Saturday, August 6, 2011


Cambodia Retirement Village website launched

On August 4, we launched the Cambodia Retirement Village (CRV) website at in English, and a Khmer version will be added in the next few days also.

Cambodia Retirement Village – Together in the village

As mentioned ealier, Cambodia Retirement Village is a project with the objective to give support to the elderly people and provide accommodation, food, basic medical care, and serve as a role model to all people in the society to cultivate the sense of sharing and supporting.

On June 18, 2011 the first retirement home was opened in Cham Bak Village, Chong Ampil Commune, Kagn Chhreach, Prey Veng Province, giving a new home to five villagers, with facilities for up to 24 residents.

Following the motto ”Together in the Village”, the project also aims at bringing generations together again through sustainable community farming initiatives and educational resources for the children, as many young people have fled the villages to look for employment opportunities in the cities and abroad.

The project relies on the generous support from donors to finance the facilities and to supply food to the grandmas and grandpas living in the village. The website we launched today is still in its infancy, and more content and features will be added over time, including the ability to give online. Thank you very much to Pooranee, Chanthorn, Milton and Vuthy for helping with this effort as part of my #ibmcsc Corporate Service Corps assignment and putting in extra hours on the weekend to make it happen.

The new website will serve to inform people in Cambodia and abroad about the development of this project, and to solicit further support from donors and volunteers to help the senior citizens of Cambodia.

Please contact Mr. Kim Vuthy at the address provided on the Website for further information and to make contributions.

Update: The Website appears to have been taken offline in 2014. Please see the Cambodia Retirement Village Facebook group for information about the project.

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Friday, August 5, 2011


Lazy Sunday in Phnom Penh

Last Sunday was perfect for a lazy day in Phnom Penh. After three weeks of working, sightseeing, going out as a team and in smaller groups, staying home was a good choice, even more so as rain was pouring down heavily in the morning.

The daily routine of starting the day around 6 a.m. took its toll though. Sleeping in doesn’t work when the body is programmed to get up early. Having a long breakfast with bacon, eggs and fresh juices was nice though, as was catching up on papers, e-mails, photos and blog posts over a cup of coffee at the “home office”, our comfortable terrace at the Boddhi Tree Aram hotel.

In the afternoon the rain stopped, and most of us visited the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, commonly known as S-21. Walking through the former school that was turned into a prison during the Khmer Rouge regime where victims were tortured and killed or deported to the Killing Fields for execution was depressing and frightening.

The atmosphere resembles those of Nazi concentration camps, only the atrocities here happened in our generation’s time, merely forty years ago. One cannot imagine the living conditions and the pains that the inmates were exposed to. There are only seven known survivors, including Vann Nath whose paintings show people being tortured. In a documentary, a former prison guard confirms that they accurately depict what happened at S-21.

The commander of Toul Sleng, known by his alias “Duch”, was sentenced to 35 years of imprisonment by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, commonly known as the “Khmer Rouge Tribunal”. Trials for other senior members of the Khmer Rouge started in June this year, yet support for the tribunal is limited even among those who lost family members and friends here.

After a few hours at the museum we needed a treat and landed at Swensen’s, an international grill and ice cream chain of San Francisco origin, which was okay but not really great. Going for green tea ice cream was probably not the best choice either.

The day ended with a visit to the night market and, for Bertrand et moi, with drinks at the Riverside restaurant.

One of my favorite shots from this #ibmcsc trip is the two kids crossing the busy street near the riverside:

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A day in the Cambodia Retirement Village

Last Saturday some colleagues from the #ibmcsc paid a visit to the Cambodia Retirement Village, a social project in Cham Bak village in the Prey Veng province, about 1.5 hrs north of Phnom Penh. The initiator of the project, Kim Vuthy, had kindly invited us to come by and meet the villagers. Also with us came Laura Villadiego, a Spanish journalist who covers the ASEAN region from Cambodia, and Vuthy’s girlfriend.

