Monday, July 26, 2010

Guy builds island with plastic bottles - and lives on it

Amazing Youtube video. It took him 2.5 years to build the island in Mexico. Now if I can only find a spot in Cambodia...

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Chinese philanthropist gives away his wealth

Photo: Yang Junopo for The Globe and Mail. Story from
"With that endowment, Mr. Yu became the first Chinese national to give more than $1-billion to charity, now having contributed almost $1.3-billion in cash and real estate to the Yu Pengnian Foundation...

“If my children are competent, they don’t need my money,” Mr. Yu explained. “If they’re not, leaving them a lot of money is only doing them harm.”

In a society where capitalism is just 30 years old, and charitable giving an even younger concept, Mr. Yu says one of his primary goals in making a show out of giving his money away was to set an example to other rich Chinese. “Everybody has a different view of money. Some do good things with it, some rich people do nothing with it. …My goal is to be a leader, a pioneer who encourages rich people, inside and outside of China, to do something charitable.”

I hope wealthy Cambodians are listening - especially to the part about giving your children lots of money.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Cambodian women athletes

What a great story, from the Christian Science Monitor, by Kounila Keo, Contributor / July 16, 2010:
"Cambodia women are breaking free of social stigmas and disproving myths to succeed in the world of sports.

Vath Chamroeurn, secretary-general of the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia, says that over the past several years women have accounted for 30 percent of the total population of athletes representing Cambodia in international contests. In 2009 alone, Cambodian female athletes won one gold medal, four silvers, and 13 bronzes in the 25th Southeast Asian Games held in Laos. Events included pétanque, tae kwon do, volleyball, weight lifting, and wrestling.

Lack Som Ath, general director of the General Department of Sports at the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, says that Cambodian female athletes participate in as many as 20 sports.

One shining example is Duch Sophorn – Cambodia’s finest player of pétanque (a form of boules), who has won gold, silver, and bronze medals in international competitions over the past 10 years. Her success has inspired many young girls to pursue athletics. But she admits it has come at a price in a society that views athletic-looking women as sterile and unattractive.

“I have developed muscles and [I am] very strong. [If] men don’t like me, I don’t care, as long as I love myself,” says Ms. Sophorn."

Friday, July 23, 2010

Gold found in Cambodia

I was told by a Cambodian friend that there is gold in Cambodia. He says a Chinese company has the license for the gold digging and the government does not want people to know so they are keeping mum about it.

Not quite.

I did a google search and found Singapore's Straits Times reported the news in May. "CAMBODIA said on Monday that Australian firm OZ Minerals had discovered around 8.1 million tonnes of gold on its territory, ahead of a conference intended to draw in mining investment."

From Gold mine may leave people homeless in Cambodia:
"The gold deposit that both [Australian] exploration company OzMinerals and the Cambodian government are excited about lies in the remote Mondulkiri province, 500 km from Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh.

"After 17 years of exploration the government believes this could be the biggest find so far in Cambodia, yielding at least 600,000 ounces of gold. The project is in its infancy and will not be viable as a mine unless OzMinerals can do more small scale drilling and sampling to see if it can yield more than two million ounces of gold.

"The government says the residents have deliberately built their homes on land owned by OzMinerals and will not be compensated, and if they do not move the government will burn their homes or bulldoze them."

I wonder if Oz Minerals had to do the same as BHP Billiton for access to the mines. BHP had allegedly paid "tea money". In April, the Sydney Morning Herald published a report on the scandal.

"In … terms of the minerals exploration agreement with the Cambodian government, which granted BHP Billiton and Mitsubishi the right to explore for bauxite, an amount of $US1 million was formally paid to the Cambodian government in September 2006," BHP wrote.

But BHP did admit "that its own internal investigation - a response to inquiries from the SEC - had uncovered evidence "regarding possible violations of applicable anti-corruption laws involving interactions with government officials."

BHP has paid New York law firm Davis Polk & Wardell to help them. I have a friend from school working in this firm (yes Singaporeans are everywhere). But of course my friend will not give me information. This is why she gets paid the big bucks.

If my Cambodian friend is right, Oz Minerals is not the only company that has found gold in Cambodia. So have the Chinese. He says the Chinese have sent the gold for tests to ascertain its quality. My friend is unhappy because of course he'd prefer if the gold stayed in Cambodian hands.

Mondulkiri is remote and relatively unexplored, so has much mining potential. The people there are dirt poor, and because the area is so remote, they are often neglected. Most children don't go to school and small children go into the small holes in the quarries looking for minerals (much like the children chimney sweeps in Europe a century or two ago). A friend who visited told me the locals get paid US$5 a kg of zircons. US$5. Do you know how hard it is to find a kilogramme of stones?

