Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Fire in Siem Reap town today

Alan and I were coming out of Lucky supermarket when we noticed big smoke behind the building. Kosal was picking us up so I went with him on his moto to see what was going on. We went behind lucky, turning right. Many people were also racing to see what was going on. We saw thick, black smoke rising. Kosal had to stop his moto as there was a jam. I hopped off and walked towards the fire.

I saw this - a fire truck was already there and people were helping to pull the hose to spray the fire, which was engulfing a typical Cambodian provision shop, made of wood, with a zinc roof.

You can see the fire truck in this picture.

The policemen were trying to get people to stand back, away from the fire.

I stood opposite, outside the Angkor Land Hotel. This guy was racing to connect a hose from the hotel to help put out the fire.

The fire trucks managed to hose down the flames in less than 15 minutes.

The house was completely destroyed by that time.

You can see the coconuts spilling all over the ground. The umbrella was also burnt. There was hardly anything left of the small provisions stall.

The fire truck was leaving and you can see the policeman on the right holding up the electrical wire with his baton. At first I was thinking he was trying to prevent the wire from catching fire. 

Then I realised he was lifting the electrical wire to let the fire truck pass under.  You can see more clearly in the photo below.

This lady was crying and hugging her son, so I assume it is her shop that burnt down. She had only grabbed her little blue metal cash box. 

I felt so sad for the lady I wanted to cry. Must be terrible to lose everything in this way. But many Cambodian houses are similarly vulnerable to fires, because the walls are made of wooden planks and zinc sheets for the roof. Very few people have fire insurance so when you lose it all, there is nothing you can do. I've often thought about the houses we have rented in Cambodia. What happens if there is a fire? The landlord loses everything because the tenant cannot be expected to pay, and the landlord has no insurance.

The house Alan and I rented in Siem Reap is actually a death trap if there is a fire because there is only one door in and out of the house. Plus, all the windows have grilles (typical here in Cambodia because of security concerns).

Thank goodness the Bloom guesthouse is better designed, with a front and back door, another two more doors upstairs to the large balconies on the front and back. Best of all, there are no grilles on any of the windows - good for easy escape in case of a fire!

Monday, December 06, 2010


I keep meaning to put photos up of our new shop but have been so busy with our new guesthouse. I did write in a previous entry how proud I was of our new wall. I had rented this shop space because I thought the walls outside the shop had potential as a marketing tool. It was previously salmon coloured so I white washed it and paid a Cambodian artist, Khey, to paint our new logo and the words. (Khey has 2 shops of his own, one in the Old Market and another one near my previous shop where he sells his original paintings). 

This is the Bloom wall:

In the day time.

And at night.

Tuk tuks line our street at night.

Khey did such a good job! Many, many tourists take photos of the green wall, with our logo and "Green is Revolution". They even pose with it!

I chose this slogan over many I have in mind, because I think it best encapsulates what we stand for. I had adapted it from Iran's Green Revolution, the name given to 2009's Iranian Presidential Election, in which many Persian protestors risked their lives to dispute the victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over Mir-Hossein Mousavi.

Green is revolution in so many ways. As I see it, concern of the environment is waking people up from their robotic consumer lifestyles. So many people go through lives semi-conscious, never really using the brain to think about the choices we make.

To me, the green movement is revolutionary, forcing us to re-examine the way we thoughtlessly consume the earth's limited resources. We are only now beginning to think about our unsustainable lifestyles and the stress it puts on our planet. From buying hybrid cars to changing our diets (fat people cause climate change, says the British government's chief green adviser) to buying recycled goods, many, many people are trying to make changes in the way they lead their lives, so as to live more responsibly. (Some say it is too late, but I think better late than never).

For me, the green revolution also means change towards a fairer, more just, and more thoughtful society. People now care more about other people and animals and things as they think about how climate change affects poor people (half a million displaced people in Bangladesh pour into the capital Dhaka each year as their homes are destroyed); polar bears (forced to be cannibals as they have smaller platforms to hunt seals); and our planet's future ("by 2025 there could be three billion people without adequate water as the population rises still further. And massive urbanisation, increased encroachment on animal territory, and concentrated livestock production could trigger new pandemics" - 2009 State of the Future).

It is my hope that this new concern for other people also includes interest in making trade fair, in ending the exploitation of poor people in the third world, just so we in the developed world can have our cheap consumer goods.

I think it is happening. I have seen people come to the realisation that part of the problem about climate change is that rich countries are consuming too much at the expense of other countries. From there, it is not a big jump to conclude that the lifestyles of people in the developed world are being subsidised by poor people in the third world. Thinking about climate change, people realise how interconnected we are, how interdependent we are, and how one problem in one part of the world will ultimately affect the rest of us.

And this is how "Green is Revolution" applies to Bloom. At Bloom, we make products with recycled materials as our way of contributing to saving the environment. At the same time, we pay fair wages to producers and charge fair prices to customers as our way of trying to make trade fair. This is why the other part of the wall says "Making Trade Fair - one bag at a time." I hope this makes sense to you. But if not, please let me know, as it helps me sharpen my thinking about the issue.

A final pic. My team was so cute. They asked me to take a photo of them in front of the wall because they had seen many tourists do the same. 

From left: Bora, Kagna, Socheata and Piseth. Hope to see you at Bloom Cambodia!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Opportunists and Conspiracy theorists

My staff members at the Bloom guesthouse told me banana sellers in Phnom Penh took advantage of the tragedy in Phnom Penh and raised the prices of bananas in the city. Cambodians offer bananas and light incense (3 or 5 sticks, different from the 2 sticks that the Chinese offer) and candles to pray for the dead. Everyone bought bananas, even in Siem Reap, to pray that those who died in the stampede will go to heaven.

So these banana sellers in Phnom Penh were selling a bunch of bananas for 15,000riels or even 30,000riels (US$7.50). The normal price is 1500riels ($0.40) or 2500riels. Even in Siem Reap, the price went up, to 5,000 (US$1.25) or 7,000 riels per bunch.

Kagna's sister-in-law, who is a fruit seller in Psar Leu market here in Siem Reap said, "Why these people like this?" She believes "do good, get good" so will not raise her prices from the usual 2500 riels. Everyone is disgusted with the opportunistic merchants. But even at those prices, the bananas were sold out in the city.

Cambodians are finding it hard to understand how so many people can die in such a short time. In just 6 hours, more than 300 people died (latest reports put the figure closer to 400). Kagna says even in Pol Pot's time, not so many people died in such a short time (I don't know if this is true). She said Prime Minister Hun Sen "cry and cry" on TV and that during the six hours, he was exhorting the people on the bridge "don't run, don't run." She said he was beamed live on TV and they broadcast his message on loudhailers around the bridge.

Some theories have emerged. Some say it is because it is the year of the Tiger and tigers like meat and blood, so it is a year for disaster (err...not a very good theory if you ask me).

Others say it was caused by agents who are opposed to the government so that the Cambodian people will blame the government for its ineptitude (err...also not a very good theory, in my view, because the people who shouted must have been amongst the crowd, so risked their lives as well. Unless people think these "secret agents" had a way of escaping after causing the panic). But the government has said it will find and punish those responsible for shouting that the bridge was about to collapse.

Another theory is the panic was caused by Cambodian "hooligans" who like to play a game. The game involves linking arms and moving the human chain altogether forwards and then backwards. People will then fall, causing laughter and cries. Usually the youth do this on the streets during the Water Festival.
But maybe the simplest explanation is the right one. Occam's Razor is a principle that recommends selecting the competing hypothesis that makes the fewest new assumptions.

Cambodians are not the only ones to have experienced a stampede. This study found a total of 215 human stampede events were reported from 1980 to 2007, resulting in 7069 deaths and at least 14,078 injuries.

There are many things that can cause a stampede. When the Brooklyn Bridge just opened, a woman tripped, which contributed to fears that the bridge would collapse. "As she lost her footing another woman screamed, and the throng behind crowded forward so rapidly that those at the top of the steps were pushed over and fell in a heap." (abstract found in the New York Times.)

In 2005, 1000 people died in the Baghdad Bridge Stampede . There were rumours of a suicide bomber. Interior Minister Bayan Baqir Solagh said that one person "pointed a finger at another person saying that he was carrying explosives...and that led to the panic".

In 1989, 96 people --all fans of Liverpool F.C.-- died in the Hillsborough disaster. In 2007, 3 people died and 30 were injured in Chongqing, China, when a supermarket offered 20% discount on cooking oil. And in 1896, 1389 people were killed in a crush as people tried to get presents during the Coronation of Russian Tsar Nicholas II. (All these records can be found on

So I don't think the stampede was caused by enemies of the state. We still do not know what caused it, but it could be as simple as a one person suggesting the bridge could collapse. If enough people hear and believe him, that would be enough to cause a panic.

For me, the important thing is that the authorities learn from this tragedy. Stampede can be prevented by more organised crowd control, barriers and preventing extreme density of people.

This interesting Slate article, on "How not to get trampled at [Obama's] Inauguration" tells you the warning signs of an imminent crowd crush and what to do in such a situation. Here are some pointers:

1. There needs to be communication - with barriers, signs, or loudhailers. "Crowds are rarely belligerent, but they can become deadly if, for example, there's no way to announce that someone has fallen down and everyone must take a step back."

2. You also need space around you, and the article suggests no more than four people per square meter. "Otherwise, if someone jostles you, you won't have room to stick a foot out to stabilize yourself. If you fall, other people may trip over you, creating a pileup. Meanwhile, the rest of the crowd will continue to surge forward, unaware of your situation, and the pressure will build."

3. If you do feel like you are being touched on all four sides, you need to move to the margins. Try to move sideways. "After that, the last opportunity to escape may be when you feel shock waves travel through the crowd. This happens when people at the back push forward, but the people at the front have no where to go. If you feel the crowd sway like this, you are in serious danger. Wait until the crowd stops moving and then inch your way sideways and backward, zigzagging to safety. Just as you might swim back to shore in the ocean, try to navigate during the pause between waves."

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Almost 400 dead at Water Festival stampede

Very sad day for Cambodians. As if their lives are not hard enough, the rare chance ordinary Khmers - many from the countryside who come to Phnom Penh to watch the annual boat race - had a chance to rejoice and celebrate, they met with tragedy. The Guardian reported a policeman saying most of those killed were not people from Phnom Penh, but from the provinces who wanted to walk on the new Rainbow Bridge over the Tonle Sap, close to the festivities. 

Fortunately none of the Bloom women was on the bridge but they were seriously depressed today when I spoke to them on the phone. I told them to take the day off. (I live in Siem Reap, so am far from the tragedy but our workshop is in Phnom Penh). Later I heard Kamhut's father and brother were injured on a bus going home from Phnom Penh to her province in Kampong Thom. The bus had got into an accident. Four million people were in Phnom Penh for the weekend celebrations but the organisers had only expected 2. Phnom Penh has about 1.5 million residents. 

I called Kamhut and as usual she sounded happy and cheery but when I told her to take as much time away from work as she needs and to call me if she needs anything, she started crying. Kamhut is only 23. We are all hoping her family will be ok.

We don't yet know what caused the panic. The New York Daily News reported that a witness has said the stampede started when 10 people in the crowd fainted, causing others around them to panic. In an earlier Guardian article, a doctor said the two major causes of death were suffocation and electrocution.

Sean Ngu, an Australian who was visiting family and friends in Cambodia, told the BBC. "There were too many people on the bridge and then both ends were pushing. This caused a sudden panic. The pushing caused those in the middle to fall to the ground, then [get] crushed. Panic started and at least 50 people jumped in the river. People tried to climb on to the bridge, grabbing and pulling [electric] cables which came loose and electrical shock caused more deaths."

