A Travellerspoint blog

Week 2 volunteering

Mini-breakthrough on my microfinance research but less success with keeping my exercising schedule

sunny 34 °C

Even though I have only been properly working for three days, getting up on Monday morning after a super chilled weekend was a major drag. Fortunately for me and in contrast to some other volunteers, my work is actually interesting so once I got through the waking-up stage, it got a bit better. Still, despite such a short time, it already feels as if I have never had a time off.

The good news is that new week brought new developments in my research. My determination has paid off and the Cambodian Microfinance Association finally provided me with a comprehensive spreadsheet of C-level contacts in all notable Cambodian MFIs. Result! Handing in the first draft of my first deliverable for inspection, I celebrated this breakthrough by emailing all the MFIs I already contacted by haven’t heard from, but this time going straight to the CEOs.

Slowly getting to know the area around my work, Rachel (a US girl working for the same company but on a proper contract) took me for lunch to a nearby café with lovely local foods and delicious ice coffee. The only downside was the 10 minutes walk along a busy road with temperature nearing 35 degrees and direct sun making every step a challenge. Still, we made it and it was delish.

I even had some first responses to my research interview requests when I got back, so happiness all around. Another interview firmly in my calendar and a follow-up call planned for next week, which leaves me with other 5ish interviews I need to get to make the sample nicely juicy.

The thing about working is that your days slip into a routine and so in comparison to the previous days in Phnom Penh and surrounding area, my weekdays tend to bubble along without major excitements. Still, it is nice to come back to the guest house at the end of the day and have plenty of people to chat to. Having said that, some of the people who arrived same time as me have left now, with new faces doted around the guest house. But again, new people to chat to and get to know is always good.

With Tuesday being my ‘sports day’, I packed my shorts and top and set off towards work, with the view that I either make it back to the guest house to get changed after work or cycle straight to the studio. Having a lovely lunch with work people, with conversation mainly in Khmer, made a nice break into the day.

I attempted to top up the experience by getting a sugar cane juice from a street seller, but despite asking three different people, none of them appeared to own the juice stand so I actually left dry. In other countries this could have been embarrassing, but not in Cambodia. Instead, each of the three people I asked met my inquiry with a stoical calm, simply shaking their head.
Now mind you, this could have also meant that they didn’t speak English, although I did make a point of violently pointing towards the sugar cane stand.

After an afternoon research into Cambodian NGOs, I was ready to get back to the guest house for a little break before my Pilates. The good thing about my job is that it needs me to learn an awful lot of stuff about microfinance and Cambodia in general, which has so far been quite fascinating.

Despite best intentions to cycle to class, lack of lights on my bike made me think otherwise. Instead, I enlisted the help of a moto taxi to deliver me safely(ish) to my spot of exercise. This would have been great, except that the teacher called in sick and would be only back on the 3rd of January after the Xmas break. Great.

With my moto guy gone and most side streets being pitch black, I made my way to the main road and strolled back to the guest house. Trying to find a positive on this disappointing endeavor, I decided that it was a great opportunity for an early dinner and so upon my arrival, I surprised the guest house staff by ordering a new dish from the menu. That’s right, I do eat other things than vegetables with rice or noodles.

Posted by TheDukes 20:42 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia phnom_penh volunteering Comments (2)

Weekend in Sihanoukville

Beach, cocktails, banana boat and sleazy westerners

semi-overcast 33 °C

Affording ourselves a little lie-in, when we finally got out of the guest house, the rest of the group staying in the neighboring Led Zephyr was nowhere to be found. Knowing that this could be by design or fully unintentionally, I decided to head to the beach for breakfast. If they are to be anywhere, it would be there. But before that, there was a refund to be collected from Led Zephyr for the non-existent 8-persons dormitory from previous night.
View from the hotel room

View from the hotel room


Seeing Sihanoukville in the daylight reconfirmed my suspicions from previous night. It is by far the touristiest part of Cambodia I have seen, resembling less developed version of Mallorca but with Cambodian twist. The high street leading towards the mini harbor is lined with restaurants and shops selling bikini and clothes, as well as ticket sellers and tour operators. The beach carries on in a similar theme with bars and restaurants on one side of the ‘promenade’ and sun loungers and comfy seating on dotted on the fine but somewhat littered sand.

The most striking thing about the beach is the sea of micro-sellers offering bracelets, sunglasses and every possible beauty treatment not requiring scalpel. It is clear that they all have learnt the same lines, generally consisting of ‘do you want ….’, ‘what’s your name’, ‘where are you from’ and ‘later?’, ‘if you want to buy, promise you will not go to anyone else’. No pressure.
The Sihanoukville beach

The Sihanoukville beach


Successfully avoiding spending a penny (for now), Nicola and I walked along the beach until we spotted a group of familiarly looking bunch, chilling on rattan armchairs. Realising that we were the only two people not to have eaten yet, we found a shady spot in one of the restaurants ordering a delicious smoothie and omelet.

With only one full day in town, it was generally accepted that trips to the nearby islands will have to wait until next time. Instead, we spent the day chilling, swimming, getting soaked during a rather bumpy banana boat ride (which I opted out off to look after the bags) and unsuccessfully resisting the beauty ladies infesting the beach.

Pretty much everyone had something done, with my 7USD for a manicure and eyebrow threading being one of the smaller investments. Just as well that I grew somewhat resistant to the aggressive selling techniques of local ladies, otherwise their insistence on threading my under-arms and legs, including bikini line could have been taken quite personally. They did, however, make me promise to reconsider and come back on Sunday.
Buying fruit from a beach seller

Buying fruit from a beach seller


Set on seeing sunset over the bay, the group disbanded around 4pm to hit the shower and get changed for the night. Making it back to the beach just in time, we settled in for a number of excellent and rather potent Mai Tais, admiring the changing colours in front of us.

With the receding light, the mini-entrepreneur scene around the beach also changed. Women with beauty baskets and bracelets and men with sun glasses gave way to children selling fireworks. Only the many crab sellers sporting huge trays of crab stayed little bit longer, trying to get a share of the dinner-time money to be spent by the many tourists. Whilst the seafood on offer looks great, spending the day on the beach in the scorching sun means that its freshness is highly questionable. Unfortunately, I did not exactly fancy a crab or a king prawn for breakfast and so my Sihanoukville trip was absolved of any seafood nibble. Well, there will be other times.

After giving the children 3rd degree about their school attendance (to avoid encouraging parents to keep children on the streets instead of at school), a couple of girls bought a selection of fireworks, taking care of entertainment until we agreed that it was time to line our stomachs with something more substantial than Mai Tais.

Opting for an Indian food, we headed back to the high street, before deciding to get back to the Led Zephyr, which is coincidentally one of the best places in Sihanoukville for life music and music in general. Here we topped up our cocktail intake whilst listening to Jimmy Hendrix tribute band and playing few games of pool.
Kids playing on a water swing

Kids playing on a water swing


Like Thailand, Cambodia tends to attract middle aged and older men, taking advantage of the many women who are keen to better their lifestyles by selling themselves to generally unattractive and sleazy westerners. Many of them bare striking resemblance to Gary Glitter and the likes. As a result, many of the local bars are frequented by balding men with beer guts, decorated by bored-looking local girls on adjacent bar stools.

Unfortunately, some of these men are apparently failing to recognize that money is the only reason why these often gorgeous women are voluntary being bored to compliance. This sometimes demonstrates itself by over-confident nods accompanied by creepy winks in other women’s directions, including myself and the other girls in my group. Raised eyebrows generally do the trick but as we quickly learnt, pub crawl is a good way to shake off some of the less receptive cases.

Buying return bus tickets the previous evening, our Sunday departure at 1.30 meant that we had just enough time to relax on the beach and get lunch, before facing a journey back to Phnom Penh. I even had my legs done by one of the ladies from previous day, which was just as well as the bus once again took ages and so I only arrived in Phnom Penh at 8pm. This mixed with another power cut and non-arriving text messages also meant that my plan to meet-up with a friend of mine who arrived in Phnom Penh the previous day had to be delayed until she was back from Siem Riep.

Posted by TheDukes 16:50 Archived in Cambodia Tagged beach cambodia phnom_penh sihanoukville Comments (0)

Cycling in Phnom Penh and trip to Sihanoukville

Day 1 of successfully negotiating Phnom Penh traffice and super long bus ride to the beach

sunny 34 °C

Whilst any form of own transport in Phnom Penh is generally discouraged for foreigners, after a couple of weeks here I get the feel that own transport is a necessity. The ground rule of getting anywhere is to slowly but surely push your way through. The traffic might be thick and chaotic but most people drive quite slowly, which is somewhat supported by the high number of road accidents without the corresponding number of fatalities. From what I can tell, anyway.

My first cycle ride to work caused a bit of a stir amongst the local residents who grew used to seeming me around, but all in all I have safely arrived in the office, earning a huge grin from the bike-parking security guard. Not quite sure what made him so excited though, if it was the bike or my not so elegant getting of it in a pencil skirt and high heels.

The highlight of the day was an interview agreement with another MFI, scheduled for Wednesday the upcoming week. Slowly but surely my sometimes near traumatic interview-fishing efforts are paying off.
Our group waiting for the bus departure

Our group waiting for the bus departure


Lunch is always an interesting time in the office. Normally, Cambodians give themselves two hours for lunch, often opting for a trip home and a powernap. One of my new colleagues has a brother with family restaurant, which means that he is sorted for all meals, and the rest of the people randomly disappear into the ether as soon as the clock shows midday. With most lunch arrangements done in Khmer, it is not always easy to invite myself to come along, but this Friday I ended up with my boss next door to the office, munching on a selection of ridiculously cheap but delicious Cambodian food. It is the kind of street food where everyone gets whatever has been prepared for that day. Happy to be surprised, I didn’t regret it.

Despite starting work only three days ago, the plan for the weekend was to catch Friday afternoon bus to Sihanoukville beach area. Last bus was leaving at 5.45, which meant that I had to leave work early. Fortunately, the status of a volunteer means that everyone is very flexible when it comes to any special requests, which meant that 3.30pm I was on my way to the guest house.

Unlike in the west, chartered busses offer pick up from the hotel, so I had plenty of time to finish packing and have a cold drink, before being whisked off by a crowded minivan. Sihanoukville, here we come (by we I mean myself and another 6 people from the guest house).

Whilst the journey is supposed to take 3-4 hours, it took twice as long, courtesy of Friday rush hour, bad roads and overly relaxed driver. Still, we didn’t get a puncture so I supposed it could have been worse. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived after midnight, our room in the guest house was no longer available and instead of a 8-persons dormitory, we were offered a partially full 14 persons one. Hmm, I think not. However, even a heated talk with the manager didn’t help and the best we could do was getting a promise that they will find us alternative accommodation the next day.

The late hour also meant that most eating places were already closed. There could have been some eateries around the beach, but most people were too tired to venture the 10 minutes walk down the road. Instead, we ended up in a neighbouring guest house / restaurant, offering burgers, sandwiches and bowls of fries. The only downside was the exceptionally creepy English guy (probably owner?) who had shift that night.

Still, it didn’t stop us inquiring if they had free rooms, upon which we were informed that they did but probably not in our price category. Now, I know I am on a budget but 20 dollars per air-conditioned double room sounds just about manageable, especially when split between two people.

Whilst the rest of the group unanimously agreed that the 14 beds dormitory is fine, Nicola and I shared a cheeky look knowing, that out of all the people the two of us are probably most likely to bite the bullet and pay a bit more for some privacy and good night sleep. Using mainly sign language and sattle remarks to avoid rocking the boat too much, especially as some fellow travelers liked to make a point of being super frugal, we were shown around the partially finished guest house. And not much later, we were indulgently turning up the air-conditioning in our room for the weekend.

Posted by TheDukes 00:43 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia phnom_penh cycling sihanoukville Comments (0)

First days of volunteering and already doing overtimes

A spot of consulting in Cambodian MFIs

sunny 34 °C

Determined to put the confusion of previous day behind, Wednesday morning I embarked on a tuk tuk journey to my office for the next two months. After successfully explaining to the security that I am not just some random person roaming through the MFI’s head quarter corridors but a legitimate albeit temporary addition to their workforce, I climbed up to the 3rd floor, direction Research department.

In contrast to the often ridiculous waiting times for a new PC log-on in Europe, my Cambodian employer had everything sorted. By the time I arrived at 7.45am, my new desk with and a computer log-on were already waiting for me. Impressive.

Spending most of the morning reading through hundreds of reports, I was ready to do some proper work. But as they say, be careful what you wish for. By 3pm in the afternoon, it was clear that my consulting background would not go unutilized. Tasked with creating detailed guidelines for client satisfaction focus groups, medium to long-term Cambodian microfinance market projections and client segmentation proposal, my 8 weeks in the microfinance volunteering world were looking to be rather busy.
Samata yoga and pilates studio

Samata yoga and pilates studio


This got even better the next day when I got invited out for lunch by a couple of the big guns. The CEO and the CBO requested my company and who am I to say no. Chatting over a delicious assortment of Cambodian nibbles in one of the up-market restaurants, it didn’t take long before I got volunteered to analyse process reengineering opportunities and assess opportunities for strategic partnering with NGOs.

Whilst the 8 weeks might be a challenge (ahemp ahemp!), it is great to be involved in something so interested and feel that I can contribute.
To celebrate my newly gained duties, I racked in the first overtime of 30 minutes. This was more out of choice rather than necessity. My Thursday Pilates start at 6.30pm and so making my way there straight from worked seemed like a sensible thing to do.

Despite the buffer of 15 minutes or so, I managed to flag down the only tuk tuk in Phnom Penh who didn’t know his way around and so it took a fair amount of wrong turns and shouting directions on my part, before I gratefully settled in the air-conditioned studio of the SAMATA yoga.

For some reason, the exercises seemed much more strenuous than the previous times. Not sure if this is because my body has been wrokign out so feels more tired or because I am getting more and more unfit. Both options seem fairly plausible at this stage. Either way, I was relieved when the time was up. Relieved and ravenous.

Flagging a moto (motorbike taxi) back to the guest house, I made a beeline for the menu and claimed one of the last couple of free chairs in the communal area. With a few people leaving at the end of the week, the guest house was decorated with a selection of whiskey and wine bottles in various stages of emptiness. But before I could join in the celebrations, there was one last thing to do and that was to buy bike. Getting around Phnom Penh is much cheaper, easier and less scarier with own transport.

Fortunately, one of the leaving girls was selling her bike for 20 USD so it was a done deal. Good buy tuk tuks, hello ultra heavy, no gears bike.

Posted by TheDukes 01:04 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia phnom_penh volunteering Comments (1)

Day 1 volunteering - maybe tomorrow

The mysterious ways of Cambodian volunteering intermediaries

semi-overcast 34 °C

How difficult can it be to find out when I need to turn up for my first day of volunteering? Apparently very. It took four days, two face-to-face inquiries, two emails and two phone calls before I was initiated into the best guarded secret of my trip.

Rocking up at the AMK office (Angkor Microfinance Kampuchea) at 9.30am on Tuesday, I was up for another surprise. They didn’t know I was coming. Well, they kind of knew I was coming but didn’t know when exactly. Never mind. An hour waiting time in an air-conditioned lobby is not as bad as it sounds. At least I am on site, right?

Chatting to the intermediary guy I only partially tried to hide my irritation. Unfortunately, my sarcasm either slipped unnoticed or his questionable competence has made him sarcasm-proof. A clear proof that practice makes better.

When I was eventually escorted into a meeting room sometimes around 10.30 am, I fully expected that the wait was over and I was about to embark on a glamorous volunteering experience in a strategy or project / change management department. Afterall, that is what I do for living.

Unfortunately, I was wrong. As soon as the Head of Research and Development walked in, I knew something was not right. Before I even knew who she was, I was asked to explain why I want to work in Research. Well, I don’t. Having explained my background and clarifying that expressing preference in a specific department was not something I was offered, it was soon clear that the intermediary company was once again exceeding expectations of incompetence, or at least miscommunication.

For some reason, they used my Masters degree research as a justification for placing me into a Research department, omitting the fact that the two things are complete unrelated. Statistics-obsessed, analytics-driven, research department is my idea of a nightmare, but since I was already in, we agreed that we will make it work. Now the more I read, the more I like the work they do so I might be leaving a converted researcher. Might.
5am wedding procession outside the guest house

5am wedding procession outside the guest house

In the absence of the intermediary guy actually comprehending the inconvenience and unprofessionalism of the mismatch, I took lead and suggested to reconvene tomorrow, where my new boss will have time to think about how best to use me and I can spend the afternoon calling the general secretary of CMA and a few MFIs, chasing interviews. Proposal was gratefully received and so I found myself in a speedy tuk tuk back to the guest house.

It was soon clear, however, that Tuesday was not my day. The closer I got to the guest house, the louder it was, to the point of not hearing own word once by the gate. The clue was in the giant pink tent blocking the road. A wedding tent. With a blaring Cambodian music indiscriminatively preventing everyone in 1km radius from having a normal conversation. Now, when I say blaring, I actually do mean blaring. If it was anywhere else, health and safety measures would mean that everyone must wear noise-blocking head phones. Not in Cambodia.

And so I spend the next four hours, trying to make business phone calls out of a night club. Despite the distractions, I actually managed to get through to a couple of people and agree on resending them my research proposal. Not exactly a step forward but also not a step back.
However, it didn’t last long before I decided that enough was enough. The noise was getting to me and also to all other volunteers gradually trickling back into the guest house, and so most people fled to distant café’s, beauty salons and markets.

Rejuvenated after a couple of ice coffees in the world’s coldest Deli, I was back just in time to pick up Nicola and head to Pilates. I am proud to say, my fitness regime is on track.

Having agreed an early start on Wednesday (8am), I was intent on having a good night sleep. Hitting the sack 10.30pm was a good first step. However, it transpired that Cambodian weddings are overnight affairs. Imagine two night-club strength speakers at each side of your bed, with your head sandwiched between them. That is how i spent last night. Without exaggeration, with a window facing towards the happy couple, if I got an hour sleep, that is too much. Not a happy camper. Nor is the rest of the guest house. There is something about shared hardships...

Posted by TheDukes 03:11 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia volunteering phnom_pen Comments (0)

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