006

Cement and Cement Bag houses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

My TukTuk Driver and Friend

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

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

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

BLOOM(ers) at work, haha!

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


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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Management Lesson #1

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

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

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

What are the rules?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Pchum Ben

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

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

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

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

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

New Singapore embassy

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Cambodia Calling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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