From rural poverty to urban startups – Week 4 in Cambodia

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.

The luxury holiday resort I stayed at...

The luxury holiday resort I stayed at…

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.

The cute little girl who offered me her rambutan fruit - as you can see she is eating the fruit here...

The cute little girl who offered me her rambutan fruit – as you can see she is eating the fruit here…

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.

The young kids I gave my complimentary hotel gifts to.

The young kids I gave my complimentary hotel gifts to.

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:

  1. They saw a foreigner walk into their house.
  2. 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.
Visiting some micro financing customers. Many villagers cannot read or write, so they must use thumbprints instead of signatures for official documents.

Visiting some micro financing customers. Many villagers cannot read or write, so they must use thumbprints instead of signatures for official documents.

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.

At a startup conference with a Buddhist monk - only in Cambodia!

At a startup conference with a Buddhist monk – only in Cambodia!

That’s my news for this week. Have a great week!

Bisous,

Ms Scandinasia xxx

Buddhist ceremonies and military generals – week three in Phnom Penh

This week has been a real cultural experience. I have taken part in a Buddhist ceremony, worked out with military generals, and had a cute conversation with my tuk tuk driver that made me smile.

Firstly, my experience of a work related Buddhist ceremony. One afternoon I was working away on my laptop when I was asked to go and see the CEO. Oh no, what faux pas did I do this time? When I finally found the CEO, he was with the rest of the executive team, and he asked if I wanted to take part in a Buddhist ceremony to bless the company as it had recently moved to this new building. Wow – what a once in a lifetime experience, of course I said yes.

When I walked into the room where the ceremony was being held I was amazed. The room had been transformed with brightly coloured ornaments and offerings to Buddha. In front of me were offerings of food, including a pig (which had been cooked on a spit), and the ducks which looked to have been boiled, along with other random food and drink. Sitting in front of me were half a dozen Buddhist monks, all dressed in the saffron robes. They started chanting and we all listened and prayed periodically when the monks signaled us to. The best thing about this ceremony though was at the end when we were asked to take a handful of seeds. Then we were asked to throw them, so we threw them at one another – so much fun. Much more interesting than a boring politician cutting a ribbon to open a building…

Pig straight from the spit and a couple of birds as offerings to Buddha

A pig straight from the spit and a couple of birds as offerings to Buddha

Exec team getting ready for the ceremony

Exec team getting ready for the ceremony

In addition to having the company blessed, we were individually blessed at our desks too. The monks came by our desks and waved something around to signify the blessing – was very cool indeed. Such an amazing cultural experience.

Getting my desk blessed by the Monk - now that's a zen workplace!

Getting my desk blessed by a Monk – now that’s a zen workplace!

My next cultural experience was when I went to the gym. As you may know Cambodia used to be a communist country and the military still have an enormous amount of power here. One day I tried out a gym that was located near the embassies and government buildings. I should have guessed that working out near government buildings meant I would be working out with government and military officials too. There were a couple of older guys at the gym who were obviously very highly ranked in the military. They also wore huge diamond encrusted knuckle rings and had massive egos. They treated the staff at the gym like sh&t, shouting at them and ordering them to do things. For instance, they had their iced water served to them in champagne flutes, while I got my drink myself in a plastic cup from the water cooler. They had the staff wipe down their sweat after using their equipment, meanwhile I cleaned my own equipment. They had their body guards follow them to the gym, and their chauffeurs waiting outside, meanwhile, I hitched a ride on a tuk tuk.

There was one instance when one of the generals was hogging the treadmill for nearly an hour. I was annoyed because it was the last piece of equipment I needed to use, and I had been waiting around for him to finish. He was not a man to mess around with, but then again I’m not a gal to be messed around with either. So I walked towards him to ask him if he was finished with the equipment. I saw the staff wince as they anticipated what I was going to do. I knew they must be thinking “no, she can’t be, she can’t be asking the general to get off the equipment”, but yes I did, in a nice way of course. Success, he very graciously got off the equipment and let me finish off my workout. The staff were flabbergasted and gave me a sneaky smile. Phew – I had visions of ending up in some Cambodian jail for demanding something from a military general!

Before I sign off, I have to tell you a cute story about my tuk tuk driver. When I saw him this morning, he asked me if I wanted to go to the factory? Huh? He kept on saying it again and again until I realised he wanted to know if I wanted to go to work, because he thought I worked in a garment factory (i.e. sweat shop). I always thought working long hours in the corporate world was like working in a sweat shop, now I’ve just had it confirmed!

That’s my life this week.

Bisous,

Ms Scandinasia xxx

My life working in Cambodia and experiencing random faux pas

I’m getting into the swing of things now in Cambodia. I have settled into my consulting role at the microfinancing organisation and have got into some kind of routine. OMG a schedule and routine, I haven’t had that in a long long time.