It also seems the police did not handle the situation well. CNN reported a Phnom Penh Post journalist as saying police began firing water cannons onto a bridge to an island in the center of a river in an effort to get them to continue moving across the bridge. "That just caused complete and utter panic," he told CNN in a telephone interview. A friend who has lived in Phnom Penh for many years told me that by the end of the Water Festival celebrations (when the tragedy happened), many policemen are drunk and so security can be lax.

I watched the news on Cambodian TV and took these images off Bayon TV. You can see the human crush.

It was reported that two-thirds of the dead were women. The injured were laid down on the streets.

Those who were injured were taken to Calmette Hospital. The hospital could not cope, so people were laid down on the floor.

The dead were covered with white sheets at the hospital.

From another Cambodian news channel. The police were at the site today. You can see crowds at the scene.

This is the bridge.

Strewn with slippers.

Interview with the man in charge

Bayon TV organised a donation drive for the victims. They were taking phone calls from donors and you can see this man on the right holding out a USD20 note to donate.

The Cambodian government has said it would compensate 5 million rielsm or USD1250 to the families of each of the dead and 1 million riels each to those injured. This man is announcing who donated and how much and thanking them. People were donating whatever they could. There were many for 20,000 riels, or just USD5, and from as far away as Banteay Manchey.

I want to donate too and will have a collection box for victims at the Bloom shop.  But how can I ensure whatever money me and my team and our friends raise do reach the victims? It sounds cynical but I am adamant the money we contribute does not do go to somebody's retirement fund. 

The only thing I can think about is to find victims myself and hand the money over. So this is the plan. First we collect the money, then I will get the Bloom team in Phnom Penh to ask around so they find people in their provinces who were affected by the tragedy and we give them the money ourselves--directly. It may be a long shot, but maybe not, because people in the provinces are tightly-knit. I'm sure we will manage to find the right people to give the money to. 

Monday, November 15, 2010

Would you kill your mother?

Just read this shocking article in India's
"Maariyamma is likely to be killed by her children because they cannot afford her. They will give her a loving oil bath. Several glasses of coconut water. A mouthful of mud. Perhaps a poison injection. She is just one of many old parents in Tamil Nadu dying in this way. But no one blinks at these ritual murders." [...]
"When 65-year-old Maariyamma suspected this might happen to her too, she moved out of her son’s house two years ago. “I’m not well enough to live on my own, but it is better than being killed by them,” she says. Amazingly, there is no bitterness in her voice. Or anger. “They’re struggling hard to take care of their own children,” says Maariyamma, of her sons." [...]
“When the milk is being poured, the nose is held tight,” says [farmer] Dorairaj. This ‘milk treatment’ is often preceded by starvation. The household stops serving the parent solid food. “When milk is poured uninterruptedly into the mouth, it goes into the respiratory track. A starving person cannot withstand even a moment’s suffocation,” says 60-year-old Paul Raj, coordinator of a district elders’ welfare association."
Incredibly tragic. It is so common that the practice even has a name - thalaikoothal in Tamil.

As an Asian who grew up with the concept of filial piety, I find this very shocking. In Singapore, we are taught from young that our parents sacrifice to bring us up. So when they are old, it is our turn, as children, to take care of them. Singapore even has a Maintenance of Parents Act, enacted in 1995. It is a legal requirement for adult children to look after their parents, and some parents have indeed sued their children for "parent support".

But Singapore is a rich country. We do not face the same problems as the very poor in India, where according to government statistics, more than 17,500 farmers killed themselves between 2002 and 2006 every year. (Read more on wikipedia). (I wonder if thalaikoothal happens in desperately poor parts of Cambodia at all?)

One way of looking at thalaikoothal is it's mercy killing. As one Doctor Death told the Telheka reporter: “I am not killing anybody who may have a longer life. It is done only in the last and final stage of one’s life. Why should they suffer in poverty?”

So there is no debate about euthanasia in the Virudhunagar district in Tamil Nadu, the way there is in our countries, where poverty is not a reason to kill your parents or loved ones. I googled to find other cultures that kill the aged among them and found this:
Aged people who have outlived their usefulness and whose life is a burden both to themselves and their relatives are put to death by stabbing or strangulation. This is customarily done at the request of the individual concerned, but not always so. Aged people who are a hindrance on the trail are abandoned.
—Antoon A. Leenaars, on the Labrador Inuit, in Suicide in Canada (1916) Quoted in wikipedia/wiki/Inuit).
I was once told American Indians pinch the noses of babies when they want them to stop crying. The babies soon learn crying makes them suffocate. The Indians do this because the babies' cries alerted animals or enemies to their presence. I am reminded of this story as I think about how sometimes people do things that seem strange to us, but they do it because they have to survive.

Sambo the elephant may be evicted from her Wat Phnom home

Very sad news. My friend Mariam Arthur has been working hard to find Sambo the elephant (the only one in Phnom Penh) a permanent home. The 50 year old elephant survived the war, Khmer Rouge, only to face yet another challenge. There does not seem to be a place for him in the modern city that is Phnom Penh. Elephants live till a hundred so Sambo will need a place to stay for the next 50 years.

Sambo's owner Sinsorn was told on the 11 November that Sambo must leave Wat Phnom and never return because people complain Sambo disrupts traffic.

Mariam feels the best place for Sambo is the Royal Palace. Sambo needs a safe place to sleep at night. I was horrified to read this from Mariam: "Not only is this instability bad for her health, she is susceptible to nighttime raids by men trying to cut pieces of her for their magic power."

Mariam has written to various Cambodian authorities. On Nov 12, she received a rejection letter from the Royal Palace. (To see all correspondence, please visit this facebook page.)