We left Phnom Penh early in the morning, somewhat bleary-eyed after a night out in the city but excited about the opportunity to learn more about the project and get to know the people.

At the village we were welcomed by Vuthy’s family, which lives nearby, and the villagers who gladly showed us around. The retirement village in Cham Bak is the first of its kind, and provides accommodation, food and basic medical care for elderly people. The rooms are equipped with wooden beds, with pictures of the royal family on the walls and small Buddha temples as the only decoration. Two of the rooms already had solar powered electric lights, as the residents proudly pointed out to us. There is a separate building which houses the kitchen and the storage room, and an open room used as the bakery. The restroom is of the Cambodian style that we are not accustomed to, and we found that somewhat difficult to use, in part also due to the low height of the roof.

Vuthy explained that the main job for villagers is rice farming, which is done only once a year during the rainy season. There are no irrigation systems, so for the larger part of the year there isn’t much to do in the village, once of the reasons why people are leaving the small towns to work in the cities or abroad. With a history of war and destruction and the economic development, the Cambodian tradition of taking care for the families often breaks and elderly people find themselves homeless and helpless. Here they have found a new home and people who care about their well-being.

The most touching moment was when Laura conducted interviews with the villagers and asked a resident how we liked the new retirement home: no need to wait for the translation of what he responded. The big, happy smile did speak for itself.

Besides taking care of elderly people, the project also aims at bringing generations together by providing educational resources for the children at the village, and through sustainable community farming initiatives with rice fields, pigs, ducks and catfish.

Before visiting the animal farm and carefully balancing on the narrow paths between the rice fields, we enjoyed a very nice lunch in the village. With our Khmer skills being limited to saying “Hello” and “Thank you” we were unfortunately language challenged again and couldn’t really engage in a discussion with the families. Likewise my attempts to ask the kids for their names rarely succeeded, but we made friends with them nevertheless and some followed us to the rice field. They were eager to pick up a few phrases in English from us and did very well, and we had a good laugh too. If you ever hear a little boy introducing himself with “Hello, my name is Klaus” you will know why …

In the afternoon we were pampered with delicious palm cakes, freshly made and wrapped in banana leave bowls and then, while our host was sorting out a few things at the village, were given an opportunity to do what we are worst at – do nothing.

The virtue of being able to patiently wait and and do nothing has amazed me in many places. The people running the street market on our street wait for customers amidst a variety of food and vegetable plates from dusk till dawn, prepare some more food, and wait again. The Tuk Tuk and moto drivers take their naps on the street until someone requests their services. The villagers sit on their bed in front of the main building, watching the kids play. The van driver doesn’t mind to wait for a few hours while we visit a sight or have a meal, and we only managed a few times to convince our drivers or tour guides to join. While the cities are generally more busy, people don’t seem as rushed or hyperactive for no good reason as they are in other parts of the word, and doing nothing for a little while is perfectly fine.

When we found that two additional packs of solar powered lights were waiting to be mounted, that was as a big relief. There was work to do! We inspected the existing installations, discussed where to best place the lights and battery packs to protect them from rain while allowing the residents to easily reach the light switches, attached the battery pack to the roof beams, and ran wires between the rooms. Most of the cabling work was actually done by the local people, who were much faster climbing the wiggly ladder, but we shared the sense of accomplishments when all lights were done, and the rooms, the kitchen and the bakery were nicely illuminated.

Our Corporate Service Corps assignment was somewhat unusual as we came to a city and mostly worked in offices, so the day in the village for us was also an opportunity to experience life outside of the cities and spend time with local families. As much as we enjoy our volunteering work with the clients in the city, helping communities here with business and technology insights, seeing an immediate tangible results and the appreciation from the people in the village was very rewarding.

We said goodbye with hugs and sompeas, and made our way back to Phnom Penh late in the afternoon.