So what is it like working in Cambodia you may ask? In some ways very different, and in some ways very similar. Here are some differences I have noticed:

  • There is no elevator. I have to walk many many flights of stairs to get to my seat (like 6 levels). Given that I’m going up and down the stairs a number of times a day, I am expecting buns of steel after this assignment ;)
  • Another difference is what happens at lunchtime. I’m used to popping to the nearby food court or café for lunch. Here there is nothing of the sort nearby. Every day I wait for a local lady who comes by the office to sell freshly cooked rice, stir fry, and noodle dishes – all for $1.00. Yes people, my lunch costs $1. So cheap.
  • My favourite thing about working in Cambodia is the lunch hour – it is in fact an hour and a half. Love it.
  • We often have power cuts, sometimes several times a day. I am very grateful for my laptop battery – it makes all the electrical failures a lot less disruptive.
  • I get chauffeured to work every day. Ok, so it might be in a tuk tuk, but given that I am used to walking – it is a very different experience for me. My driver picks me up in the morning, and waits for me to finish work every evening – all for the hefty price of $4 a day.
View overlooking Phnom Penh suburbs from work

View overlooking Phnom Penh suburbs from work

My Cambodian colleagues are lovely, and I enjoy talking to them about every day life in Cambodia. They are hard workers, but always have a smile on their face. I have also been working with some Americans from Princeton University. Everyone is lovely, and I am enjoying learning the in’s and out’s of microfinancing.

Luckily there have been no major faux pas at work (nothing that I know of anyway), but outside of work, there has been nothing but…

Here are some of the weird situations I have got myself into this week:

  1. This past week, I attended a Polygot event. What is a Polygot you may ask? A polygot is a person who can speak multiple languages. I went along in the hopes of meeting some internationally minded people and chatting either in English or perhaps another Asian language. What I didn’t realise was that in Cambodia, polygot catch ups were for people around the world who wanted to practice their French language skills. Makes sense I guess since Cambodia was a former French colony. Thankfully, I had at least a few weeks of French language practice in Montpellier, so I didn’t look like a complete idiot, but my brain was fried after 90 minutes of trying to remember French vocab.
  1. My next faux pas came one night when I was waiting for my driver to come and pick me up. I walked past a lady who asked me if I wanted a tuk tuk. I was used to tuk tuk drivers asking me this question, so I assumed that she was a female tuk tuk driver. I was happy to have found a female driver, and I wanted to support her, so I asked for her number so I could use her services in the future. I contacted her the next morning requesting an 8am pickup from my hotel. I was shocked when I saw the tuk tuk lady arrive as a passenger in a tuk tuk a few minutes later. I didn’t know what was happening, but I got on the tuk tuk with her and directed the tuk tuk driver towards my work. Meanwhile the woman I had assumed was a lady tuk tuk driver was in the back with me, dripping in jewels and with manicured hands and feet. I had never seen a tuk tuk driver this wealthy before? I spoke a few sentences in my pigeon French with her (since she didn’t speak any English), but my mind was racing – who was this woman and why wasn’t she driving the tuk tuk? After I arrived at work, I got someone to translate for me. I found out that the lady was in fact NOT a tuk tuk driver, but someone who had randomly wanted to help me to find a tuk tuk ride back home the previous evening. Stupidly I had assumed she was a driver, and had ‘commanded her presence’ at my hotel at 8am in the morning (I can’t believe she came!). She wanted to know what I wanted to talk to her so urgently about since I had called her so early in the morning – I sheepishly said ‘nothing’. How embarrassing.
  1. My next faux pas was arriving to visit the Royal Palace after it had closed – duh! But sometimes making such an error is a good thing. After arriving, Tuk Tuk drivers started following and harassing me, wanting me to use their services. While I was trying to get away from the harassment, I heard a quiet zen voice say something in English to me. The moment this person said something, the tuk tuk drivers stepped back and stopped harassing me. Who could this be? I turned around and it was a Buddhist Monk, dressed in full orange garb. Wow, how awesome. I was so grateful he had saved me from the annoying tuk tuk drivers. We started chatting and I found out that he was studying at university. I wondered what he would be studying – it must be religious studies or philosophy I thought? “I am studying marketing and business” was his response. What??? Wow what a surprise. We chatted for a while and decided to swap contact details. I laughed when I saw him whip out a state of the art Samsung smartphone to swap contact details. Sure enough a short time later there was a facebook request from the monk as well. How awesome is that – I am now facebook friends with not one but two Buddhist Monks. I think that experience made my life. I can’t stop smiling about the randomness of it all.

My new monk friend entering his dets into my phone – love it!

