Cambodia Reflective Journal

3/1/15 – 4/1/15

After over 24hrs of travel due to booking my flights late I finally arrived in Phnom Penh! Upon driving out of the airport my first impression of Cambodia are its crazy roads! Almost the first motorbike I saw had a mother, father and two young children on it. What was most surprising was that the parents were wearing helmets but the children were not. The rest of my first day consisted of visiting the Central market to get a phone charger and adapter. This involved riding my first Tuk Tuk which is so much fun and so affordable! Later that day our team leader, Zoe, arrived as well as one of my other team members Adam. That night we went to a restaurant on the river front called ‘The FCC’ which Zoe said is a bit of an establishment here in Phnom Penh. We also visited the night markets before walking back to the hostel and going to bed exhausted!

Having a proper night’s sleep meant we were all ready to start the day with some more exploring. After a quick breakfast at the hostel, two more team mates arrived. Guided by Zoe, we decided to all visit Phnom Wat, a temple in the city. We were lucky enough to experience traditional music and see the local people make offerings to Budda and pray. After this we walked to the national gallery to view some of the ancient Cambodia sculptures from places such as Angkor Wat. After our busy morning it was time to eat again. We settled on having lunch at the restaurant of a local organisation which trains street youth in cooking and hospitality. Hopefully we can find inspiration from places such as this when devising our own business plan in Kampot.

5/1/15 – 6/1/15

Before we departed Phnom Penh to travel to Kampot, Zoe suggested that it might be a meaningful experience for us to visit the genocide museum in Phnom Penh- the high school that was used as a prison during the civil war. The prison has been left exactly as it was found when it was liberated, creating a ghostly feeling about the place. This was a valuable and moving experience as it helped communicate the magnitude of the death and injustice that happened during that period in Cambodia. We then hopped in another Tuk Tuk and had the privilege of vising the iconic ‘White Building’ (that is now grey) in the centre of the city. It was built in the 1960s as public housing and now is an entire community within itself. We were specifically visiting a social enterprise that is based in the White Building called ‘Sa Sa Art Projects’ who aim to create community engagement and support contemporary Cambodian art. That day we had lunch at yet another social enterprise called ‘Daughters’ which trains and gives jobs to former women sex workers. We finished the day with a 2.5 hour bus trip to Kampot then a welcome dinner and drinks with other Lightbox and Mayibuye volunteers.

The 6th was our first serious day of work. The day started with splitting our project into two parts (marketing and strategic) then brainstorming our objectives for the week. This brought us to lunch at the local social enterprise called ‘Epic Arts’ which employs and trains disabled people in Kampot. We also checked out the space we will be working with at Lightbox for the arts space and bar we are going to make the business model for. The final activity of the day was a team building exercise before making the schedule for the rest of the week.

7/1/15 – 8/1/15

Wednesday the 7th was a day used to gather background information about what is currently in Kampot as well the viability of our idea of a gallery/bar. We started off this research by conducting SWOT analysis’s of businesses and social enterprises in the region. This was useful in starting the critical thinking process. We then decided that gathering primary information would also be useful. We wrote a number of questions to ask business owners and tourists/expats in the Kampot area. I went to other guesthouses in Kampot to speak to guests about whether they would be interested in an art gallery/bar. The response was mostly positive and also gave us some really valuable feedback and inspiration. From that we were able to construct a customer profile which will help shape the development of the business further.

The next day we had the privilege of vising the local state school where Mayibuye (partner organisation to Lightbox) runs arts and culture programs for its students. We provided some craft activities for the kids to do and they performed a few of the dances they had been learning through Mayibuye. It was great to see the impact that Mayibuye is having as well as seeing first why the success of Lightbox is vital for the funding of the Mayibuye program.

9/1/15 – 11/1/15

I spent the last working day of our first week developing our crowd funding campaign. We decided to go with the crowd funding platform Indiegogo due to the fact that their fee structure seems the most desirable. We set a goal of raising $8000 in 30 days, it might be a stretch by I think we can do it! That afternoon we filmed some interviews with Zoe and me to include in the video for our fund raising page. Looking back on the week I can see we have come so far already and are really gelling as a team. I can’t wait for next week. But first a relaxing weekend that involved a trip to the women’s spa and 21st birthday celebrations for one of the girls in our group.

12/1/15 – 18/1/15

This week was all about beginning to make our ideas a reality! We knew on the Friday, Lightbox was having an event which would give the Mayibuye kids a chance to perform as well as giving us a chance to test our initial vision for Lightbox. The week started off researching where we might source the materials such as furniture as well as deciding on a food and drinks menu. However, as the event was on Friday we had to pretty much get straight into it. I had developed a mood board on Pinterest which guided how we decorated the interiors. This included painting the cane furniture white, buying indoor plants and getting a local woman to make us cushions from fabric I bought at the Kampot markets. We also had to do a lot of promotion for the event, mostly in the form of handing out flyers around Kampot. Our biggest challenge was probably the budget as the only money available was the $600 people raised before we came to Cambodia.

The Friday of the event was an intense day as everything had to be put together at the last minute but it was a great night! A decent crowd turned out for the dance performances and most people bought at least one cocktail although the tapas weren’t as popular (despite being delicious!). Holding the event was a really valuable experience as it indicated what worked, what didn’t, and what we could do differently.

As it is about half way through the program, myself and 4 others took a mini break to Kep, a beach village about 30 minutes from Kampot. It is very quiet but it’s great to chill out in preparation for next week!

19/1/15 -23/1/15

This has been the most challenging week of the project so far. The number one aim for this week was to work on and complete the business plan. Whilst we are not yet done, I am so impressed by how hard everyone has worked and what we have been able to achieve. We already had a half completed business plan which the co-founder of Lightbox wrote which has been a useful source of information but otherwise we had to start again! This really highlighted how great it is to be on a trip with people who are from all different University faculties. We were able to utilise the skills of everyone in one way or another. For example, the person who is majoring in accounting did the finances while the girl who is doing design has done all the design work.

Next week is the pitch to investors, so I imagine we are going to be working very hard in preparation for it. But first, we have another three day week which we are using to go up Bokor Mountain and have two nights in beach town Sihonoukville.

24/1/15 – 30/1/15

Just when I thought things couldn’t get any more hectic we have managed to move things up a notch! Everyone is adding the final touches to the business plan which we planned to have finished at the beginning of the week however it is continually being proof read and edited. