This week I experienced a stark contrast between abject poverty and high tech startups here in Cambodia.
The past few days I have spent in Kampot and Kep, which are small towns about 3 hours from Phnom Penh. Since it is the low season here, I was able to procure myself an insanely cheap deal staying at a 5 star luxury resort. I thought it would be nice to head out of the city, so I hopped on a bus and headed south.
After checking into my luxury digs, I asked my tuk tuk driver where he recommended I visit. He suggested the local markets – so off I went to visit it. As I arrived, I saw a couple of tourists walk out of the market with their faces as white as a sheet. I wondered why, so I went to explore. The first thing I noticed was that I was now the only customer in this marketplace. The second thing that hit me was the smell – it was horrendous. I looked around to see what it was. It was rotting meat that was covered in flies that the butcher had left out to sell. There was rotting vegetables that had been discarded on the ground. There were people using the far side of the market as an open toilet. I knew now why the other tourists had run away so fast with a shocked look on their faces.
I really didn’t want to spend much time there either, but from a photography point of view the place was fascinating, so I persevered. As I was walking around, a little toddler came up to me and offered me her rambutan fruit. It had been slobbered all over by her, so I politely declined. She was a cute kid, so I asked her mother if I could take a photo of her. Her mother graciously agreed and afterwards we got talking. She told me that the young child was 2 years old and that she had an older brother and sister. Her mother said that times were really tough for her, because her husband had run away with another woman and she was trying to make ends meet selling goods in the market, but there were no customers. Meanwhile, her son had been sick and she couldn’t afford to take him to the doctors. I felt really bad for her. I looked for whatever money I had on hand (alas only a few dollars) and gave it to her. I felt embarrassed giving so little – but the look on her face was like she had won the lottery – she was so overjoyed.
As I was just about to leave the markets, I walked past a young girl who mustn’t have been older than about 9 or 10. She was looking after one of the market stalls (selling instant noodles) while also babysitting her younger sister and brother. She had an intriguing face, one that showed that she had already experienced a lot of hardship despite being so young. If you’ve been to a third world country, you will know exactly what I mean. I started talking to her, and we communicated as much as we could with broken English and hand gestures.
After talking to her, I went back to my hotel. I felt really bad staying in my five star luxury resort while the kids I had just met would be lucky even to get a nutritious meal tonight. The face of the young girl in the stall haunted me. Unfortunately I had made the rookie mistake of thinking that the town that I was staying in would have an ATM machine, so I had not brought much cash with me – which meant I couldn’t buy anything at the stall to help her out. But I looked around and saw that the hotel had given me a complimentary fruit basket upon arrival and complimentary toiletries. I decided to pack up the fruit basket, shampoo, soap, toothbrushes etc and head back down to the markets.
When I arrived I spotted the kids and handed them the bag of goodies. They were very confused. I don’t think they get many presents! They looks on their faces when they realised that the gifts were for them was priceless. Their previously hardened and impossibly sad faces suddenly had big smiles. I’m really glad that the complimentary items that I would have just discarded had gone to kids that really appreciated it.
I also spent a lot of time in the villages for work this week. I wanted to interview a number of microfinancing customers. I can tell you their jaws dropped when:
- They saw a foreigner walk into their house.
- I asked them about their customer experience and how the organisation could improve. They seemed pretty amazed that I had come out all the way to see them to ask for their opinion. Can you believe some of these villagers are asking for loans of just $25? It was great to meet more of these villagers –really encourages me to work hard to make their lives just that little bit easier.
On the complete other end of the spectrum, I was invited to attend a conference on Development Innovation. This conference was sponsored by USAID, and showcased startup ideas to help the poor. The ideas came from both local Cambodians and expats. There were some really interesting ideas like an app that provided free legal advice to people working in sweat shops, or an app where the general public can report briberies (Cambodia is the second most corrupt country in Asia after North Korea). It was great to see passionate young Cambodians thinking up innovative ideas to help their fellow country people.
Whilst at the conference, I attended some of the idea pitches. I had to smile to myself when I noticed who was sitting just in front of me, it was a Buddhist monk. These guys just seem to pop up everywhere, and it fascinates me. A buddhist monk at a start up convention – something I NEVER thought I would see.
That’s my news for this week. Have a great week!
Ms Scandinasia xxx