Well there you have it – a week of work and random events. Another week in the life of Ms Scandinasia on tour :)

Bisous,

Ms Scandinasia xxx

My royal visit to the Kingdom of Cambodia

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.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

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.

Microfinancing in action - the women counting the money they have borrowed.

Microfinancing in action – the women counting the money they have borrowed.

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.

Asian food - I missed you!

Asian food – I missed you!

That’s my adventures for this week.

Bisous,

Ms Scandinasia xxx

Penis Museum, Elf Houses, and a carpooling adventure – my experience in Iceland

This week, I am in Iceland. Iceland is a very small country, population wise, with only about 300,000 people, of which 200,000 or so live in the capital, Reykjavik. Of all the Scandinavian countries I have visited, it is the most Americanised, with a plethora of massive American cars, American fast food joints etc. This is because there was an American military base in Iceland up until only a few years ago. The country is also pretty new, with it’s independence from Denmark only fifty years ago.

Iceland is a cool country in both senses of the word. The locals complained that they were experiencing a heat wave – and the weather was 13 degrees celsius outside. I didn’t want to tell them that back home the temperature now in mid winter was almost 10 degrees higher. And the country, especially the capital Reykjavik is super hipster cool. There are loads of young people in the city, all with quirky attire sitting in cafes and bars tapping away for hours on their laptops or tablets. Iceland, situated right at the top of the world, is super cool and quirky for sure.

My first experience of Iceland was my hostel. I don’t think I have had such an amazing private room in a hostel. Check out the photos of my digs, Kex Hostel, pretty cool huh, and with a view to die for:

Kex Hostel - pretty cool digs

Kex Hostel – pretty cool digs

One of the quirkiest things in Reykjavik is the Penis Museum. The museum has over 250 penile artifacts and was initially a person’s private collection. The artifacts were from all different types of animals, from a mouse to a whale and everything in between. I’m not sure how one starts such a hobby, but hey, it’s definitely one of the most interesting museums I have visited that’s for sure. Check out some of the pictures below :

Artifact from a Sperm Whale - wow!

Artifact from a Sperm Whale – wow!

Ouch!

Ouch!

The Icelandic handball team won a silver medal at some Olympics and celebrated by making a copy of their junk - ummmm ok - weird right?

The Icelandic handball team won a silver medal at some Olympics and celebrated by making a copy of their manhood – ummmm ok – weird right?

And the quirkiness of Iceland doesn’t stop there. It is said that Icelanders believe in Elves, and on my visit it seemed very evident. I was lucky enough to see one of these Elf houses while there – alas no Elves though! They say that the strange volcanic formation make it conducive for Elves to freely roam – wonder why I’ve never seen any in New Zealand? Guess we have hobbits right?

Elf House

Elf House

Whilst in Iceland, I decided I wanted to have a look around. I wasn’t confident to drive on the other side of the road, but I met some girls on a Icelandic carpooling site, and one of them was going to Akureyri, near the Arctic circle, so I decided to tag along on the ride and see the spectacular scenery. The girls were a lot of fun, the driver from Denmark, a German Artist, and local Icelandic girl also as passengers. It was my first experience having a good chat to an Icelandic person and was wonderful to find out more about the country from her. I have found that the Icelandic people have been super introverted and elusive. I had come to Iceland in the hopes of visiting some distant relatives – but it was not to be. However, I did not take it personally, because most of the other travellers I had met had also come to meet their Icelandic friends – who had bailed on them last minute. Icelanders – will we ever really know them? Mysterious for sure…

Carpooling adventure with a Dane, German and Icelandic

Carpooling adventure with a Dane, German and Icelandic

I have truly loved seeing the insanely beautiful scenery in Iceland. Locals wondered if it was very different to New Zealand. In some ways a little similar with the volcanic rock, but completely different landscape, vegetation, buildings. And nowhere in the world have I actually seen tectonic plates (they are usually underwater right?) – in Iceland you could see the North American and European plates with your own eyes. It was a real thrill to see it close up. I met so many professional photographers in Iceland, all taking their pilgrimage to the country of incredible landscape photography. If you are a photographer – this place is a must.

Gullfoss waterfall - Iceland

Gullfoss waterfall – Iceland

The American and European tectonic plates.

The American and European tectonic plates.

Overall, my time in Iceland has been wonderful. I have met so many interesting travellers, seen scenery to take your breath away, and travelled in a Scandinavian country that caters very well for tourists. Shops, transport companies, tour companies all open early to very late – all very accommodating and punctual making travel a breeze.

Iceland – the quirkiest country I have every visited, and a great way to finish the European leg of my travels. Now back to some warm weather. See you next time!

Bisous,

Ms Scandinasia xxx