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Thursday, August 4, 2011


Week three in Cambodia: Lemons, monkeys and pasta

The weekend in and around Siem Reap with visits to the temples of Angkor and the fishing village marked the middle of our stay in Cambodia, and if time was already running fast before now it’s running even faster.

Week three in Phnom Penh was filled with office meetings, website development work and training sessions. Wednesday was by far the busiest day for me, with a two hour class on web design, usability and SEO in the morning, immediately followed by a management roundtable with the whole leadership team for more than five hours in the afternoon. We had good discussions and great fun with exercises on teamwork, collaboration, leadership styles and coaching, and the feedback from the session was very positive. Hats off to the team for staying energized and focused on the workshop all afternoon!

For those of you who know: lemons and monkeys.

The work on the Cambodia Retirement Village website progressed as well, although we ran some organizational issues which slowed down the project considerably. Rather than designing and implementing the Website we spent a good amount of time researching Cambodian and other countries’ laws for incorporating not-for-profit organizations and charities.

Evening activities were much slower this week, with everyone working hard on the projects and returning home late. Only on Friday the whole #ibmcsc team had a very special dinner: Gilberto, a cook of Italian origin who lives in Switzerland and was on a one month volunteer assignment to Boddhi Tree, created a delicious meal with pasta of all sorts for us. “Le chef” Betrand selected the wines at The Warehouse on 240 streets and arranged the dessert, bananes flambées. Everyone enjoyed the nicely set dinner. Thank you Gilberto, Betrand and the Boddhi Tree staff for pampering us so nicely!

Stuffed with noodles, dessert and wine, it was time for a walk over to Howie’s Bar and some exercise on the dance floor at Pontoon (USD 3 entrance fee, which is rather unusual here) and briefly at the sardine-tight packed Heart of Darkness, which Tripadvisor rightly calls the most overhyped bar in Phnom Penh.

Boom, boom, boom, bang bang, boom boom boom!

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Friday, July 29, 2011


Around Tonlé Sap Lake: Floating villages, crocodiles, artisans and Siem Reap nightlife

A “world away from the Cambodia of the countryside” calls the Lonely Planet Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. On Sunday we set about visiting the other part of Cambodia, the people living outside of the main cities in the floating village Kompong Khleang on Tonlé Sap Lake.

On the way there another food specialty was ready for tasting, bamboo sticks filled with sticky rice, beans and coconuts, grilled over open fire. Lecker!

July is when rainy season usually starts, and we #ibmcsc had come to Cambodia prepared for constant heavy rain and occasional flooding, even brought rain coats and umbrellas as advised. Rain hasn’t started pouring down heavily yet so we have been really lucky, and weather conditions have been fine throughout our stay including the weekends out.

Driving through the town on a dust-dry mud road, one can hardly imagine that this will be completely flooded in a just a few weeks. Tonlé Sap Lake serves as a reservoir for the massive amount of water from the Mekong river. For most of the year the Tonlé Sap river drains into the Mekong river in Phnom Penh. During the monsoon, it reverses its flow and pushes water up. The stilts on which the houses are built will serve a purpose, there won’t be any roads, and trees, bushes, everything that is than three or four meters high will be covered with water, a gigantic lake expanding from 2,700 km² to 16,000 km².

Kompong Khleang is not a popular touristic destination. With mostly open houses in town that provide little privacy, we felt a bit uncomfortable about being intruders in this place of tranquility. When we hopped off the van and went for a walk through the town, however, the villagers greeted us with a smile, the children came by asking for our names and gladly accepted the jelly we had brought, an old man proudly waved with his catch and invited us to closer.

Few people come here, and probably rarely such as diverse group from all around the world, so our appearance was probably as special as the experience was for us. The biggest challenge remained communication: In the cities we got around with English pretty well, but here some Khmer language skills would have been helpful to have a meaningful conversation beyond saying “Hello” and “Thank you”.