I was also told the volcano lake of Mondulkiri has been sold to a foreign company to build a casino. This information was from a foreigner working there but I have been unable to confirm this as there are no news reports. I really hope it is not true because I think that would be a mistake.

Mondukiri is not like Las Vegas, a desert with no natural attractions, so a casino city is the only draw. Building a casino will attract only one sort of tourists at the expense of many other tourists who'd like to see the natural beauty of Cambodia.

As for Oz Minerals, it too, is not without scandal.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Cambodian beauty shop

Cambodia's beauty shops range from the very simple, hole-in-the-wall kind, to more upmarket salons found in supermarket malls such as Lucky and in the main streets. In Phnom Penh, for instance, "London" and "Singapore" are well-known. A common joke is if anyone was going to London or Singapore that weekend.

For me though, I always go with my Khmer friends to the ones in a market, simply because it is cheaper - US$1 for a hairwash and $1 for a hair cut. I also like the service. The best hairwashes are done by the ladyboys because they are strong and passionate about their job. You can find them working at stalls in the Old Market.

My friends and I favour a small beauty shop in psar dum krolyiang (Krolyiang Tree Market) here in Siem Reap. It is a local market and not centrally located so tourists do not go there.

Here is the shop. You can see the ceiling is padded with cardboard boxes. I asked why and it is to keep the place cool since the shop, like all the others, has a tin roof. In front there is a plastic sheet to keep the rain off. The sheet is all green and mouldy.

The tiny fan. It looks like a toy fan. See the re-used cardboard boxes?

The shop is lit with a few fluorescent tubes. 

All simply connected.

These are the sockets. Could be disastrous if something goes wrong with the electrical wiring, I guess, since the shop is just a wooden shack. But they are careful as no one here has insurance.

Tin sheets make up one wall.

And wood the other. (Here the hairdresser is giving my friend a head massage).

Manicure. Also US$1.

Where we put our slippers, next to the hanging sachets of shampoo and creams. When I first arrived in Cambodia, I was dismayed to learn poor people had to buy sachets of shampoo for 500riels (US$0.125) each, for a tiny amount. They do not buy the bottles that we buy because these cost a few dollars. Many Cambodians do not have a few dollars to spend at one go, since many live hand-to-mouth. They make the sachets last a few days. As you know, usually when you buy in bulk, you save money cos the unit price ($/ml in this case) goes down. So buying in small quantities is another way the poor pays more. 

I was dismayed because I had just arrived from Singapore where magazines routinely give out free sachets of beauty products as samples. Some of those free sachets were bigger than what the Cambodians have to pay for. 

This is one of life's irony - the richer you are, and the more you can afford it, the more freebies you get. Just think of all those movie stars and what they get free. 

Where celebrities get free goodies because companies want to be associated with them, the middle-classes are given freebies as advertising. The hope is that we will spend our disposable incomes after trying out the products. 

As for the poor, since they have no disposable income, companies are not interested in enticing them - so no free stuff. 

The products, in a glass cabinet. Mostly cheap, unknown, brands from China or Thailand. But Dove (see the deodorant?) and Revlon (hair colour) are big here in Cambodia. Revlon, especially, has been marketing itself aggressively in this country. I am told MAC, which I used when I was working in Singapore, costs only US$3 here. Of course it is fake, from Thailand. But the Dove and Revlon are the genuine article.  

The rinse. Most market stall beauty shops are so tiny, there is no space to get a full length chair to stretch out. You always need to bend your knees. Here is my Cambodian friend getting her hair rinsed after the shampoo. There is no running water, no pipes, and no tap. So how to rinse?

With this! A giant 60 litre pail filled with water. The hairdresser scoops the water and pours it over your hair. (Yes, no warm rinses either. Only cold water). I thought it was great. Saves a lot of water this way. The water is bought from peddlers who go around the market (distilled water is cheap in this country - just $1 for 20 litres and one day I will show you why).

I have to point out the beauty shops in the Old Market in heart of Siem Reap do have pipes and therefore running water. Not all Cambodian beauty shops are as basic as this.

I know many friends who balk at the idea of getting their hair washed in this way, but I've never had any problems (no itchiness I mean).  Try it, the next time you're in Cambodia!

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Paedophile's rubbish dump scam

Khmer440 is a funny online forum. I used to read it while living in Phnom Penh but found it less relevant to Siem Reap so stopped after relocating in 2007. Recently a friend, a fan of the site, told me last year Khmer440 forumners were already onto the British paedophile David Fletcher.

Indeed they were. You can read the thread here.

I find Khmer440 funny because of the spats between the different bar owners and the expats who frequent the different establishments. It's also instructive because some of these guys have been in Phnom Penh for a long time and know the ins-and-outs. And the gossip is always good entertainment. I am glad I live in Siem Reap though. Siem Reap just seems less...complicated.

