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.

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,


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