TORN: Phnom Penh - Take 2

Trip Start Sep 18, 2010
Trip End Jul 27, 2011

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Flag of Cambodia  ,
Monday, March 21, 2011

-          A doorman who got the receptionist pregnant, who then needed to be taken to an abortion clinic in the next biggest city without anyone knowing
-          A cook who lost her epilepsy pills
-          A cleaning staff who had a bad spell put on her by her ex husband
-          A staff member who was suing another for looking or talking down on her (which is illegal in Cambodia)

All of these are considered management issues in Martin's experience of Cambodia. Which one would you deal with first?

Martin has lived in Cambodia for 13 years, he speaks fluent Khmer. He first arrived on a medical health care project, got attached and stayed. He used to run a successful restaurant in Kratie and has taken over Encounters (also known as Nomads) Backpackers in Phnom Penh over a year ago. Encounters runs well, it is often booked or overbooked (which is rarely a problem because of the forgiving clientele). There are many simple improvement opportunities that I noticed during my stay two months ago.

My 'work’ starts mid afternoon the day after my arrival with a 3-hour chat in a riverside café. I listen in fascination as Martin tells me about the challenges with local staff and fills me in on Cambodian mentality. I quickly realize, that all the things I thought I could contribute will be a challenge to implement. There are far more fundamental issues here than I could possibly deal with in the short time I plan to stay.

Challenges like the above, staff not turning up for work and a general utter lack of problem solving skills like I find hard to grasp, are what takes away Martin’s time. So actual business problems (such as installing towel hangers in some bathrooms, labeling the keys for lockers, developing a more extensive menu, business partnerships and training the staff) take a back seat. There are more stories like the above, but those would make for long entries each by itself here. Ask me about the light bulb and egg stories when you see me if you're interested in hearing them.

Two days later and I still haven’t really done anything more than observing. By my own standard anyways. Martin would disagree. That’s when I decide that there are several factors here in the way of making this the experience I had hoped for:
-          Time: It would take me years to figure out the Khmer mentality enough to manage them in a successful manner.
-          Management: Martin has a style I can understand, but do not believe in.
-          POV: Seeing Martin’s point of view of Cambodia and its people leaves me with an unpleasant feeling I don’t want. I’ve seen other places here run with locals and doing well. So there has got to be a way.
-          1 control freak + 1 control freak = 0 progress

Another few days in……I can adjust to Cambodian pace, no problem. I agree to be back at 2pm, but don’t show until 2.30pm. At that time Martin is napping. Then he needs to go get his daily coke. For that, he excuses himself for 10 minutes (read: he’ll be back in something like 1 hour). I don’t have the exact change for a bottle of water from the self-serve fridge? I just put in what I have or nothing at all. I don’t know where to find string. So I make my own, twirling up some scotch tape. No wait, that’s not local mentality. They’d just sit around and do nothing until someone questions them. All kidding aside, I leave some 9 days later after having helped out a little bit here and there. Martin thought I made a difference. I thought it was pathetic. But that’s cool, it was interesting nevertheless. I got to see some more of Phnom Penh and had an insight into the culture that would have avoided many misunderstandings and travel challenges had I talked to Martin before traveling this continent.

At the end of this second visit here, I am left with a feeling that’s been bothering me quite a bit. Travel is supposed to open your mind, make you more tolerant towards other cultures, isn’t it? It surely opened my mind. But I am uncomfortable to admit that it also left me feeling ‘elitist’. Something that was not like me at all before. My grandpa would frequently get to me with his prejudices and racism. And even though I learned to appreciate where it comes from, after reading his memoirs (he was a POW in Russia for 5+ years because of his ethnicity as a German), I would always challenge and fight him.

Now I feel ashamed, for what I have seen does make me feel like I am ‘better’. I don’t usually think in terms of better, right or wrong. Things and people are just different. That’s what I strongly believe in. Or have. SEA made it difficult for me to stand behind that. I am comparing against the Middle East for example. There are cases of poverty there also and a distinctly different culture. People function very differently than we do in many places over there. Values are opposite ours. Streets and houses aren’t clean in many places either. Yet I feel strongly that that is just different. Not here though. And I don’t mean to generalize! (Or rather I am, when I shouldn’t.) There are clear differences between each SEA country. But this continent leaves me feeling smarter, better. 

If the world was coming to an end, I think I could survive, because of my logical thinking. Or could I? Maybe what people have better/more than me here, are survival instincts of the very rudimentary kind? Definitely, not maybe. But maybe, or even likely, that would put them in a better spot to survive than me. Aaaaahhhh….there it is. Glad I went through jotting down these thoughts. That’s it. Good. I’m no longer feeling that much better after all. Just different. I couldn’t stand that elitist feeling.
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