Journey Through Laos and Cambodia

This is a diary of my current experience working in two developing countries in south-east Asia. Its not a 'travelogue' in the usual sense of the word, more a factual account of my experiences and impressions of working with the people to develop and run a technology-based business.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

The Finishing Post Is In Sight

Unfortunately, I am no longer living the USAid high-life; my kindly benefactor has decamped to Saigon for business, and after a couple of nights in Guesthouse-land I am staying with a friend of one of the ex-pats that used to work at DDD. The nicest guesthouse I've stayed at is probably the Bodhi Tree, which is directly across the road from S-21, the former Khmer Rouge concentration camp, and now a museum. Situating a guesthouse in a location like that smacks of bad taste (anyone interested in going in on a MacDonald's franchize on the road to Auschwitz??) but the good food and secluded colonial feel made up for that for a night.

I've ended up spending as much time in Phnom Penh as I have in Vientiane, and to be honest I'm not complaining. I feel far more optimistic about the future of Cambodia than that of Laos, they have a lot more going for them in terms of aid, economy, infrastructure, etc. I've gotten to know a few of the employees here , they're from a mixed background. Some of them speak English really well, and some speak with a clipped robotic voice, a bit like that Stephen Hawking guy. Maybe it's the legacy of rote-learning, but it can be hard to keep a straight face sometimes. DDD has a "social mission", which means they employ a quota of people from special-needs training programs, which trains people with physical disabilities, former prostitutes, land-mine victims, etc. It's a form of positive discrimination. The average data entry operator gets $70 a month, with the more specialized personnel (HR, finance, IT) getting higher rates. $70 a month may not sound like much, but it is higher than the average wage here. Cambodia is one of those places where the phrase "another day, another dollar" can be take quite literally.

In case you're wondering what type of work the employees are doing at DDD, there's a broad category of data entry projects; currently they are working on a project to type a Lao and Khmer dictionary, a project for a Virginia newspaper from the 1860's, and another project that involves preparing Ku Kux Klan records from the 1920's for loading into a database, for some social research group in the States. The sight of young Khmers typing the names, addresses and phone numbers of former Klan members is slightly surreal.

I've planned about 10 days relaxation before heading back to the bright lights of the western world -- in a way, that's going to be a big culture shock, but I will enjoy the feeling of coming home as well as treasuring the experiences I have had here of isolating myself in a completely different culture and making real and valuable connections with the people here.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Back in Phnom Penh. May 26th 2004.

Greetings from Phnom Penh, Cambodia's fast-rising-phoenix-from-the-ashes capital. I've been here for a couple of weeks, helping with setting up new IT systems and with defining customer jobs. One good thing about the move is that I've seriously upgraded my living arrangements from crusty guest house to plush two storey air-conditioned guard-patrolled locked compound. I feel so.... protected. I'm staying with one of the project managers who kindly offered to put me up. He is also a US diplomat and USAid official, hence the swanky living scenario. The neighbourhood I'm in is full of places like this. Like many third world cities, Phnom Penh provides stark contrasts of mansions side by side with poverty. Not that I'm complaining, I've been busy enough not to have time to get too philosphical about the state of the world.

The work has been pretty hectic, there's a lot more to do in the environment of a business in a developing country, and the biggest challenge is probably involving the employees, both Lao and Khmer, in decision-making; its all very well to put something in place for them, but unless they're involved in the decision-making, I don't believe they truly learn. It seems to have been a pattern with lots of development projects around the world: give them all this wonderful stuff, but then somehow expect that they can figure it out themselves. It can be hard given cross-cultural communication, but also very rewarding, particularly when they start to resolve problems themselves.

Communication with the Khmer is easier than with Lao. They are more direct and I think its in part due to the difference in political and economic environment; Cambodia has a wild-west frontier feel, due to a combination of open market and corrupt government. Laos also has a corrupt government, but is stuck in communist-era stagnation and paranoia. Lao people are great, but their tendency to excruciating politeness can lead to some tortured exchanges in the work-place.

Phnom Penh is a big city, with about 2 million inhabitants, and it makes Vientiane look like a village in comparison. It doesn't have the same small cirlce of ex-pats that Vientiane does - in Vientiane there are a couple of places you can go where you're pretty much guaranteed to see the same faces. Phnom Penh has a bigger ex-pat community, though it is much more scattered. Its not so obvious who is a tourist, who is a traveller and who is an ex-pat here; in Vientiane, the backpackers are really easy to spot, they exude a layer of crustiness, but you don't really notice them here.

I will be finishing up with DDD in July. The project is almost finished, its basically a matter of making sure they can and know how to use the new system, and figuring out how to use it to manage customer projects. Its been a fantastic experience, at times really hard, and at times really rewarding. I could stay on longer if I wanted, in a developing country there's no end of work that needs to be done, but at the end of the day I don't have the inclination to go native, so staying here long-term isn't an option I want. Also, I've observed that most of the ex-pats are either young 20-somethings, or settled with families, so it can feel a bit odd if you fall between those two worlds. The experience has also taught me how much I appreciate friends and family, that's too important to me to be away for a great length of time.

So I'm looking forward to the cool foggy air of San Francisco, taking a stroll in Golden Gate Park, and seeing some decent live music (what passes for music here is frighteningly bad, its actually given me nightmares). I don't have a definite return date yet, but most likely mid-to-late July. And anyways I'm not quite done here yet, there's still some work to be done, and maybe a few days lying on a beach to boot. I'll be sending out another update soon. And, everyone, let me know how you're getting on.

Monday, April 19, 2004

A Soaking New Year. April 19th 2004

Still here – and extremely hungover. The Lao New Year’s (Pi Mai) has come to an end, it is a three day (really a week long) festival of crazy water throwing – if you aren’t walking around completely drenched to the skin, you are really weird. I’ve indulged myself more in the last week than all year, and its been good, though it makes for a very tired Colm right now. The local Hash Harrier’s club had a party on both Saturday and Monday, there was a work party on all day Sunday and last night I was on the razz with the fellow paddies here in town. In between I escaped to Lao Bako, a nature resort about 50 KM but a world from Vientiane. It’s the sort of place where you go to bed at 9pm because there’s nothing to do, but the sounds from the jungle are amazing.

A couple of weeks ago I had what is without doubt the worst haircut I’ve ever had, all for the price of $1. And even then I felt ripped off. Maybe it’s my wiry Afro-Celtic barnet, but the barber was fairly baffled and left my head with some unsightly lumps sticking out here and there. I asked the barber to try to even it out, but came up against the Asian concept of ‘losing face’; this is an example of losing face, if you ask the barber to make a change, he ‘loses face’ because you are indirectly saying he’s done a bad job. In this case, he laughed nervously and pretended not to understand what I was saying.

On the work front things are going well, but teaching the local work crew is probably the biggest challenge. We may be taking on a volunteer this week, with an Administration and Networking background, and that would be a big help especially for training. The group here are working on preparing a Lao-English dictionary for the web, using the new data entry system. Hmm, with the last week being a holiday work seems to be something of a dim and distant memory at the moment. But then in my current state everything is dim and distant! In case you’re wondering, John, a fellow Irishman from Wicklow invited a bunch of people to his place last night and he lives next door to a few Aussies and what can I say el vino did flow! Getting a lie-in here is hard because of the heat, so you tend to wake up early whether you want to or not.

I mentioned the Hash Harrier’s club earlier, that’s a running club that meets here twice a week, and have an organized run which involves trying to figure out where the trail is from signs in the ground. There’s food and drink afterwards, and also a ‘circle’, where different members of the group get the piss taken out of them, and everyone sings drinking songs. Everyone has a 'hash name', usually related to some hilarious anecdote or characteriestic about them. Its very cheesy but also a good laugh. There’s a good mix of ex-pats and locals there, as well as the occasional traveler. Apparently there's Hash Harrier's runs all over the world, they were started by a bunch of ex-pats in Indonesia years back, and there's even one in San Francisco.

I’ve met a couple of interesting travelers, but like I said in an earlier email I tend to avoid them. It can be somewhat unsettling to be around that transient energy, and I feel more grounded hanging out with local ex-pats or locals. Also I’ve been feeling fairly cynical about the wide-eyed fascination a lot of travelers have with Laos and the Lao people. It’s easy to say how great a place is when you don’t have to live with the day to day hazards of life, like roads disappearing or sewers overflowing with heavy rain. I think John Lydon said it best, ‘cheap holidays in other people’s miseries’. I was once like that so I shouldn’t complain too much.

Well that’s about it for now – I feel a good massage beckoning. That’s one indulgence I’ve made a habit of here, you can get a fantastic massage for $3. My health has been fairly good, (some of you know that I’ve had ups and downs with arthritis over the years), so much so I’ve been running for the first time in years. I’m not going to break any records but it feels good to have an exercise, I was missing the bicycle. As ever, let me know your news when you have a chance. I'm hanging in there but I miss ya!

Sabaidee from Laos!

Friday, March 19, 2004

Hot Season. March 19th 2004

Its been a hectic six weeks or so since I last wrote, and I’ve been almost exclusively working on training new IT systems with DDD. I've been jet-setting it also! Well, as far as Phnom Penh in Cambodia, where the main office of DDD is located, with about 100 employees (as opposed to 20 here is Vientiane). Phnom Penh (PP) is a vibrant happening place, and like a lot of Asian cities these days is turning into a huge clash of modernity and the third world.