Anyway, I was reading the thread and found this bit interesting. From ryan_asia:
Posted: Sun May 02, 2010 3:46 pm Post subject:
I was visiting Phnom Penh around two and a half years ago and stayed at the guesthouse next to DF's (David Fletcher's) bar. I saw the fliers on his tables about helping the people at the dump. Back then I was stupid and thought anybody could help save the world. I asked David what I could do to help and he replied that the people needed rubber boots.

I asked him how many were needed and what the cost was. He needed 100 pairs and said they cost $3.00 each. Thankfully I didn't have $300 on me at the time. The next day I asked a Khmer lady working were I stayed next door if she could go hunt them down for me. I didn't want to go myself and get ripped off with Barang pricing.

I gave her $300 and asked her to see if she couldn't get them for less as I was buying a large quantity. I assumed that was the end of that money but she came back with the boots and gave me back $150. Incredible honesty given what she was getting paid for a salary.

Read the whole post here. Thanks for sharing ryan_asia.

Many times at Phnom Penh's riverside my friends and I would get accosted by some Khmer man with flyers trying to convince us to pay to visit the dump. I think it was US$15 for food and the trip there. The pushy man would even harass us in the restaurant, so I'm sure he gets a commission (why else try so hard?). Often the man would ignore me, only giving the fliers to my white friends. Of course I always advised friends against signing up for the trip, believing it to be a scam (turns out I was right - how shocking).

Fletcher is now behind bars. He was arrested in Bangkok after fleeing Cambodia because of an expose in UK's Sunday Mirror.

Anyway the point of this post: Tourists to Cambodia who would like to help please do not participate in the work of some random "charitable" organisation you encounter, no matter how persuasive it seems. You need to find out more.

One of the strategies Paul Collier, author of The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It, recommends is this:

"Aid agencies should increasingly be concentrated in the most difficult environments, accept more risk. Ordinary citizens should not support poorly informed [may I add, and intentionally corrupt ones] vociferous lobbies whose efforts are counterproductive and severely constrain what the Aid agencies can do."

Tuk Tuk Politics

I dislike many of Cambodia's tuk tuk drivers. I once read in a forum some guy defending them as "mostly decent guys trying to earn a living." In my experience most of them are crooks.

I say this having personally taken many tuk tuks (those hired by other people), negotiated on behalf of visiting friends, even employed wives of tuk tuk drivers (no more). I have encountered dozens of them in my 4 years in Cambodia and have grown to dislike them.

Today I learnt I am not alone, which is what prompted this blog post. Wandering Mama had this to say about Cambodia's tuk tuk drivers:

"In a word: Obnoxious. The smarmy guys outside our hotel in Phnom Penh gave us sob-stories while plying us with business cards and trying to exhort promises that we would call only them....The thing is if you tell them to go scratch or get pissy they love it. They want you to get mad. Then they lay it on thick and talk shit to their buddies about you in Khmer, laughing about getting the foreigner riled. And riled you get. Following one such exchange with a driver today, WPapa and I got into one of those classic on-the-street yelling matches (Why the F are we here, this was your idea…”) We were sweating, dragging kids along a busy street without a sidewalk, headed nowhere, all keyed up by the damn drivers."

This was in Phnom Penh and I've been told the tuk tuks there are much more aggressive than in Siem Reap. Oh the stories I have heard.

This one, by a French expat friend. It was late, after midnight, when she tried to get a tuk tuk to take her home, a distance that was literally 200 metres away (yes, I would have walked too - but it was late). The guy wanted US$3, for a trip that would cost US$1 at most. Ok, it was late, so she offered US$2. But he wouldn't budge. Fed up, she decided to call a taxi, which would have been cheaper (meter starts at $1 and the 200 m would amount to less than US$2 for an air-conditioned, smooth ride).

The tuk tuk driver started swearing at her and yelling "fucking Chinese taxi company". My friend was perplexed, as we all are - this guy who was sleeping in his tuk tuk would rather continue sleeping than earn an easy US$2. So why even bother to get up to talk to my friend?

Those of you living in the US or Singapore or some other rich country may be thinking, "Come on, it's only an extra buck." It is. But for many of us expats, it's become a matter of principle.

My American friend, a woman, tells me she would rather walk a mile to find another tuk tuk than to use the one that pissed her off by trying to gouge her from the words "tuk tuk madam".

It's like what my partner Alan says: We are happy to be generous, but don't anticipate our generosity.

(Perhaps you think it is a matter of principle for the tuk tuk driver too - "US$3 or nothing for me to wake up from my sleep and drive 200m". Fair enough, but then don't get pissy if the potential customer choses otherwise).

