When I lived in Kampong Cham during the two years between 2013 to 2015 there was one swimming pool in this town, about 5 metres long and knee-deep, belonging to a local hotel.  In the past two years two swimming pools have appeared here.  “The Chinese” built a large town pool complex with four different swimming pools including a large diving pool, a large lap pool and two smaller pools.  The $1 entrance fee makes it inaccessible to most locals meaning that it is often empty of customers.  Which is great for the likes of me who wants to swim away from the crowds.

The crystal blue waters always remind me of my childhood, swimming at pool complexes in New Zealand.  On days when there are other customers, almost all of them wear an orange life jacket hired from the entrance desk.  The sight of so many orange life jackets on bodies in a town pool strips me of my NZ memories entirely as it’s so foreign to my experience.  Locals who can afford the entrance fee are also likely to be educated and therefore informed of the high rates of drowning in Cambodia, which I guess feeds the assumed need of a life jacket in a place where swimming lessons are extremely rare due to a lack of trainers in such a micro economy.  On busy days I have seen young men sitting poolside watching swimmers and occasionally directing people away from rule breaking behaviour, who appear to be hired as lifeguards.  On quiet days such as today and yesterday the guards are missing, I guess it’s not financially feasible to employ them for only a few customers?

Swimming Pool

Around the same time as this western style swimming pool appeared, someone built an undercover pontoon structure in the river.  It seems like a rectangular wooden terrace enclosing a strip of river water, covered with a tin roof and accessed from shore via a wooden platform bridge.   With many decades of only ever swimming in blue pool, ocean or river waters and the parasite phobia I have developed since coming to Cambodia, this is not a pool I ever plan on swimming at so I don’t know the entrance fee but imagine it to be cheaper than the Chinese town pool.

Kampong Cham - Piscine !! Cambodia - October 2017 (213).JPG

Yesterday I brought the Phter Koma children, who have moved to another organisation, swimming and then for lunch.  Last time I saw them we also swam together.  I arranged with their carer to meet up at “the new town pool”.  Arriving a few minutes late, I was nevertheless earlier than the children.  Some time later they still hadn’t arrived and I called the carer, who said they were due to arrive any moment.  Some time later he called me to say the children were at the pool but they couldn’t see me?  We soon worked out that while I was waiting at the Chinese pool, they had interpreted “town pool” as the riverside pontoon!  They soon joined me, donning their life jackets before a raucous time ensued in the crystal blue deep waters.

This mismatch of assumptions reflected our different perspectives.  A town pool to me, is a crystal blue chlorinated complex with lifeguards.  That concept is very foreign to Cambodians who only ever swim in the river which feeds their homes and soaks their rice fields.  Of course the undercover pontoon would be the place they interpret me as meaning when I said “town pool”.  Equally, of course this was never going to be the place I meant!

At work last week I told a staff member that we only needed her to work for two hours on Friday, from 10am to 12pm so she could use her annual leave for the rest of the day.  Without the translator present, she mistrusted her interpretation of what I was saying, double and triple checking with me.  I repeated slowly, using signs to depict my meaning, that she should arrive at work at 10am and then at 12pm, she could go home.  Many laughs were had during the conversation as we knew we weren’t entirely on the same page.  Sure enough, at 10am the following day she arrived at work and I felt confident that we’d managed to understand each other.  About an hour into the afternoon I approached the nursing staff and there she was, still at work!

Mix-ups like this are a part of everyday life here as I, with my western privilege and monolingual interpretations of the world, try to navigate a foreign world which makes limited sense a lot of the time, with people forced to communicate with me in what is a foreign language to them.  Miscommunications are common, often time consuming and also often amusing.  This includes my experience of frequent miscommunications with the French as well as Khmer people I work with.  Through our Khmer translator, I often hear the words “there is not a direct translation for that”.  The way language informs cultural perspectives means that bilingual and multilingual people are far more adept at cultural awareness, as understanding another language also gives an insight into the world view of people speaking the language.