The most urgent thing now is food for Sambo. "Sambo's only source of income for food was by giving rides at Wat Phnom. Therefore, after she finishes today's food supply, she will no longer have any food," Mariam writes.

If you have been touched by Sambo in some way, as I have (I attended her 50th birthday party and was moved to tears by the gentle animal), please consider giving Sambo money for food until she and her owner/caretaker Sinsorn is able to find a way to earn money for food. You can contact Mariam at

If you doubt Sinsorn's love for Sambo, please read this touching story of how Sinsorn met Sambo as a child and man and elephant were reunited after the war. There seems to be genuine affection between the two. You can read it here at (I have just been informed by the editor of Southeast Asia Globe that the blogger i originally credited had plagiarised Grzegorz Ostrega's original story for the Globe. Shame on you somanorodom. You give all bloggers a bad name and shame on me for assuming you are a blogger like me, writing things from your heart.)

If you have any good ideas on how to help Sambo, please do let me know.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Before you pay to volunteer abroad, think of the harm you might do

Just read this excellent article criticising voluntourism, "Before you pay to volunteer abroad, think of the harm you might do" by the UK's Observer newspaper, republished in the Guardian.

"Insiders call them guilt trips. All those teenagers heading off on gap years, fired up with enthusiasm. Those middle-aged professionals spending a small fortune to give something back to society. And those new retirees determined to spend their downtime spreading a little happiness.

"Now the flipside of these well-intentioned dreams has been laid bare in an incendiary report by South African and British academics which focuses on "Aids orphan tourism" in southern Africa, but challenges many cherished beliefs.

"The study reveals that short-term volunteer projects can do more harm than good. Wealthy tourists prevent local workers from getting much-needed jobs, especially when they pay to volunteer; hard-pressed institutions waste time looking after them and money upgrading facilities; and abused or abandoned children form emotional attachments to the visitors, who increase their trauma by disappearing back home. "The more I delved into it, the more disturbing I found it," said Amy Norman, one of the researchers."
The article notes, in Cambodia, orphanages are proliferating - the numbers have increased by 65% in just 3 years. And an official study found just a quarter of children in these so-called orphanages have actually lost both parents. As I wrote here and here, why would people work when they can get money for free? Many of the charities in Cambodia are run by entrepreneurs, out to make money from other people's misery. And there is a lot of money to be made, as long as there are kind but unthinking people who think simply donating money or even their time, makes a positive difference.

"The desire to engage with the world is laudable, as is the desire to volunteer," the Observer article concludes. "But we need to tread more carefully. Unless we have time and transferable skills, we might do better to travel, trade and spend money in developing countries. The rapid growth of "voluntourism" is like the rapid growth of the aid industry: salving our own consciences without fully examining the consequences for the people we seek to help. All too often, our heartfelt efforts to help only make matters worse."

This is why I set Bloom up as a social enterprise - a business with social aims - and not an NGO. If people need jobs, give them jobs, not handouts. Why is it so many Westerners are quick to note this in developed countries, telling me handouts have failed the aborigines in Australia, or the first nations in Canada, criticising the welfare system and welfare mentality, but yet persist in doing the very same thing in developing countries? Why is it so many tourists tell me they'd rather buy a book from a handicapped man than to give him money, a donation, because they respect him for working rather than begging, yet would rather support a charity that gives handouts, than to support a socially-minded business which is trying, just like the handicapped man, to be self-reliant?

(Is it because people do not trust businesses and prefer to place their trust in a charity, where the very name "NGO" or "charity" or "orphanage" is meant to dignify the organisation and its practices? People should realise a name is but a name and just as there are good and bad businesses, there are good and bad charities.)

At the very high level, let's not kid ourselves, foreign aid operates as foreign policy. Handouts in exchange for business concessions, or access to prized industries. Why do you think China "donates" almost a billion dollars to this country? And this September essay in points out "Former National Security Advisor in the Clinton White House and failed nominee to head the CIA, Anthony “Tony” Lake is now Executive Director of the United Nations Children Fund, UNICEF." The writer makes an interesting claim: "From CIA to UNICEF? The charge that every person who has headed a major western aid agency has an intelligence background has been proven time and time again." One day I will try to find out if this is true.

Unless we get involved in politics, there is little ordinary people like you and me can do about how our government spends its money, how much and how it allocates foreign aid. But, as individuals, we *can* do something about the way our money affects other people. We can and should be more careful in how we spend our money. We should be more thoughtful.

I found out the Singapore government has a policy for every school-going child to go on at least one overseas "mission" by the time he or she leaves secondary school. It is called CIP, or Community Involvement Programme, and there is big money to be made. There are travel companies, or agents, that charge the schools a lot of money (but since the money is there, and paid for by the government--taxpayers, really--who care?) to organise voluntourism trips. These agents in Singapore then outsource the organising of the Cambodian trip to Cambodia-based groups, which then get a little of the money.

My Singaporean expat friends and I know well that, in general, these trips benefit more the Singapore students than they do the Cambodian ones. I say "in general", because now and again, a particular Cambodian person will benefit much, from sponsored studies to his or her family being sponsored financially for a while. A village could also have a bonanza if the students come up with enough cash for a bridge, toilets, or road. However, in general and in most cases, flying in and out of a country, staying just 4 or 5 days, spending half a day with this group, one day with another organisation, leaves no long term benefit for the NGO or the people they help.

I was disturbed when I first learnt in 2006 about the international schools in Singapore where students have to raise funds to pay for their volunteer trip. They raise about SGD$2000, each, for their trip to build houses and paint schools and what not. I had thought at the time - that's a lot of money in Cambodia. Would not that US$1300 or US$1400, or whatever the exchange rate is now, create more benefit for the Cambodian villagers if they had hired Cambodian workers to build the structures? That creates jobs, a sense of purpose and usefulness, and more than that - Cambodian men and women are probably far better at construction than kids at an international school and can do the job more efficiently and maybe even spend the money more efficiently, if you can ensure accountability (please don't tell me that's a big "if" - I know of many success cases from my friends Deborah Groves' NGO Helping Hands and Dale Edmond's NGO riverkidsproject.)