This is why I only use and recommend tuk tuk drivers who are known to me - Phoen in Siem Reap and Sophal in Phnom Penh. These 2 men I have known for 3 years. And the reason I continued to hire Phoen and Sophal after the first chance meeting with them is because they were honest and decent. Cambodia is like Bali to me in this regard - so many crooks that when you meet a decent person, you just want to reward him for his honesty. Completely screwed up I know, but this is how I often think and act - giving an extra tip for "honesty".

Anyway, this post is about tuk tuk driver politics.

I just learned this about Siem Reap - when a guesthouse sends a tuk tuk driver to pick you up at the airport, the guesthouse DOES NOT PAY the tuk tuk driver. The drivers do it for free, because they hope you will then employ them for your 3 day tour to Angkor Wat.

I think this is dishonest and disgusting - come on, guesthouse owners, your customer is paying you for the guesthouse (in my friend's case, 7 nights!), why can't you pay your tuk tuk driver a couple of bucks for providing this service to your customer? (If any guesthouse owner pays his/her tuk tuk drivers for this service instead of asking them to suck it up, let me know - I will recommend your establishment to my friends).

It makes me mad because customers are deceived and limits their choice of tuk tuk (if they know the truth and are decent people).

Let me explain.

My friends, a couple, who were staying at a Singapore-owned guesthouse had this happen to them. They had no idea the tuk tuk driver who got them at the airport was not paid, so they only gave him a US$1 tip. Meanwhile, because the guy had gone to get them for free, he was mightily displeased to learn from the couple that they may be going with Phoen to Angkor Wat.

Of course, he did not dare say anything to me. What happened was Kagna's friend, another tuk tuk driver, had dropped by the Bloom shop in the hopes of the couple using his tuk tuk (Kagna had mentioned to them I had friends visiting). That started the dispute. Tuk tuk 1 told tuk tuk 2 off, saying "hands off - since I picked them up at the airport, they are my customers".

When my friends and I found out tuk tuk 1 was not paid by the guesthouse, of course we felt bad for him. My friends decided they could either pay him for the airport trip ($5) or use his tuk tuk to go to Angkor (he wanted US$15 even though it is just $10-$12 nowadays because it is low season). They decided to go to Angkor with him for just one day.

It was easy money for him, as we spent a lot of time at the temples taking photos, so only did the main three. If you ride a motorbike in Cambodia, you will know the petrol costs less than a litre for this distance, so about a dollar (the tuk tuk is basically a carriage pulled by a motorbike). If he owns his tuk tuk as this guy did, U$$14 was profit (ok, maybe $12 or $13 if you minus maintenance costs).

This is why there are so many motodops and tuk tuk drivers in Cambodia - it is very profitable business. Chhun Hy used to bug me all the time to lend him money to buy a motorbike because he wanted to be a motodop in his free time because he knew how much money he could earn.

So don't pay any attention to the drivers when tell you the price of petrol has gone up, they have to pay for petrol for your 200-meter, $2, ride etc etc. In fact the price of petrol has come down from a high of almost $1.25 a litre (I think it was 2008?).

Still, not the end of the politicking.

The couple was staying for a week and during Angkor Wat day, tuk tuk 1 kept bugging my friends about their itinerary because he wanted them to continue to employ him for the rest of their stay. Apart from not guarding our things, resulting in the loss of a reflector (for photography), tuk tuk 1 lied to tuk tuk 2 (Kagna's friend) and said the couple had gone home the next day, warding off competition in this way.

Finally, on the last day, I had arranged for Phoen to go to the guesthouse at 5:30am to pick up the couple, as they wanted to watch sunrise on the way to the airport (you can see a very beautiful, striking, large and low orange ball on the horizon).

When Phoen arrived, the security guard at the guesthouse (it was so early that only the guard was around) told him the couple had already left. Phoen was calling me - at 5:30am!! - in a panic. I was really grumpy, since I had gone to bed at 2am. I told him to just wait for my friends. My friends and I don't lie, I told Pheon. If we say we will do something, we will do it.

My friends did appear, of course. Later, Phoen told me he was angry with the "niak eeum" ("night watchman") for lying to him. He says it is because the niak eeum and tuk tuk 1 (the designated guesthouse tuk tuk) are friends, so in cahoots.

Because there are more and more tuk tuk drivers in Siem Reap (I can't find any information on the numbers), it is very competitive. It is low season to boot, so many of the tuk tuks are struggling. Kagna's friend for instance, has a newborn. To save money, he has sent his wife and child to his hometown in the countryside where his family can look after them, while he continues to work in Siem Reap.

I would like to help Kagna's friend, but I can't help everyone. In this case, helping him would be at Phoen's expense. I'll try to spilt customers between them. This is why I often think of a tuk tuk cooperative. All customers go through a single point of contact and the business is divided between the drivers and the profits are shared. Of course there will be some who will prefer being independent, but that's fine. It's to help those who can't make it on their own, like Phoen, cos he doesn't speak English.


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