Communicating in writing can be even more challenging.  This week I had this conversation with Sokum’s husband on WhatsApp about her return to hospital with complications following her heart surgery.
Her surgery body need to clean.
Yes, the wound, is it ok?
<Photographs of an infected wound with opening areas along the suture line>
It looks infected, did they give medicine?  Very important not to touch it with your hands, did they put something over it to protect it?
They give medicine to my wife before clean wound everyday.
For pain?  But maybe she needs antibiotics to take everyday for maybe 2 weeks?
Did a doctor look?
The doctor go to Korean now.  After they were clean it ready send to doctor.
Do they put something on it like this <photograph from internet of gauze dressing>
Yes, they use like this after cleaning.  <Photograph of her chest with a thick dressing>
An infected wound in this setting is a very worrisome situation with such low standards of infection control.  This will all be adding to their expenses as she rents a room in Phnom Penh to be near the clinic and they travel daily to have the wound dressed.

After living for almost three of the past four years in Cambodia and still speaking only very broken Khmer, unable to string more than a couple of full sentences together, I have a deep respect for Sokum’s husband’s ability to get his message across, even though I am not as fully informed of the situation as I had hoped.  He may sound simple in his use of written English to mono-linguists who have never had to communicate in another language or culture but he is in fact, highly skilled.  Noone understands this better than the European contingent, who jump between their native tongue and their second, sometimes third and fourth languages, as a mainstream behaviour.  Many Khmer people do the same and of course, Australia’s indigenous people are highly adept multi-linguists.

Dara’s parents are working in Phnom Penh again, on another construction site and this week I visited them after work.  My regular Phnom Penh tuk tuk driver probably knows more English than he admits to, forcing all of our communications except when totally desperate, in Khmer.  I like being forced to use my limited Khmer with him and we always seem to make sense of each other.  Unlike my other regular tuk tuk drivers, this means he doesn’t double as a translator.  When we traveled to Dara’s parents’ work location Tuk Tuk called them to get a pin point on exactly where we should go and they instructed him to wait at a particular corner beside a massive construction site.  The workers traveling home in all manner of styles were fascinating to me.  Tuk Tuk was far more interested in watching my reactions as I photographed vehicles heaving with workmen and women being transported home after a hard day of physical work at various heights above the city.

Communicating with Mum and Dad is almost easier than with people who speak English, because we know 100% that we are guessing each other’s meaning.  They are living in a communal building with other construction workers along a narrow, muddy, bumpy dirt track about 2km from their work site.  They earn $5 per day (Mum) and $5.50 per day (Dad, who has a team supervisory role).  Their tiny room in a corridor of other tiny rooms is furnished with a mosquito net hanging over a bed-sized bamboo mat on the floor, a tiny toilet with a shower hose on the wall and a small bench holding a rice cooker.  Most of their meals are plain rice with a little fermented fish for taste.  We sat on the floor of their room together as neighbours lined up at the door, staring in at the foreigner and speaking English words at me as I spoke Khmer words  back.  When I asked Mum and Dad about their salary they seemed to be saying that they earned $5 and $5.50 per month.  Only when Dad wrote it down and added x 30, did I realise they were saying that they get paid their daily wage, monthly.

Yesterday afternoon Dan traveled to Dara’s village without me to collect grandma with Dara and his tiny sister, bringing them to town so that we could share dinner together at the Night Market.  It never ceases to amaze me how much fun you can have with people, especially children who are so communicative, despite having no shared language.  I am also always aware that the way I experience something, such as eating fried rice at the Night Market, or swimming in crystal clear swimming pools, or interpreting health care, is completely different to the way my companions are experiencing it.  The same goes for my experience on board a river cruise boat earlier this week.  Friends were on an expensive cruise from Ho Chi Minh to Kampong Cham and when they anchored in Phnom Penh I was invited on board to join them for drinks and a meal.  It was a fabulous experience in plush surroundings.  Yet all I could think of, was the Cham people on their little wooden boats less than 500 metres on the opposite shore from us, hungry, on leaking boats with no roofs, surviving from one meal to the next.  At times these contrasts are confronting but I am constantly grateful for my good fortune which in fact, can only be genuinely enjoyed and appreciated when it is shared with those less fortunate.