When I pointed this out to the head of a Cambodia-based NGO, one of the beneficiaries of this "outreach" programme, she said to me, it is for the students as much as the Khmers. She remembers how one troubled American teenager who came to Cambodia to build houses for the poor went away a changed person. She says these trips have lasting impact on the volunteers. I suppose the ultimate hope is that some of these students may remember enough of the trip to one day make policies that would help the world's poor.

I certainly hope so. I have to make clear I am not against all NGOs because I have seen how some have made a positive impact in the country (I mentioned my favourite 2 earlier). What I'd just like is for people to pay more attention to how they help other people - to be more selective and creative in how they contribute they time and efforts.

Because at the end of the day, I have seen how simple voluntourism can have lasting, negative, consequences for Cambodia: through creating false charities, keeping the country's people poor, promoting corruption, creating more performers and actors and snakeoil salesmen than skilled workers, subsidising the charity with your free labour and money, and creating a false economy with propped up jobs, with salaries so inflated by donations they would never compete or survive in the real world.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Singapore in company with Rwanda and Cambodia

I just read this post on which described how Singapore’s Home Affairs Minister and Law Minister K Shanmugam, speaking at Columbia University, said that the Singapore media is more trusted by Singaporeans than the US media is by Americans.

He mentioned this in response to the 2010 Press Freedom Index by Reporters without Borders which ranked Singapore 136th out of 178 countries.

If you look at the Gallup Poll , the one quoted by Mr Shanmugam, Singapore is in good company. Other top-ranking countries whose people believe the media include Rwanda (86% of the people trusts the media - or so they said and/or so it was reported), Philippines (75%), Cambodia (72%), Niger (72%), Botswana and Tanzania (69%, the same as Singapore). Who wouldn't want to be in this elite group?

Monday, November 08, 2010

Caning for overstaying tourist visa in Singapore

Just read this on wsj online: US man faces caning in Singapore for overstaying.

"Kamari Kenyada Charlton, 37 years old, a U.S. citizen born in the Bahamas, has been charged by the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority of Singapore for overstaying his three-month tourist visa by 169 days. He has been in custody since Sept. 1, when he was arrested at Singapore's Changi Airport trying to leave the country."

In Cambodia, you are charged US$5 a day for every day you overstay, no questions asked.

Singapore sometimes slaps on a fine but when and why we do not know. "A relative of Mr. Kamari's wife who overstayed in Singapore for 194 days, but settled the issue by paying a fine of 500 Singaporean dollars (US$382). Mr. Kamari's lawyer, M. Ravi, said he plans to take the case to Singapore's High Court on grounds of discrimination, contending Mr. Kamari faces different treatment."

At least Cambodia is consistent.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Panama court overturns US tycoon's will to leave $50m to poor children

- says it should go to his millionaire family instead. Read full story in the

Friday, October 01, 2010

The handicapped bicycle repair man

Lois and I cycled to the Old Market today. Along the way, we decided to get some air pumped and the chain checked. Lucky us! We found this man and his son in a small lane just beside the Angkor National Museum. 

I don't know if you can see it from this photo, but the Cambodian man is a double amputee.

This photo makes it clearer. He has these plastic legs, which an NGO provided. It was in 1983 that he lost his legs. He was 16 years old, a boy soldier, when he stepped on a land mine. He is now 43 years old and has taught himself to fix bicycles. He was also teaching his son what to do, so his son can learn the trade, although he said he'd prefer it if his son could do something else as you don't make a lot of money repairing bicycles.

He is usually under the big palm tree just beyond. It is in the lane beside the museum. He moved today because there is a fair going on at the museum but usually he is under the tree.

Father and son. The man has 5 children and he and his son have very good chemistry. The son obviously loves his dad, which I take to mean he is a good father. To oil and tighten the chains and pump air, the man asked for only 1000 riels (25cents US), which is the Cambodian price. I was very happy he did not try to cheat us, as Lois is obviously a foreigner. I gave him a dollar, which I was prepared to do even if he'd asked, because I admire and respect him for earning a living instead of begging. Having said that, I stopped my bike on the way back just to give a very old man money because he looked so destitute. I think there are circumstances where a person has no choice but to beg, for instance, when you are very old and cannot find employment.

The boy's eyes widened and both father and son said thank you. I promised I would send all our bicycles from the guesthouse to him for repair. Lois also gave his son some money as she was touched he did not try to cheat us. See, it pays to be honest, Cambodian merchants!

Lois' visit and Bloom Garden Guesthouse

I'm writing this as I sit on the terrace at Bloom Garden Guesthouse. My Australian friend Lois just left for Preah Vihear after spending a night here. Lois has an NGO in Preah Vihear, at the Thai border, and where Thailand and Cambodia are fighting over the cliff-side temple. The young women are given free education and lodgings at a dormitory, and this year, four of them qualified for university in Phnom Penh. They are the first in their family, if not the entire village, to have this opportunity, which Lois hopes will change their lives and those of the community.

This is Lois, at the guesthouse lobby, proudly showing off the miniature Christening dresses that she and a friend taught some of the women at Preah Vihear to make. The miniatures are beautifully made - I had a close look and the workmanship is impeccable. The women are paid a fair wage and can earn up to US$120 a month, says Lois.

This is what these tiny dresses look like. Lois tells me there are some 300 miniature clubs around the world, so potentially a large market for these doll-like dresses. They are made from imported French lace, so it is not something the Cambodians will be able to copy. Copying is a big problem for those of us involved in product design and manufacture in Cambodia, especially for those of us who believe in using locally made and sourced materials--like me, cos of the carbon footprint and also to create as many jobs as possible for the local community. It is not easy juggling business decisions and one's principles and I am glad I have not caved in yet, unlike Bono, who decided to tackle African poverty by moving production base to China.