The village on stilts was already quite impressive, but nowhere near the experience of seeing how people live and work in and around the floating village. The small straw huts offer only basic protection and little more comfort than a battery powered television set. We saw people doing their laundry, washing their dishes, preparing meals over open fire and taking a bath, all in the same brownish Tonlé Sap Lake. We passed the school ship, the local grocery and hardware store and the hairdresser, watched fishermen slowly moving their rowboats through the reeds and young kids maneuvering motor boats with ease.

Back in the village we briefly stopped at a crocodile “farm”, one of the few buildings with stone walls, covered with a few wooden planks that didn’t look highly trustworthy as the “viewing area”.

On the way back to Siem Reap we had lunch, and the fish was certainly the most fresh I had in a long time, pulled alive from a basket in the pond only minutes before it arrived on my plate :-)

In the afternoon we practiced our bargaining skills at Siem Reap’s old market – I got some spices for Fish Amok, now just need to find a supplier for banana leaves in Vienna – and visited Artisans d’Angkor, an independent company that spun off Chantiers-Écoles de formation professionnelle, a professional training school, and now employs over 1,000 artisans producing crafts with various techniques including silk weaving and painting, lacquering and gilding, and wood and stone carving. Visitors are most welcome to the factories and offered free guided tours.

The temple visits in Angkor, where children were desperately trying to sell their goods to tourists, and the tour to the floating village triggered discussions in the evening about poverty tourism, paying poor areas a short visit before hopping back into an air-conditioned vehicle and leaving the place.

What is an appropriate way to learn about the living conditions and be able to share the information with others as we return home? Living with a family for some time would be a much better way to gain the experience than a one day trip, but does that mean you shouldn’t visit at all if you cannot stay for long? What is the right way to help these children, who tearfully claim they need the income so they attend school? There is little doubt that their making money from selling goods on the street will only lower their chances of getting education since their income may actually feed their needy family, but isn’t that a commendable goal and would it wrong to buy something from them?

In Cambodia, with a history of war that damaged buildings, factories, machines and social ties alike, where today volunteers and staff from various non-government and non-profit organizations around the world work on programs to improve education and healthcare, help restoring infrastructure and train tour operators in sustainable tourism and energy conservation, this discussion is necessary, even though there may not be a simple answer. For a comprehensive and balanced summary of pros and cons see the compilation post about the poverty tourism debate.

Discussing politics and social welfare only came to an end when we dived into Seam Reap’s nightlife at the Pyramide, a modern disco with international beats and the occasional interlude of Khmer music.

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Thursday, July 28, 2011


From Phnom Penh to Siem Reap: Of crickets, silk worms, and temples

Between two short work weeks comes a long weekend. We left “home” on Friday morning to spend a few days in Siem Reap, 300 kilometers northwest of Phnom Penh near Tonle Sap Lake. Once the capital of Cambodia, Siem Reap today is the place where most tourists land to see the dozens of temple ruins of Angkor.

On this trip we were joined by our host’s wife Neang and their boys Peace and Harmony, and fourteen people comfortably fit into a van very similar to last week’s. The road leading north is paved and in reasonable condition. With heavily loaded vehicles of all types connecting the towns and the occasional cow or pig slowly crossing, allow five to six hours for a trip the distance of Vienna – Salzburg.

The countryside looked greener and better developed agriculturally than the south, maybe due to the increasing rainfall as we finally getting into the rainy season. A pit stop along the way was an opportunity for Khim Chamroeun, our tour guide and driver for this trip, who happens to own the hotel in Siem Reap that we would stay at, to get some yummy snacks, crickets! We had tarantulas when we came here, and the kids seemed to enjoy the crickets (or our strange looks watching them), so let’s try!

They are right, crickets taste like chicken, crispy chicken. I couldn’t think of a really good answer to Natali’s question though why we are not simply having chicken then.

