Greetings, this week I am in the bustling metropolis of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I am here in Cambodia to do some pro-bono consultancy work for a microfinancing organisation based in Phnom Penh. Wow – life cannot be any different to Iceland. Its super hot (late 30’s celsius every day), chaotic – with tuk tuks, motorbikes, and cars everywhere, and noisy with vehicles honking morning, noon, and night.
Cambodia is one of the poorest nations in the world, with an average wage of only USD$1 per day. Yes can you believe that? To put that into context – if a Cambodian person had to buy a coffee with our Western prices – then they would have to use 100% of their wages for over 3 days, just to pay for the luxury.
As part of the volunteer work I am doing, I was fortunate enough to be taken out to the villages of Cambodia to watch the microfinancing process in action. I arrived escorted in a car with a driver and flanked by other local members of the microfinancing organisation . When I got out of the car – the villagers were completely surprised and started giggling with broad smiles on their faces when they saw a foreigner step out of the car. When I returned the smile, the started bowing and pressing their palms pressed together in a prayer-like fashion. I felt like a Queen on a state visit – visiting my ‘subjects’ in a far away land. These women were dirt poor – living in primitive huts and trying to make ends meet. When I asked through a translator why they were applying for a loan – many responded that they were trying to get a loan to buy food to feed their families, or pay their electricity bills. And I could tell they desperately needed the money. Their rice fields, which should be fertile and full of water, were arid because despite it being monsoon season, there has been no rain. The situation got even worse when I asked some further questions. They said to me that they couldn’t read or write, and when they needed something read out to them they would ask a child in the village to read it for them. But the thing is – a lot of the children are not in school. When I asked why – the response was that the parents couldn’t afford to pay for the handouts the teacher would give out, or the pencils and papers needed for school. It broke my heart to see school age children hanging around – not doing anything, because they couldn’t afford to go to school.
What are the options when the rice fields have dried up and you don’t have any money or education? Well you work in the garment factories (i.e. sweat shops) also for a pittance. I drove past one of these while en route to the villages and I was shocked – I didn’t expect to see a huge open air shack full of women. Because it was all open air – there weren’t even toilets for the women to use. The conditions were so bad – I couldn’t speak, I just had to put my sunglasses on and hope that my colleagues didn’t see my eye well up with tears. It was utterly dreadful. When you look at your clothes and see ‘Made in China’, it is probably made by a Chinese company who has outsourced it to Cambodia because the wages are cheaper. It has really made me think about where I buy things from now. Do I want to be contributing to this for the sake of an impulse purchase of a new t-shirt?
But it was the resilience of these women that was really inspirational. Despite having nothing – they had big smiles on their faces and they were so welcoming, offering to me whatever they had (a chair to sit on and an offer of a drink). But one thing I have to admit, I have a new found appreciation of what the royals have to do. Sitting for a long time in very very humid 40 degree heat listening to someone talk in another language while everyone stares at you – it is actually harder than it looks. I almost fainted on a number of occasions. But I wouldn’t have missed that opportunity for the world – was such an inspirational experience to meet these women – and these are the women I want to help.
On the exact opposite end of the scale – I also attended an expat party at an upmarket hotel in Phnom Penh. At this party, I met people on the other end of the wealth spectrum. I met people working for the UN, Asean, various international companies and even someone who was the pilot for Warren Buffet’s private jet. Yes – as you can see – totally different end of the spectrum.
It has been a tough week getting my head around experiencing two ends of the spectrum – but it is great being here. Being back in Asia. I have missed being in Asia – the mayhem, the friendly smiley people, and lets not forget the food. OMG having rice again. I swear, there is nowhere in Europe (apart from my aunt’s place) that knows how to make rice properly – its nice to be eating it again.
That’s my adventures for this week.
Ms Scandinasia xxx