I got to know Lois when she contacted me for an interview for her PhD thesis on social entrepreneurship (SE) and we've had many interesting discussions on SE models (I refuse donations but Lois thinks it's still possible to accept donations and be an SE. I'll write about these discussions separately because they are interesting.)

When Lois checked out, she actually paid US$20 for the room, instead of US$15 that we asked for, as she said $20 is the price it should be! My friend Sun also said I had underpriced the rooms when she visited, but because we are new, I decided on special rates. (See why I love my friends? They're all people with a sense of fairness).

Anyway, this is the view I'm looking at while typing this at the guesthouse terrace.

I love the open space and the view of the trees and the sky. Because Singapore is one of the densest countries in the world, it is hard to get a view unblocked by tall buildings, so I always appreciate it when I see a large expanse of sky. And of cos the breeze is nice too.

Yesterday, one of our water lilies bloomed, so I took the chance to photograph it. So pink and pretty!

Here is the lone lily, underneath the orchids. Lois and I had breakfast here and it is very peaceful and quiet. The other day while I was sitting there with a friend, a tiny bird hopped by.

And these are the orchids.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Private water raiding threatens Angkor's temples built on sand

From today's
"Unchecked development, and the widespread, unregulated pumping of groundwater throughout Siem Reap city, has raised concerns that the temples, including the world's largest religious monument, Angkor Wat, could crack or crumble if too much water is drained away."

Funny, I was just talking to my landlord about this. He says the water table in Siem Reap is being destroyed by the big hotels. (I was told by one contractor that a 5 star hotel in Siem Reap is pumping water from a well that is 150m deep).

This photo shows how low the water is, at the Siem Reap river. The river runs through the town. This photo was taken a couple of weeks ago, during the current rainy season.

The water level is low because, my landlord tells me, the water is being diverted to Baray area ("baray" means reservoir in Khmer) for the farmers. I have no idea if this is true.  (Contrast this with last year's floods).

In the Guardian article, Peou Hang, deputy director of water management for the Cambodian government's Angkor conservation body (Apsara), was quoted as saying the pumping was unregulated, and almost impossible to police.

"We cannot [find out] ... the exact quantity they extract every day. I ask them, but they do not want to answer our questions, so we have to make an estimation."

But why is it so difficult to tabulate just how much water the city is using? Why can't each hotel/household be forced to install a meter? I wasn't sure if you can measure water usage from a well (as opposed to piped city water), but a quick google check tells me that you can.

This article from shows you how:

"Groundwater is an important resource in Oregon. As more people depend on groundwater, some water tables around the State are dropping, threatening their water supplies. State law requires that groundwater be managed as a renewable resource, and that water tables do not drop permanently.

To assess the size of the groundwater resource and monitor the effects of development and drought, State law requires an aquifer test on every well with a water right. Part of that test is to measure the depth of water in the well. We'll discuss three methods of measuring water levels in this publication."

This being Cambodia, Mr Poeu's point about it being difficult to police stands true--with or without the meters. After all, this is a country where policemen are paid a pitiful salary--around US$40, I was told.

At the very least, though, the big hotels in Siem Reap should be made accountable, as they consume and waste huge amounts of water. Here are figures from another popular holiday destination, Goa: "In terms of water requirement, low-budget hotels needed 573 litres per room per day. Luxury hotels, in contrast, needed 1,335 litres per room per day (or 2.33 times), as they have huge landscaped areas, swimming pools, two or three restaurants, and other facilities." (see

Kingdom Breweries: Cambodia's New Craft Beer

Here in Cambodia, you can buy a number of beers from around the region. Besides the Cambodian national beer, Angkor ("My country, my beer", and the one we favour), you can buy Beer Lao (the national beer of Lao), Anchor (pronounced "An-cher" in Cambodia. If you say "anchor", chances are you will get an Angkor instead) and Tiger (both owned by Singapore's Asia Pacific Breweries). More recently, we tried this really awful one, called Zorok and made in Vietnam.

You can also get expensive Asahi (Japan) which at one time was the same price as Angkor. The Asahi we used to buy was made in Thailand, but then sometime last year, they stopped bringing it in, so you could only buy the Asahi that was made in Japan, so much more expensive. Why is the Thai made Asahi no longer available in Cambodia? Who knows? Somebody not paying enough to the right person? The market wasn't big enough? (hard to believe)

Anyway, this week featured Kingdom Breweries, a German start-up in Phnom Penh:

"Cambodia might not be counted among the world's most eminent beer-producing countries, but change is brewing. From its premises on the banks of the Tonle Sap, Phnom Penh's newest boutique brewer, Kingdom Breweries, is gearing up to give local brands a run for their riel — using only the best German and Czech hops, premium German malt and top-quality water to produce its flagship pilsner.

"Can I offer you one?" CEO Peter Brongers asks, proffering an ice-cool bottle of the first batch ever brewed. "Some of the locals might think it's too bitter, but I think it's perfect."

You'll probably think so too, if you like the crisp, light and dry style of European lager. Kingdom's bearded German brewmaster Peter Haupenthal is hoping to win the locals over with his product's body and consistency — important attributes in a town where microbrew is popular but varies wildly in quality, with poor heads, soapy textures and artificial colors (bright red or acid green anyone?) being not uncommon. After plenty of experimentation and patience, Kingdom has only recently arrived at the final recipe that it hopes will educate the market. "Unfortunately, making a good beer takes time," Haupenthal says, "and we can't speed up the process."

The fledgling brand will officially launch on Oct. 1, and visitors are welcome to observe the production process. Tours of the brewery can be arranged and include a chat with Haupenthal and a drink in the on-site bar, with its leather upholstered bar stools, studded Chesterfield couch and hardwood counter.