Making Sense of Another World

A first impression of Phnom Penh for any newcomer will likely relate to the traffic.  Sitting at intersections beside trailers piled disproportionately high, their loads towering ludicrously into the sky, you may have fleeting images of death-by-crushing.  Ladders stand tall on seats of motos between the back of the driver and the front of the first passenger, who often has a paint pot hanging from the crook of an elbow and a third passenger behind.  Other ladders balance horizontally along the length of their moto.  Motos and moto-pulled trailers carry long rods of steel protruding into the surrounding traffic space, causing images of death-by-impalement.  None of these near-death visions are helped by the way that everyone weaves around each other, edging into crossroads slowly but persistently so that you are eventually in the middle of an intersection with traffic purring towards you from all directions.  It takes some experience to learn that it’s probably going to be okay and you’re probably going to make it across the intersection without incident.  At major junctions children, elderly women and disabled men wait at the centre barrier for lights to turn red before venturing out into the crowded vehicles to beg for a morsel, knocking on car windows or waiting hesitantly at tuk tuk steps.  Often they have chains of jasmine for sale or dusters made from chicken feathers fixed to a stick of wood, offering to dust car windows.  Many have nothing to sell, only mumbled words of begging.  Blind people busk along congested sidewalks, amputees sit at the same corners where naked and malnourished children play with loose bricks or dirt while scavenging parents rest beside their parked, hand-pulled wooden barrows on what must be a long, hot and dirty work day.

It’s all very interesting.  At the same time there is a harshness and injustice to it which many of us might only fleetingly consider before making our way again towards our comfortable lives.

Local elections are imminent and both major parties have been parading through the streets with megaphones blaring from tuk tuk roofs, crowds piled into trucks, pick ups, tuk tuks and trailers, party flags flying jubilantly.  According to Cambodia Daily, Prime Minister Hun Sen, who makes regular televised monologues of many hours long in parliament, said two days ago he was willing to “eliminate 100 or 200 people” to prevent his overthrow.  Smashing teeth, slitting throats, burning homes, references to war (far from trivial in a place still traumatised by years of violent war), imprisoning journalists and bloggers, are all a part of the rhetoric being reported, little of which appears to make news beyond Cambodia’s borders.

Yesterday I had a particularly grueling lesson in my ever-emerging comprehension of the “lot” of tuk tuk drivers.  During my 2015 year-long holiday I met a tuk tuk driver who I will call “TTM” (Tuk Tuk Madame), in a seaside resort town who showed me some sights and transported me around for a few days. During this interaction I learned that until recently TTM had worked at a shoe factory in Phnom Penh where he had to rent a room and buy food-for-one as well as budgeting to feed his wife and family separately.  The micro-salary was essential to his family’s survival but it came at some cost including the sacrifice which so many Cambodians make, of living away from a young family.  Sometime before I met him, he had resigned from the factory job and bought a tuk tuk and moto to generate income from home.  Reliant solely on paying customers, I knew even in 2015 that it was a hard gig.

Caz and I visited his town in March for a few days and since then we have had more contact, as I’ve returned again for a long weekend and he occasionally says hello on Messenger.  Last night it came as no surprise when he said hello out of the blue, until he shared a crying emoji.  I asked why he was sad and he slowly but determinedly told me in very broken, misspelled, almost indecipherable written English.  Slightly horrified and slightly cautious, I rang Samantha who agreed to call him and find out the detail for me.  A number of conversations later, by Messenger with him and telephone with Samantha, I had the full story, my caution demolished and my horror bolstered.

The purchase of his moto and tuk tuk had been made via a loan from a well-known, prevalent micro-finance company.  This particular company feature in my mind because when we were looking for ATMs in Siem Reap recently I was moved by Seth’s reference to them as “the PLC Bank”, highlighting the minimal cause he has had to ever notice financial institutions.  The ubiquity of such inexperience is highlighted by TTM’s need to use a micro-finance company, with extremely high interest rates, over a bank, because without a bank account there is no choice.  It is not viable if you earn a tiny amount of money, to have a bank account, as the fees can exceed your income.  In 2013 the World Bank reported that less than 4% of the Cambodian population had a bank account.  This makes people immediately susceptible to exploitation.

