Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Sexual exploitation in Cambodia

Navy (pronounced Na-wee) our housekeeper told me the other day when she was working at a massage shop on Pub Street, she was propositioned by a Korean man, who asked her to be his girlfriend. Navy is very pretty and slim. She is married with two young children. She said the guy was "jah", Khmer for "old" (in his 40s, but then Navy is only 26).

This man would come to the massage shop and tip her USD10 or USD20 each time. He asked his friend to translate his desire for her to be his girlfriend. He would pay her USD100 a month and buy her everything she wants, he said. When he returned from a visit to Korea, he bought her makeup.

This is the reality for many Khmer young women -- there are men who come to Cambodia to pick up girlfriends, to exploit the poverty here. And one should note that it is not just foreign men, nor, as Navy's example shows, just Western men. Cambodian men are among the worst exploiters. Rape is very common and often by policemen, gang members or customers. When they do pay for sex, Khmer men pay between USD3-5 here in Siem Reap (it's cheaper in Phnom Penh). No wonder prostitutes prefer to sleep with rich foreign customers, some who pay up to USD100 a night.

Navy asked me a strange question: Do you have to sleep with foreign men when they ask you to be their girlfriends? Duh...! Apparently, it is not the case when Khmer men ask for a girlfriend. She says it could be just for company, like an escort, which I find hard to believe.

Navy says she told this man she was married with two kids, but that didn't bother him. I asked her, what did your husband say? She said her husband is afraid of her, which I took to mean, it would be her choice, however she wanted to respond to the situation. Fortunately, she says, she "cheh kert" (know how to think) and will not "louk kloon" (sell oneself), even though she is poor. We got to talking about these "srei ko-ick" (bad girls) and Navy says they think they are the clever ones, because they do not have to work hard or for a long time, in order to save money to buy a house or start a business. But this is hardly the norm. Far more common for Cambodian prostitutes is the situation described below:

My hometown is in Kampong Cham Province.I never went to school, because I grew up when the country was in the middle of the war (Pol Pot).All schools were destroyed and teachers were killed.I had been living with a man as husband and wife without marriage for 4 years.I have two children.All the children are living with me.I don’t have money to rent a house.Every day I sleep on the street and in the parks.I came to Phnom Penh in 1999 and started sex work in 2000.I get a better income from sex work than from begging on the streets or at the markets.I don’t have money to pay for a house rental fee.Every day I
work in the parks and streets and stay under the tree.When it is raining,I stay in front of the shop.All the children are with me.They go out to beg.Sometimes they come back to me with some money or food they got from the restaurant.We live like dogs. FILENO. 0740454, 4 MAY 2004

It is from this study:

It is a very depressing subject for me, and I'd like to leave it as that. You can find out more about this part of life by Googling the topic. For readers interested to do something about the situation in Cambodia, you can join us at Riverkids . I am a trustee of this locally-registered NGO that focuses on prevention of sex trafficking. The children helped by RK are all at high-risk of being sold for sex. We had one case where a cross-eyed girl had her eyesight fixed by an NGO that RK contacted. The now normal-looking girl was promptly sold to Sihanoukville by her sister-in-law for USD400. She was 14.

The work is incredibly hard, and needs the cooperation of the families, the community and the officials. Although RK does not win them all, the team never stops trying. RK's country director is Phy Sophon, who used to work for another famous anti-trafficking outfit, AFESIP.

Let a Hundred Handbags Bloom

This blog entry was written by my friend John Weeks, an artist and editor based in Phnom Penh. His entry is full of pictures of the Bloom shop in Siem Reap and was picked up by Cambodia News on (You can search under "news") -- which surprised both John and I! I thought Bloom was such a small outfit, it wouldn't get noticed, so that really made my day. PS: John has the distinction of having Cambodia's oldest running blog. Check out the entry on Bloom here.

Visiting Siem Reap gave me a chance to catch up with Diana Saw of Bloom, who’s recently relocated from Phnom Penh. There are plenty of craft shops jostling for position in Cambodia, but only one chronicles the ups and downs of its work on a regular basis.

These bags are made from really tough plastic used for transporting all kinds of goods. Instead of ending up in a landfill, they’re a durable and unique souvenirs.

You can find more traditional styles and patterns made of silk…

And other goodies as well.

It seems at times that the environment in Cambodia is geared for big business, not small players, so it’s nice to see someone giving it their all. Great to catch up and talk about blog stuff, business ideas and the changes in Siem Reap.