Vientiane is a very quiet town in comparison to PP; The liveliest part is probably the Mekong river bed at sunset. Hundreds of people go there to hang out. This being the dry season, its bone dry, and as the river turns a wide angle at Vientiane, it stretches out for what is probably a couple of miles. It reminds me of the playa at burning man, the same flat dusty grey surface. You see people, kids mostly, running around, and it looks as though you could walk across the border to Thailand, but you can just about make out the river sliding by at the Thai border side. There's a load of outdoor restaraunts and bars along the river bank. A great place to chill.

So I'm glad to say that the weather’s taken a turn for the better since I last wrote; the hot season is well and truly here, and you can feel the heat in the early morning. Lots of water and you’re fine. Although, I’ve heard reports of an unseasonal heatwave in California, so I don’t exactly feel qualified to boast about enjoying hot weather.

I had a good St. Patrick’s day here, I finally flushed out some other paddies in town. The security chief of the UNDP (United Nations Development Project) is an Irishman, and he had a party at his place. (Interesting job, he was in Iraq for the war and stayed at the UN hotel that was blown up last summer, he left 2 weeks before that happened). Anyways, there’s a really small contingent, but it was pretty lively, with what had to be the smallest St.Patrick’s day parade in the world (but with a St. Patrick who was Welsh, true to historical form).

Vientiane seems like a really safe place. The biggest nuisance is probably monks wanting to practice their English on you. If you happen to wander into a temple, and stand admiring the scenery for more than a few seconds, the chances are you will be beset by 2 or 3 grinning shave-headed young men in orange robes. Most of the monks are really students, keen to learn, and the vast majority will only spend a relatively short time there. It’s a disciplined regime, up early to wander around barefoot looking for alms, but its not unusual to see them hanging around chatting, having a smoke, just like behind the bicycle shed days for us when we went to school.

All in all, things are fairly relaxed here. For example, with Lao Aviation, you can change your ticket after your flight has departed. I was in this particular dilemma a couple of weeks ago, in Pnom Penh when it was decided the day before that I’d stay to help get things done, when I arrived at the local Lao Aviation office to find that they had decided not to open until that afternoon despite the fact that it clearly said ‘9:00AM on the door. I made a mad dash for the airport, only to find out that they have no office there. Finally, a kindly check-in official told me just to drop into the office in a couple of days and change it there, no worries.

So the work’s going well, though we are coming up against some interesting cultural issues. For example, with the Beta testing of the new software for the Data Entry managagement system, its almost utterly impossible to get negative feedback from the employees, they just tell you what they think you want to hear. But all in all its going well, and should keep me busy for a couple more months. After that, I’m still in the process of figuring out a more long term role. More on that in the next update.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

Laos and Cambodia - First Impressions. February 1st 2004.

Hello from Laos! This is an update of what I’ve been up to so far. I’ve only been in Laos for about 10 days, the first couple of weeks after I arrived were spent visiting different offices of the group I’m working with (called Digital Divide Data) in Bangkok, Phnom Penh (the head office is located there) and Vientiane.

'Digital Divide Data' (DDD) is an NGO and also a company. That means that they have a "Social Mission" to provide training and a living wage to local, disadvantaged Laotians and Cambodians. It is also a business, and the service they provide is Data Entry. Yes, that sounds, and it is, pretty tedious, but the idea is that after a certain time in DDD, the employees will get computer skills in things like Excel, HTML, Pagemaker and MS Access, and will gain some actual working experience. DDD has real clients, and generates about a quarter of a million a year in revenue. This isn't enough to sustain the company yet, but that's the long-term goal. Some of the brighter or more curious employees might get into more specialized IT areas, or management and leadership positions. The head office in Phnom Penh has about 100 employees, while here in Vientiane, its only 20, they have just had the office up and running since December. The reason I'm here is because although DDD currently runs, fairly effectively, but on a limited IT set-up ( 4/5 year old computers, very basic Data Entry Software, really slow internet connections, and management and work-flow information all maintained in Excel spreadsheets ), they need training and mentoring in managing and updating their IT systems.

Apart from DDD, there is a small but steadily growing supply of IT services in Laos. Brian, an Aussie guy I met at the local Australian Embassy Friday bbq, told me that there's a huge and growing need for all sorts of IT expertise, such as web-site design and hosting. Phnom Penh in Cambodia has an even bigger demand, and it strikes me that there would be huge opportunities for techies to come here and certainly stay busy, and make good money. Unfortunately, not many Lao and Cambodians can provide that kind of IT expertise themselves yet. The ideal situation is to have a bigger supply of locals to meet that demand, and hopefully DDD will play some sort of role in that.