According to Investopedia the intention of micro-finance is to give low income people an opportunity for self sufficiency, most often associated with low-interest lending but some offer additional services such as bank accounts and information to increase financial literacy.  As with so many well-intentioned activities in unregulated nations such as Cambodia, micro-financing has been corrupted into an exploitative enterprise, offering loans to the very poor who have no other available options, at excessively high interest rates.

TTM took a loan of $2,000 to purchase his moto and tuk tuk, thinking that by being close to home (with less expenses), and in a resort town (with the chance of paying customers), he could pay the loan off over the contracted 20 months and be in a better financial situation than he was, working at a shoe factory.  With Samantha’s final phone call this morning I learned that he has been committed to $100 in principal repayments and $35 in interest repayments, every month since his venture began (ie 35% interest rate).  In a place where the monthly average income is about $90, this is a massive commitment which he has struggled to maintain.  He took an extra $500 loan last year to help relieve the repayment stress, but he remains $800 in debt.  When Samantha called me to explain she said “last month and this month is wet season and not so many tourist, and also is election season, so he cannot find customer so he cannot find money to pay back the loan”.  I asked her what election season had to do with it?  She replied “because when it is close for election Cambodian people are afraid of the war again, and we will not go anywhere and we will not spend any money because we might need it if the war happen.  If you ask all Cambodian people, maybe 80% of us think like this”.

With no customers, TTM has had no way of repaying the lending institution, who sent him a letter informing him that the tuk tuk would be repossessed in two weeks unless his repayments were honoured.  He photographed the letter and his repayment information and sent them to me this morning.  I forwarded them to Samantha for translation and she confirmed the loan, remaining balance, principal and interest amounts.  With the threat of losing the family’s only income-generating asset, TTM was desperate and I was his only connection to anything resembling possible assistance.  I did assist him a little and he has some time now, to try and earn enough to pay the rest of the loan.

Recently Caz and Rav both informed me that the hotels who have their own tuk tuk drivers, often in some sort of hotel uniform or numbered tuk tuk, charge these drivers a commission in order to be connected to their hotel.  Fees differ per hotel, but are usually between $400 and $1000 as a one-off payment.  Keen to earn a regular income, drivers will take loans to pay this fee in order to have a guaranteed income with exclusive access to a niche customer market.  Once connected, drivers are guaranteed a small daily stipend (smaller than most fares), regardless of whether they transport customers or not.  If you book into a hotel advertising a “free tuk tuk”, your driver is the one paying the price for your saving.

I hope that anyone thinking of visiting Cambodia who comes across this blog, can know one thing.  The fun and smiling, or humble and quiet character who calls “tuk tuk Madame” or “tuk tuk Sir” at you, is one of this country’s poor.  He probably has no education and he may well be struggling with debt.  His tuk tuk might be rented, reducing his revenue further.  Look at his moto, the upholstery of the seat you’re sitting on, the condition of the roof and floor of the carriage you’re riding in.  Ask him about his life.  While you need to pay a fair market price for the sake of the micro-economy you have entered, you also should not negotiate him down to an unlivable tariff and if there’s anything you can do to help him, maybe you would both benefit from the experience.  When you touch a tuk tuk in Cambodia, you are touching the essence of this nation’s austerity.

An Infinite Learning Curve

United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) defines an orphan as a child who has lost one or both parents.  Using this definition, they estimate that there are 132 million orphans in the world, but of this number, children who have lost both parents (double orphans) total 13 million – still a staggering number.  HIV is named as the single most important factor affecting these numbers, but there are other reasons such as war which result in children losing their parents.  The UNICEF estimations do not include abandoned children or children who have been sold or trafficked.  While orphans are a worldwide phenomenon (there are obviously orphans in every country), the vast majority are living in the world’s poorest countries.