"When we launch in the market, we want to establish Kingdom as one of Southeast Asia's leading boutique breweries," says Brongers. Looks like Cambodia could finally be taking its place on the world's beer map. See for more.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Cambodia: Trade Union leaders at risk

Please support Amnesty International's call for action for safety for Cambodia's trade unionists (you can click here to send the email via Amnesty UK:

"Dear Sirs

I am writing to express my concern for the safety of several union leaders and activists, including Ath Thorn, Morn Nhim and Tola Moeun, who face possible arrest and legal action as a result of their legitimate work in protecting workers rights in Cambodia.

I call on the authorities to ensure that union leaders, activists and strikers are not subject to harassment, intimidation or threat of arrest and legal action for exercising their right to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.

I call on the authorities to guarantee the rights of all human rights defenders, including union members and activists, in accordance with international human rights treaties.

In particular, I remind you of Cambodia’s obligations under the International Labour Organisation core conventions 87 and 98, which Cambodia ratified in 1999, which guarantees the right to strike, to organise and to collectively bargain.

I would appreciate a response to my appeal.

Please select a recipient(s)

Sar Kheng - Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior
Ministry of Interior
No 75 Norodom Blvd
Khan Chamkamon, Phnom Penh
Kingdom of Cambodia
Fax: 00855 23 212 708 / 00855 23 726 052

Ith Sam Heng - Minister of Social Affairs, Labour, Vocational Training and Youth Rehabilitation
No 788B Preah Monivong Blvd Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Fax: 00855 23 726 086

His Excellency Mr. Nambora Hor - Ambassador
The Royal Embassy of Cambodia,
64 Brondesbury Park,
Willesden Green,

Fax: 020 8451 7594

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Bono's foundation gave just 0.12% of money to charity

Figures from the 2008 tax returns of ONE foundation, the singer's organisation, show it received $14,993,873 in donations from philanthropists in 2008, of which just $184,732 was distributed to three charities. So what happened to the rest? More than $8 million was spent on executive and employee salaries.

In addition Edun, Bono’s fashion label, shifted some of its production base from Africa to China. Edun had position itself as an “ethical” fashion house that was set up to aleviate poverty in … Africa.

What a hypocrite.

Read the full story on - "Make Bono History".

I posted this on my facebook yesterday and got some good comments from friends:

Mara: "We must ask these so called charities and NGOs what percentage of the actual $ go to their intended causes."

Steve: "Why don't we see stories like this about NGOs in Cambodia being held accountable? Maybe due to a professional courtesy from the local government? You know, like the way that sharks don't eat lawyers!"

Caron: "Do not donate to NGO's based in Cambodia unless you've done a lot of research into their funds accountability! Corruption is rife! NGO's are a joke! You want to make a difference? Do it in your own town first."

Diana Saw: "I am so glad my friends know the truth. This is why I dislike many NGOs - especially after living in Cambodia and learning these NGOs exist for the staff, and not for the people they are supposed to be helping."

Steve: "Even some (many perhaps?) large NGOs that do some really good and important work here operate without a level of integrity and accountability that would be acceptable in their own home countries. So much for setting an example, demonstrating leadership and investing in innovation. Instead there are massive exports of mediocrity and greed in much too high a proportion that come along with the good stuff."

Friday, September 24, 2010

TEDx Talk

I'm a fan of TED, you know, that "Ideas worth spreading" website with sometimes brilliant speeches by really interesting people. Don't know it? Check it out here: I guarantee you will find an interesting topic/speech. I like this one.

Anyway, there is an extension to TED, called "TEDx", "a program of local, self-organised events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience." There is a TEDx Singapore.

I was asked to speak at one of the events, which is happening tomorrow. It's a shame I cannot make the trip home to Singapore at this time. I can't go because as you know, I have just opened a guesthouse and am currently hosting four guests. In addition, the Bloom shop in Siem Reap is moving end of the month as our lease runs out. We are moving not far from the Old Market, but moving is a Big Deal, because there are contract details to be sorted and renovations to be made.

Anyway, this is the talk happening tomorrow. It is a global event.

"The Future We Will Make"- The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and us TEDx organisers have teamed up for a very special 'live' global event hosted by TED curator Chris Anderson. Featuring talks by some of the world's most inspired thinkers and doers, we will look at what changes have taken place in the last decade, and what more needs to be done to ensure the health and well-being of future generations. On Saturday 25 September, we will bring you the stream of this entire event + live speakers to bring this theme to local relevance."

The organisers were looking for ideas, experiences and endeavours related to Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). And if you know Bloom, you'd know we are pursuing the same MDGs. I have to say it is just a coincidence, though -- I never started out wanting to fulfil some United Nations goal (in my ignorance, I only learnt about the goals this year, when a Dutch filmmaker who filmed Bloom told me how he got funding from his government just by quoting the MDGs). Very simply, my goals for Bloom are based on justice and fairness and equality, which I supposed are the same principles as those supporting the MDGs.

This is how my project Bloom shares many, if not all, of the MDGs:

- We alleviate poverty by giving very poor Cambodians good, fair paying, jobs with 28 days paid holidays a year (Goal 1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger).

- We aim to help single mothers and women in general (Goal 3: Promote gender equality and empower women)

- Their kids can go to school (Goal 2: Achieve universal primary education)

- We have 3 months maternity leave, health insurance and a great working environment (where essentially the team manages itself without me), which I guess contributes to achieving Goal 4: Reduce child mortality rate; Goal 5: Improve maternal health and Goal 6: Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases.

- And of course, we make use of recycled and/or organic materials in our products - please see for our products (Goal 7: Ensure environmental sustainability)

- And Goal 8: Develop a global partnership for development. Bloom is a Singaporean founded/funded, Cambodian managed and operated, social enterprise. We have found customers and supporters all over the world, including Amnesty International, Care International, and many private organisations, big and small. In fact, we just completed an order for 1800 bags to an Australian furniture shop who are using our recycled bags as in-store carriers.

Bloom's motto is "Help the poor, help the planet", which I guess covers it.

If you are interested in this event, you can "attend" it 'live' online, tomorrow on Don't you just love the Internet?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Casino operator moves into Cambodia; property company pulls out

"Queenco Leisure, the hotel and casino operator, is moving into Cambodia.

"It today signed a joint-venture deal with Paradise Investment to open a hotel, casino, restaurant and karaoke premises.

"This is Queenco's first move into Asia, though it has businesses in Greece, Belgrade and Bucharest. It will own 70% of the Cambodian venture, which will initially be based at the Holiday Palace Hotel in Sihanoukville in Cambodia..."

Read the full story on

Meanwhile, another London-listed company has not fared too well with its Cambodia gamble. Incorporated in the Cayman Islands, JSM Indochina
"had almost no revenue for the first six months, receiving only $263,485 from rental income, according to a report filed with the London Stock Exchange late last week.

"Its expenses included $7.6 million in fees to managers, consultants and directors, and a $7.1 “impairment loss” of cash pledged with banks, according to the interim statement.

"The London AIM-listed company is currently selling nine properties across Cambodia and Vietnam."

Full story in the Phnom Penh Post.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Sun's visit

On Monday I went to pick my friend Sun up from the Siem Reap International Airport. Here she is coming out of the airport - she travels light! I was so happy to see her!

Sun was impressed and surprised with how modern the airport was. Like many people, she had assumed because Cambodia is a third world country, everything must be shabby. She was also surprised at how large the houses in Cambodia can be - like the guesthouse we rented. She asked how much it would sell for in Cambodia. I have no idea but the landlady said she was offered over USD1 million for her house and land (60m by 70m). Sun could not believe it.

I met Sun at my first job - she was the designer and I, deputy editor, at the magazine we worked at. I've known her for more than 11 years now! She is very talented and has lived in London for almost a decade, working as a designer. She was telling me how expensive Singapore has become. She had to lug home a Nespresso (some kind of trendy coffee machine) for her family because it cost SGD300 in the UK and SGD650 in Singapore. A branded handbag was 50% more in Singapore than in the UK. What's happened to Singapore? Singapore used to be the place to go for electronics and designer goods, and the UK was known as "Rip-off Britain".

Well, partly the pound has dropped. But the other thing is that goods in Singapore usually arrive through designated distributors (middlemen), which take their cut. In the UK, you can now buy things through Amazon, direct from the maker.

Sorry for the digression, this was supposed to be about Sun and her visit.

I took her to the Old Market to do a bit of shopping after she went to the temples alone (at USD20 a day entrance fee, it is not something I can afford to do often). This nice young lady showed us how to use a kroma (traditional Cambodian scarf that has multiple uses). Sun is wearing it the traditional way for women. 

Here she is with the kroma on her head using her girly iPhone, studded with pink crystals. Very surreal - who'd have imagined a young woman to be wearing a kroma on her head and using an iPhone at the same time!

Sun has a kind heart and bought two books ($5 each) from Khim, aka "Jerry". Khim is a 16 year old Cambodian boy who lost one leg due to a car accident in Phnom Penh. He told me he was compensated with USD2000 by the driver of the "big car" but had to give $500 to the police. I asked why and he said it was because the police stopped the car from driving off. He then spent about a thousand at the hospital for the operation and to "buy blood". He has been selling books around Pub Street and the Alley since his dad died and family moved to Siem Reap a few years ago. Khim is a very happy, optimistic boy.

I did not take enough photos of Sun and with her. She actually stayed at our guesthouse and was our first customer. I took photos of her in the big bed with mosquito net but it's in her iPhone. She'll have to email me the photos!

Sun was around when I signed the contract for the new Bloom shop. Yes, we are moving! Our lease ends this month and the landlord is jacking up the price to an unrealistic amount so we are moving. This space is 200m from the Old Market, near all the "Happy Pizza" shops and the new D's Books (which moved from Pub Street this year - no doubt also due to increased rent).

Sun thinks I should have a projection on one wall, relating the Bloom story (that's her arm there!). She told me I can get a second hand projector cheap in Singapore because it is old technology. This is the space - currently used as a parking lot for the owner's motorbikes. It's longish and has a lot of potential, I think. But I am no interior decorator. If you have been to the Bloom shop, you will know how amateurish it is. Not at all slick like some of the other souvenir shops in town.

Soon it was time for Sun to go. I asked her what she thought of Cambodia. She found Cambodians "very sweet" and the town and shops interesting. She plans to return next year with her family which will be great because she is such a cute and bubbly person. I really had a great five days with her and miss her already. Sun took Om Pheon's tuktuk everywhere and left the Bloom guesthouse team a small tip when she left, so they were very happy.

I took her to the airport. Her Silkair flight was delayed by 15mins so we sat chatting. Suddenly there was a commotion and we saw the airport staff using a broom to hit a snake. It stopped moving and this man tried to brush it to the side. Not knowing I speak Khmer, the man told his friend I was "cherkoot" (crazy) for wanting to take a photo of the snake.

The dead snake in front of the airport trolleys. Sun was a little freaked out - I guess you do not see snakes in many airports around the world. But I think snakes are part of nature and wished they did not beat it to death.  But many Cambodians are scared of snakes, I suppose for good reason.

After leaving Sun, I saw this on the way back from the airport: Cambodian families waiting for a plane to take off.

This was the plane, a Vietnamese carrier. I told Om Phoen to stop for a bit and saw the plane take off. It was very loud! Om Phoen asked me if this is what I take to go home. I said something like that. Planes are pretty amazing. This is how they work.


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