Our next stop was the Santuk Silk Farm, which is run by Bud Gibbons, an American Vietnam war veteran who returned to work on social projects, and when the funding for those programs came to end decided to stay and turn a non-profit organization into a socially responsible business, and his Khmer wife Nevin. Bud took us through the whole process of producing silk, starting with the worms enjoying their mulberry bush leave feast, followed by the cocooning which only lasts for about 72 hours, in which time the silk worm produced over 300 meters of fiber. Next, the cocoons are collected and soaked in hot water before multiple fibers are combined to create one silk thread. The last production step is the coloring of the threads. What remains in the pot is an empty cocoon shell and another culinary delight, a cooked silk worm.

The Cambodian silk produced here is stronger and has a yellowish color, most of the silk processed nowadays is Chinese silk though and the thread production here is mostly done for educational purposes. The actual “factory” is an open house with several wooden hand looms, where workers turn the threads into colorful, pretty scarves.

A production facility of different sorts was next on our route, just a few minutes from the silk farm. On both sides of the road stone cutters work on mostly Buddha and a few other statues, from handy palm size to meters high objects. Just standing there watching in the midday heat was cruel, hard to imagine what working here for many hours must be like.

We reached Siem Reap in the afternoon, dropped our stuff in the very spacious rooms at the very special Angkor Spirit Palace hotel, a charming building that gets visitors into the right mood for temple visits right away, and rushed over to the temples to see the sunset from Phnom Bakheng, a Hindu mountain temple ruin on a hill, overlooking Angkor Wat. As the sky darkened with grey clouds, watching the number of tourists climbing up the narrow stairs turned out to be more impressive than the sunset itself, and with my sort of tense relationship with heights I was especially proud that I made it up, and down, the temple hill.

Just as we got back into the van it started pouring with rain; how quickly the weather can change and the amount of water suddenly coming down continues to amaze me. The evening program was a buffet dinner and a colorful Khmer dance performance at Kouley restaurant.

Early Saturday morning (no chance to sleep in on weekends) we started our Angkor tour. In order to understand the temples of Angkor let me share some historic information, shamelessly copied from Wolfgang’s #ibmcsc blog:

From roughly 900–1200 A.D., the Khmer Empire dominated Indochina (Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos), as well as Thailand and a few other countries down here. It was a highly developed society, with both Buddhist and Hindu roots. Interestingly the religion swapped back and forth as kings came and went, such that one portion of the temples are dominated by Buddha figures, and the others by the Hindu gods. Today Cambodia is mostly a Buddhist country. The two most famous temples are Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm, the “Jungle Temple”. Angkor Wat was constructed as a Hindu temple and dedicated to the god Vishnu. It is the biggest religious building in the world, and this temple is what every tourist would recognize as the symbol of Cambodia. The walls on all levels feature endless stories carved into the rocks in amazing detail.

After the Khmer empire fell apart, almost all of the temples here were abandoned and swallowed by the jungles. They were re-discovered around 1860, and only de-jungled fairly recently.

The Buddhist temple Angkor Thum was our first stop, and our tour guide Socheat patiently explained the various scenes depicted in the reliefs.

Next was Ta Prohm, which was left in its wild state and is partially covered by huge trees, a truly amazing place where you cannot but take lots of pictures, and so we did.

Angkor Wat, the largest temple of the world, was our last sight for the day, and thanks to Baskar we learned a lot about Hindu gods and their appearances in different forms. Parts of the temple were closed in preparation for a ceremony, but even without getting to the top we got a good idea of the dimensions of this monument.

A description of a day at Angkor would not be complete without mentioning the sellers at each meeting point who offer hats, bags, wristbands, musical instruments, guidebooks, postcards, you name it and will entice visitors with anything from fishing for sympathy to irresistible special offers (“Only one dollar, Sir! Two for one dollar, Sir! Five for one dollar, Sir!”)

The day ended with a fantastic meal and a few beers at our host’s place, and I will save my floating village report for later.

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