Saturday, August 6, 2011


Our last week in Cambodia: Action!

Here in Cambodia I have spent a busy, exciting and fun month working on a Corporate Service Corps assignment, learning about the country and its people and getting fresh perspectives professionally and personally.

The four weeks had passed by very quickly, and before we knew it was our last week in Cambodia. And there were so many things still waiting to be done!

At work I completed my training program with two more sessions on web design and usability, and a brief overview on search engine optimization and web application testing. The Cambodia Retirement Village website started to look pretty good, and we launched the English version on Thursday as planned.

The weather was still not too bad although clearly rainy season had started, with more thunderstorms and sudden downpours of rain, and an increase in power outages. Power supply is generally not very reliable, with frequent fluctuations and short spikes, but we had more and longer outages this week both at the office and at the hotel. Work continues normally, only the lights are off and the beeping of the UPS boxes is somewhat annoying.

At Monument Books and Toys I wondered if they were closed since the location was pitch-dark, but it was just another power outage. The Blue Pumpkin café on the first floor had the cash register connected to a UPS so you could still pay the coffee which you could no longer get because there was no power for the espresso machine. At least I was able to select a cake for Baskar’s birthday in the light of two birthday cake candles, how fitting!

We had already worked on a press release covering the #ibmcsc Corporate Service Corps assignment with the communications team. The other piece of communication was the team video. The final cut is still in the works. No matter how the video will look in the end, the shooting of our introductions and statements, with camera man Baskar directing the “actors” and our first experience using a teleprompter, was already well worth the effort. Action!

On Wednesday we celebrated Baskar’s birthday with a “surprise” party. Well, we kind of gave away the secret over breakfast. Thanks to a great performance of Jose making up a story on the fly about a business event with catering that Baskar had to organize, we were able to at least secretly decorate the hotel lobby with a birthday banner.

பிறந்தநாள் வாழ்த்துக்கள், Baskar!

Srey Neang and the boys joined us that evening, as well as our colleague Andrea from the Philippines, who manages the corporate social responsibility programs in the region and came with our team for the final client reviews and to get feedback from the organizations which we had worked with. After dinner a few of us went for a blind beer tasking. Apparently our drinking habits have become very Cambodian, as we recognized the two popular local brands easily and considered them the best beers, almost guessed another one, and ranked the two European beers low enough that nobody wanted to finish those.

Our final ranking:
  1. Angkor
  2. Anchor
  3. Lao
  4. Beck’s
  5. Heineken

On Thursday the team at the office took me out for a lovely lunch at a Khmer Thai restaurant, in an elegant setting and with delicious food.

When the team told me we had a car, I was wondering for a moment how the whole IT team would fit into one car. I should have known by now …

The best was yet to come though: we had agreed to take a group picture in the afternoon, but there was obviously something else going on with people moving tables around in the lobby. The alleged photo appointment was really a gathering of the whole office staff to say goodbye with cake, a very touching framed thank you note with everyone’s signature, and presents for Marisol and me and for our spouses for having agreed letting us go abroad for the month. We had started our assignment with a very warm welcome, and we ended with an equally special farewell. Thank you to the fantastic people at HRINC, ITLINK, BDLINK and SHRM&P, we’ll miss you!

Also on Thursday I found a location for the long awaited Karaoke night. The Champs-Elysées hotel had the perfect setting, with a stylish VIP room with illuminated glass tables and a reasonable selection of English language music. We had great fun with two expert Karaoke singers, Jose for English and Vuthy for Khmer, a perfect dance choreography from Daniela and Marisol, and everyone chiming in, Betrand even on the Khmer songs :-) Only the staff seemed a bit unhappy that we managed to sing without consuming loads of drinks first, and my camera was obviously considered a weapon and had stay in a safety box outside.

Friday was our last day together as a team, and we ended the month were had started it, at the Romdeng restaurant which serves the fried tarantulas that we had already tried, and also a beef dish with red tree ants, so I tried that this time.

From Romdeng it’s only short walk to the usual places for evening entertainment, Howie’s Bar and Pontoon, where we took our last group photo on the dance floor before the group began splitting up.

Some returned to the hotel to complete their packing and get some sleep, some went dancing at Heart of Darkness, and we all knew that a few hours later the first colleagues would head to the airport and leave Cambodia. The assignment had come to an end. Goodbye team!

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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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