The first case of HIV in Cambodia was discovered in 1991, ten years after the epidemic was identified.  Cambodia’s first case of AIDS occurred in 1993 and the HIV prevalence rate by 1998 was 2.5% of the population.  Since then the rates have steadily declined, and in 2013 0.7% of people aged 15-49yo were estimated to be HIV positive.  This translates in total numbers to 71,347 people including 6,850 children.  On average three new HIV infections are contracted and six adults die from AIDS here each day.  Approximately 85% of people living with HIV in Cambodia are receiving appropriate anti-retroviral treatment (ART).  Another huge achievement is the much-reduced rate of HIV transmission from HIV-infected mother to child, to only 2%, thanks to the use of Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) interventions.

In the past ten years the number of orphans in Cambodia has decreased (alongside the HIV epidemic).  Simultaneously there has been a 75% increase in the number of orphanages in the country.  This is directly linked to the concurrent explosion of tourism to Cambodia, with a 250% increase in foreign arrivals in the same ten years, with more than three million visitors entering Cambodia annually now.

Friends International list a number of dangers associated with Orphanage Tourism, as:

  1. 70-75% of children in Cambodian orphanages are not orphans and should be with their families.  They have been recruited from poor families with promises of educational opportunities which are otherwise unavailable.  Such recruitment is usually dishonest, with many orphans kept out of school entirely.
  2. International visitors have no child safe checks, allowing predators access to vulnerable children.
  3. Visiting an orphanage which allows you to come as a tourist or short term volunteer supports a business which is making money from the children.  This causes untold emotional damage to the children while the only real beneficiaries are the orphanage founders who gain financially from well meaning foreigners.

There is a lot of information available about the topic, and I’ve put some useful links below. Cambodia’s Orphans Business, a film by Juliana Ruhfus and Matt Haan, is 25 minutes of worthwhile viewing available at this link.

There are an estimated 10,000 children currently residing in approximately 500 orphanages in Cambodia.  A large number of these orphanages use volunteering or other means to attract foreign visitors (such as shows put on by the children) as a way to generate income.  Some keep the orphanage in poor condition, and even starve the children, in order to use it as evidence to visitors for the lack of funding.  Fabricated paperwork makes parents and families untraceable, meaning many children can never be reunited with their families.  Children are often kept out of school and forced to perform in front of visitors for cheap treats.  Supervision is often minimal or even non-existent.  These are just some of the issues arising in orphanages across the country.

Foreign NGOs are also involved in this scam, with an American organisation called Projects Abroad coming under the radar a number of times in the Cambodia’s Orphans Business documentary.  One volunteer reported that it cost her $3,000 to register with the NGO who sent her to Cambodia, while the local orphanage receive around $10 per week per volunteer.  The financial turnover in 2010 of Projects Abroad was US$24 million with a profit of over US$3 million, of which US$1 million was paid in dividends to their two directors.  Even more shocking, is the lack of criminal history checks on volunteers, making it easy for foreign sex offenders to enter Cambodia, hide their identity and carry out child abuse – some have even opened their own orphanages for this express purpose!

Until things in Cambodia improve, it is said that the country does benefit from the skills and qualifications that overseas visitors bring with them.  However, need will only be met with responsible volunteering alongside the implementation of in-country systems which can better protect the children.  Responsible volunteering is easy enough to explore via the internet.  Two decent and informative sites I’ve discovered, but no doubt there are many others, are and .

With all that said, it is possible to volunteer responsibly and Cambodia also has many legitimate NGOs and orphanages, as I have mentioned previously.  I have also alluded previously to my involvement with an orphanage founded by a number of people including two of my national colleagues.  Prior to 2008 MSF-France worked on an HIV program and the doctors and social workers realised over time that many of their patients were dying and leaving behind children who were HIV positive, in need of adequate care, which was not being provided in their crisis-ridden home environments.  This motivated my colleagues to found an orphanage to take care of some of these children.  For the past three months, at the request of one of the founders who I work with, I have been attending the orphanage three times a week to teach English to the children, who have all suffered educational set backs due to their social and medical conditions.  It’s been a brand new endeavour for me, full of exhausting planning and preparations, classes which don’t go according to plan, and a failure on many days when craziness overtakes the structured plans in my mind!

