Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Day and Night in Cambodia

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 06, 2006

Water Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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