I’ve met some interesting people, including on Monday, a man who must be considered a front-runner for the title of ‘least busy diplomat in the world’ – the US ambassador to Laos. He came to our office, along with an economic advisor, to help us on the question of whether to register DDD as an NGO, or as a private business. He says that the government here is fairly rotten, and it basically comes down to who you end up dealing with. He was a lovely fella, but I certainly got the impression he wasn’t rushing off anywhere fast. He seemed perfectly content to sit around engaging in increasingly idle chit-chat, eventually leaving you thinking "ok, please go now, we have work to do". In a nutshell, his main goal while here is to get Normalized Trade Relations going with the US again (Vietnam got NTR in 1996). There is a small, but vociferous, group of Lao lobbying against this back in the US. And there’s no real point in not having it; Laos may have a dodgy human rights record, but no more so than China or Vietnam. So lobby your local congressman now!

As a matter of interest, going the NGO route in Laos can be precarious, because of previous bad experiences that the Lao have had; Virginia Van Ostrand, the director of the Lao-American college, told us that when the Peace Corps where here a few years ago, they were such arseholes that they were asked to leave. (Some details can be found at It was basically a personality thing, this particular group was just arrogant, and that’s not to imply that the Peace Corps in general are like that. Unfortunately, since then, NGO’s of all kind are deeply distrusted by officialdom here. It's certainly a delicate issue, the whole idea of Wonderful NGO Group coming to magically transform the natives. It requires a lot of respect and sensitivity and diplomacy on the part of the NGO and in the case of this particular Peace Corps that was somewhat lacking, judging by what I've been told.

Although I haven’t had an extended amount contact with them thus far, from the little I have had, the Lao are a really open and friendly people. On my first night here, at a restaurant, I got invited to go with a group to a nearby disco after talking to a local called Bo for all of 5 minutes. Her friend John, another Lao, told me that they sometimes despair at her, befriending and bringing along all sorts of oddballs. Like ME ha ha!

That same first night, I had an encounter with what turned out to be a male prostitute; this guy I got chatting with at the disco gave me a lift back to the guesthouse on his motorbike, and basically propositioned me on the way back. I politely declined, but he seems like a nice guy, and I've had a drink with him a couple of times after that when I've run into him around town. The sad thing is, prostitution is basically driven by poverty and has reached appalling proportions in some countries like Cambodia and Nepal. DDD makes an effort to employ trafficked women that have been rescued from brothels and placed in training programs. I worked with a such a group in DDD in Phnom Penh and some of them seemed shockingly young. It's a chance for them to build a new life, although most of them are scarred for life. A lot of these women want to become nuns, basically because they never want to have anything to do with sex again. It's sad to think that that part of their life has been stolen forever.

I am not the biggest fan of the 'governing system' in Laos, (calling it a 'government' may be taking things too far!) but one good thing about Laos is that it doesn't have the gaudy sex industry that so dominates neighboring Thailand, or the even more appalling sex industry in Cambodia. In fact, there are quite stringent laws forbidding foreigners having sex with Lao people. That's not to say that it doesn't go on here, it's just a lot more subtle. One scam I was told about, which I found completely hilarious, is that a girl will take a foreigner back to his hotel room, and then call the police who will bust in, and hit the foreigner with quite a hefty fine, a few thousand dollars. Of course the girl will take a handsome cut, probably (hopefully) a lot more than she would get if she actually had to shag the bastard. Brilliant! That's the way to do it girls. Just the sort of thing that appeals to my underdog spirit.

Laos seems to have some extraordinarily quaint customs and attitudes towards sexuality; Mai, our office manager, told me that there is a custom in some places whereby the wife prepares the husband's meal and then sits passively while he eats, waiting for him to finish so she can eat. In some ways, Laos has the hallmarks of a very patriarchal society (another example -- there is a belief that a woman needs to be reincarnated as a man before her soul can attain nirvana). Mai, who has lived in Australia, finds all this rediculous and is on a one woman crusade for women's rights in Laos. Honor seems very important to the Lao people too; about a year after I finished volunteering with DDD, I learned from Mai that one of the office managers had gotten married; she told me that he had stayed over at this girlfriend's place, but just crashed there, no funny business or anything like that. But, because of that, he was obliged to marry her and did the decent thing. Seems like a pretty extreme case of doing the decent thing, and I'm not sure if Mai was embellishing a bit for me, but it reflects the kind of innocence that the Lao people have.

So there you have it for now, its definitely an adjustment; its easy to miss friends when you're watching BBC world at night in the hotel room. But then the challenge is to get into the way of life here.

Sabaidee from Laos,