If you’re in Siem Reap, give it a look for yourself on ‘Pub Street’.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Interview with

Singapore’s Social Entrepreneur Diana Saw makes things BLOOM in Cambodia
Posted by GingerFebruary 21, 2008

[Please visit the URL above to see pic]
The picture shows Diana Saw (on the far front left) working with the Bloom team in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. They are adding sequins to some of the bags which they will sell at the Bloom Shop. Read on to find out how you can help not by donating, but by being a discerning consumer.

(1) You started Bloom in September 2006, how long was that after your Cambodia holiday which shocked you into action?

The decision was swift as it was simple: move to Cambodia to provide jobs for poor women. I first visited Phnom Penh in April 2006 and was back the next month to look for a house. My partner and I relocated to PP the following month, in June. Not knowing anyone or anything about business in Cambodia, it took me three months before I started Bloom.

(2) What in particular did you see that made you want to do something? (We’re wondering if you’ve gone to other 3rd world Asian countries and seen similar? If yes, what was different about Cambodia?)

My first visit to Cambodia was with Dale Edmonds, who runs Riverkids Project, an anti-child trafficking NGO. I accompanied Dale as she successfully intervened in a attempted sale of a baby by her mother. I felt pity for the impoverished mother who was subsequently jailed. So where RK helps children, a laudable job in itself, I decided I would help poor women–may they never know such desperation.

(3) How did you start the BLOOM social enterprise? Did you have a local partner? Was there a lot of red-tape? What were the toughest challenges?

I approached the job placement arm of an NGO in Phnom Penh (PP). There are many NGOs who train poor Cambodians, but what this country needs is jobs. You can train people all you like, but if no one employs them, you’ll have frustrated skilled people who are unable to use their skills. Or you may end up with a situation like the Philippines, where university graduates have to become domestic helpers in foreign countries.

I didn’t have a local partner. It is easy for foreigners to start a business in Cambodia–hardly any red tape. Just pay USD260 a year for a business visa. Then you have to apply for a business licence and pay various taxes. People can worry or complain about the corruption in Cambodia, but it is no more than a nuisance.

1. language
2. cultural misunderstandings
3. lack of infrastructure (internet is hugely expensive and the post and telephone networks,
4. lack of proper healthcare
5. for a social enterprise operating in Cambodia, the challenge is taking on the many NGOs (who get donations) on the one hand, and capitalist (profit-obsessed, so with lower costs) businesses on the other.

(3) Apart from hiring and training locals, have you considered setting up cooperatives/micro-financing like those done by Muhummad Yunus in Bangladesh?

Bloom has a savings plan for staff. Every month staff are encouraged to put away a percentage of their income which goes towards buying a sewing machine. Bloom will then subsidize the cost of the machine. With the machine, workers will be able to become small business owners, supplying bags not only to Bloom, but to other sellers, like small shops in the tourist markets.

(4) Have you considered selling your designer bags in Singapore or via online? Would Phnom Penh have the postal facilities for this?

My friends are really sweet, organising Tupperware type parties for Bloom bags. You can also buy them from, and all profits Dale makes goes towards RK. The biggest hindrance to our growth is the high courier charges from Cambodia. (USD14 a kg to Singapore for a parcel below 10kg). Having said that, we do have customers who buy bulk, in SG, US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and France, who find it worthwhile to pay for courier charges.

(5) Many schools in Singapore are moving towards CIP (Community Involvement Projects) themed overseas trips instead of the usual tours. Is there any area they can help you in? (Off the top of my head, they can help you a lot with publicity about the café and your bags and possibly sell some of the merchandise back here in Singapore)

I think those are good ways to help, but the main thing is to spread awareness about workers’ rights and what it means to be an ethical, or intelligent, consumer. Young people should not simply purchase things but give a thought as to where those things come from and who made them and how were the workers treated when they made them. I really doubt anyone wants to be an accomplice in the exploitation of workers. At garment factories in Cambodia, for instance, workers are paid a minimum wage of USD50 a month, for a 48 hour work week. How much did you pay for your branded T-shirt that says “Made in Cambodia” on its label? How much did the teenage girls who made the shirt get paid?

If you want to follow how Diana & BLOOM are doing, she blogs about how things are progressing here:
If you’re in Cambodia, visit the:
BLOOM Workshop at No. 29B, St. 163.
BLOOM shops at #808, Russian Market, Phnom Penh and on Pub Street,
Siem Reap (above KHMER PLACE and beside GOODYSAURUS restaurants).

