Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Private water raiding threatens Angkor's temples built on sand

From today's guardian.co.uk:
"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 Oregonstate.edu 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 choike.org).

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, Time.com 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 kingdombreweries.com 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 blogs.telegraph.co.uk - "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: Ted.com. 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 bloomcambodia.com 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 www.livestream.com/tedx. 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 thisislondon.co.uk

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.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Thary the bracelet maker

Thary is a young Cambodian man who was born with very small legs. He is from Takeo province but came to Siem Reap about a year ago to look for work. I first met Thary at the Angkor Night Market, where I had a shop (now closed because I could not compete with the shops selling copies of our bags at very low prices). Thary was employed at another shop as a salesperson for US$30 a month, working 7 hours a night (5pm-12am). (As a comparison, we were paying our shop assistant $80).

Handicapped people are often bullied because it is hard for them to get jobs. Anyway, Thary was hoping I would be able to employ him but I could not as the shop already had one person. When I found out he could weave bracelets, I offered him free space at the Bloom shop (next to the Warehouse pub) to do the work. But I did tell him we did not have much passing trade at that time as it was low season.

So what Thary did was he looked around and found a spot in the Alley, south of Pub Street. It is a great location, as there are many tourists there at night. Soon he was able to buy a motorcycle. He jokes with Kagna, our shop assistant, that he is a rich man now. :)

You can see Thary's crutches in the photo. He needs help to get on the motorcycle, but once he is on it, he is independent. I always tease him about his motorcycle and his fancy new haircut. He is very proud of his red bike and always shows me where he parks it.

I brought my French friend, Aline, to meet Thary. Aline is an awesome lady. I really admire her. She raises money every year from her small village in France to help Cambodians through Deborah Grove's Helping Hands, an NGO that has done some amazing, innovative work in Siem Reap. (Deborah's story is much like mine - came to Cambodia on a holiday and something happened to shock her into action).

Aline was very happy to meet Thary and chose many bracelets (US$1 each) to take home with her as gifts for donors and for fundraising. Here she is selecting from the many bracelets Thary has made. The inside of the bracelets are cut from plastic soda bottles which is then covered with colourful thread that you see hanging. You can choose 2 colours for each bracelet - one for the background, and one for the name.

Aline also ordered some (US$2 each) for her daughters-in-law and granddaughter and here you can see Thary making them. He ties the thread to his toe and starts weaving. You can already see the words CECILE being formed. Thary is completely self-taught. He did not read books or watch Youtube videos to learn how to make the letters. He figured it out all on his own. Very clever -- I can't do it!

A happy Aline and an even happier Thary (He told me Aline was his only customer that night - it's low season so things are a bit slow for us all). If you are in Siem Reap, do drop by to give Thary a pat on the back for being such an entrepreneur - and don't forget to buy his bracelets!


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