More recently I have been recruited as the seventh member of the Board of Directors of this orphanage.  There are four local Khmer people and a French social worker, all of whom were involved in the founding of the orphanage, plus an American volunteer based in Phnom Penh and myself.  Yesterday I attended my first board meeting, where I spent four hours absorbed in discussions relating to the governance and functioning of the orphanage.  Issues ranging from the children’s education and health, exit strategies for each child when they reach adulthood, the possibility of admitting more children to the home, budget and staff salaries, donors, conditions relating to specific donations and transparency of financial and administrative aspects of the orphanage were all discussed.

Many of these points led to more general discussions.  How much money should a small, functional NGO should spend on overheads such as staff salaries (the short answer is 35% or less; the longer answer is much more complicated and far less clear-cut).  This thought-provoking 18 minute video is a lecture by American humanitarian / entrepreneur Dan Pallotta about the way we think about giving to charity. His point that overhead contributes to the cause, rather than being an obstruction, turns the usual thinking about donor money on it’s head, and in my opinion, rightly so.  Which is certainly a controversial thing to say given the heated discussions I sat in on yesterday!

Our staff salary discussion in turn led to a more general discussion about Cambodian incomes.  Income and food prices work together in Cambodia to directly influence the population rates of malnutrition, which are very high.  According to the World Food Programme, rice supplies approximately 75% of daily caloric intake and fish is the main source of protein for the population.  Rice cultivation employs a significant proportion of the population.  There is a lucrative rice export industry but many families have their own rice fields, for self-sufficiency.  One of my colleagues recently took two weeks annual leave and upon her return I discovered that she had spent the time planting her rice field.  Not exactly my idea of a holiday, but she is guaranteed to be able to feed herself for nine months of the forthcoming year.

Depending on the arrival of reliable rains, rice planting season usually begins between June and July, and for a period while the rice grows, from August to December, rice and money often run out, making these the “hunger months” when people are much more likely to go hungry and malnutrition rates rise.  A new poverty line was reported in Cambodia last year, based on a combination of the costs of food items, purchasing clean water and non-food items, set at a nationwide daily limit of almost US$1 per day.  This rate differs between Phnom Penh, other urban areas and rural areas (refer  As such, $1 per day per person is the very least amount required for basic survival.  This feeds my understanding around the fact that some colleagues and orphanage staff earn $100 per month and how $100 of debt can result in extreme stress.

The orphanage budget is very small and restricted and one of my roles as a board member will be to work out ways to try and increase donations as well as assisting with budget monitoring and transparency.  As I have never been involved in fundraising before, and am not a natural salesperson, this seems a daunting challenge, but one which I am prepared to have a go at.

I sat in a riverside restaurant writing most of this.  We are at the beginning of the final year examinations for Year 12 and the guest house here has many young Khmer girls who have traveled to town to sit their national exams.  As I sat here writing this a foreign man sat a few metres from me at the bar, leering shamelessly at the teenage girls coming and going as he bored the poor bar staff, a much less common occurrence in Kampong Cham than I’ve seen in places like Siem Reap and Sihanoukville.  There must be heavy rains to our north as the Mekong River is rising at a rate of knots and there is a lot of talk about it flowing over into the town.  The villages on the banks opposite us are already underwater, with boats taking the place of motos, tractors and animals.  Below are some photographs of the changing Wet Season land and waterscapes.

One of the many ways to transport rice seedlings

One of the many ways to transport rice seedlings

Rice seedlings arrive by bike and wait for planting

Rice seedlings arrive by bike and wait for planting

Planting underway

Planting underway

Cattle has to be kept away from the rice, so loads of grass are transported home each day

Cattle has to be kept away from the rice, so loads of grass are transported home each day

Boats which once traveled metres below us, out of sight, are now like an extra lane of traffic beside us

Boats which once traveled metres below us, out of sight, are now like an extra lane of traffic beside us

Responsible tourism