Interview with

I'm rubbish at marketing myself on this blog, so I've decided to post the published interviews and stories on Bloom, starting with this one, which was published almost a year ago!

Singaporean expat Diana runs a social enterprise while living in Cambodia

Posted May 10th, 2007 by adminCambodia

Diana and her partner did not move from Singapore to Cambodia to earn money for themselves, but to help the locals by employing them. Living in the city of Phnom Penh, they've found like-minded foreigners who want to create better living conditions for the Khmers. Diana discusses her projects and several aspects of her expat life in this part of Southeast Asia.

-Where were you born?

-In which country and city are you living now?
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

-Are you living alone or with your family?
With my partner

-How long have you been living in Cambodia?
Since June 2006

-What is your age?

-When did you come up with the idea of living in Cambodia?
I decided to live in Cambodia after my first visit in April 2006. Shocked by the poverty, I planned to return to Cambodia to start a social enterprise, firstly to provide jobs for poor people but ultimately to turn a successful business over to Cambodians. Bloom Cafe and Bag's profits go to staff and back to the business allowing us to train more people.

-Was it hard to get a visa or a working permit?

No, it's easy to apply for a business visa. Cost me USD260 for a year.

-Was it difficult for you to get medical insurance before you went there or when you first arrived?

No it was easy. I bought insurance in Singapore, before I went to Cambodia. I contracted dengue within four months of arriving here so that came in handy.

-How do you make your living in Cambodia? Do you have any type of income generated?
I don’t earn a salary here. My partner and I did not come to Cambodia to make money, but to provide jobs for Khmers. We plonked in our savings into the two social enterprises and only hope to get back our capital at the end of the day. The income is supposed to come from the businesses, Bloom Bags and Bloom Café. But as they are new, we are not profitable yet.

-Do you speak Khmer and do you think it's important to speak the local language?
Yes, I speak Khmer. I bought a book when I arrived and made an effort to self-study every night. It was important for me to learn as none of the workers at Bloom Bags speaks English.

I think it is extremely important to learn the local language and customs if you want to feel part of the local society. I do not understand expats who live in a foreign land and expect the locals to accept them when they don’t even make an effort. If you want to make friends with locals, speaking the language definitely endears you—I sometimes get discounts at the market! If you agree language describes the world we live in, then speaking the local language will help you understand the local mindset and culture a lot more.

-Do you miss home and family sometimes?
Yes, I do miss home and family and friends. I am lucky to have my partner here with me. My two Cambodian puppies also keep me entertained. For fun, I volunteer at Riverkids Project ( and take walks along the riverside.

-Do you have other plans for the future?
My plans are to hand over the businesses to Bloom’s Cambodians workers once we are profitable and to have a good rest.

-What about housing, have you bought, or are you renting a home? How much do you pay for it?
I’ve rented a house near Toul Sleng Museum for Bloom Café and for Bloom Bags, I share with Riverkids Project, as Bloom’s trainer also provides vocational training to teenagers at risk of being trafficked.

-What is the cost of living in Cambodia?
You can live very cheaply in Phnom Penh and also very well. You can get a small apartment for USD150. Food is cheap and you can buy a second-hand motorbike for USD500. A couple will get on by fine on USD1000 a month. On the other hand you can live like a king in your villa and travel in your Hummer.

-What do you think about the Cambodians?
Khmers are very friendly and enjoy talking to foreigners. Many of them speak English. Westerners often talk about getting the “Rock Star treatment” just because of the way they look. Khmers just love foreigners. A cynic would say it is our money they love, but I disagree.

-What are the positive and negative aspects of living in Cambodia?
People are very friendly and helpful. That for me is the best thing about living here. Also, meeting like-minded expats. Many expats are here to help Khmers, so it’s great to learn from them and to know there are many people who care about making a difference.

-Do you have any tips for our readers about living in Cambodia?
Not really. I’m relatively new here and probably need tips from other expats in Cambodia instead!

-Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs about Cambodia?
You can find out more about Bloom, Riverkids, and Cambodia on my blog, Cambodia Calling.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Thank you, Ian and Gene!

Bloom customers Ian and Gene who live in Malaysia, dropped by the Bloom shop in Siem Reap and sent me this really sweet email, which I've asked permission to put up on my blog.

Hi Diana

My girlfriend and I were in Siem Reap over Xmas and went to your lovely Bloom shop. We purchased a couple of trendy bags and a beautiful scarf. The shop assistant (Chin nee?) was very pleasant, I was very impressed with his English, he seems to be making a real effort to study.

Congratulations to you Diana for setting up Bloom and working so hard to make a difference to peoples lives in Cambodia. I'm sure things have been difficult, it must take a lot of perseverance to do what you do. Well done to you and all your staff.

One thought, we were lucky to find your shop, I just happened to look up and see it above the cafe. Unfortunately many other potential customers may not be aware of the shop. Maybe you could display some items downstairs or somehow inform the public or your whereabouts.

Also, would you accept a small donation of $200. Maybe this could buy a new sewing machine or be put towards costs. Please email bank details or how you wish to receive.

Take Care

Ian & Gene

I felt really encouraged by Ian and Gene's email. It's so nice when people get what Bloom is trying to achieve. As I wrote to Ian, I first met Chhun Hy, the young man who works at the Bloom shop, when he was a gas delivery boy in Phnom Penh. He used to deliver gas to Bloom cafe and kept bugging our waitress Srey Roth to ask me for a job (at that point he could barely speak English so he went through Roth, who is Khmer). His job was to carry those 15kg LPG tanks, sometimes up four flights of stairs. His salary was USD40 a month, out of which he had to pay rent and food. No wonder he was looking for a change.

Alan and I decided to hire him as our house guard in Phnom Penh as the cafe had enough staff. (Phnom Penh is quite dangerous that way: we had three attempted -- and one successful!-- break-ins). Alan taught him English every night. Alan is quite a strict teacher, insisting Chhun Hy speaks good English. He kept making Chhun Hy do drills to get the pronunciation right. For example, Khmers don't pronounce "TH" properly because it is not a sound in Khmer. Instead, they pronounce it as "S", so "Thank you", becomes "Sank you". "Think" becomes "Sink" and so on. Chhun Hy is about the only Khmer we know who pronounces "Thank you" correctly. He also impressed some tourists with the phrase, "My English is somewhat limited." Hahaha! That was Alan, the PhD, talking! I also joke that Chhun Hy will end up speaking with a Scottish accent!

To Chhun Hy's credit, he was really keen to learn and most importantly, he kept practising. When we moved to Siem Reap in November, we took Chhun Hy with us. He was living in Phnom Penh with an older brother who works as a driver for a garment factory, while his whole family lives in Kampong Cham province, where they are farmers. It is the story here in Cambodia, as with other countries--young people leave the countryside for hope of a better future in the city.

Chhun Hy now makes more than USD100 a month and is able to save money for his dreams (which includes a fancy phone and a fancy motobike! I don't agree with conspicuous consumption, or even consumerism, but that is the way it is here with young Khmers. Note to self: Another blog entry!) He has also started formal English lessons at the New York International School here (nothing to do with New York, but it sounds good, so it's a popular school with the locals) where classes cost USD10 a month for an hour a day, 5 days a week. The classes are taught by a Khmer man who speaks very quickly, because, says Chhun Hy, he wants the students to know he speaks good English!

Anyway, this is the reason why Alan and I are here--we want Khmers to have the opportunity that we have, as people from more developed countries. If we can help just one Chhun Hy to have a better life, we would have achieved something.

But, we are so lucky. With people like Ian and Gene, who not only bought our bags, but also gave us a donation, Bloom is able to support 10 Khmers and their families.

Thank you very much Ian and Gene!

Re: Bloom's policy on donations.

Bloom does not rely on donations because as I say on the blog, we want to be self-reliant and make the business work on our own. I actually have rejected donations in the past because of this firm belief. There was one time, an old English lady came into the shop and said she didn't want any bags, but can she leave a donation? And I said, "Oh, why don't you pick out a bag instead, because we'd rather sell you something (trade with you) than receive a donation." For reasons I am still unsure of, she refused, and we didn't get a purchase or a donation! (We have bags for as little as 3 for USD1, so it couldn't have been that she didn't want to take an expensive bag!)

Now I think if people want to give us a donation at the shop, we'd give them a bag as a token of our appreciation. While I still do not solicit donations, I also do not reject them anymore, simply because money is tight. So I am grateful for any help.


Since starting Bloom in Sept 2006, we have received USD300 from Ian and Gene and SGD250 from Potato Productions, after I wrote an article on Bloom for their magazine, Jetaway. One of my best pals, Khim, also gave me SGD2k, when she came into a bit of money, which is going to paying for Sina's (another Bloom member) university fees.

Thanks so much from the Bloom team, guys! I really, really appreciate it.


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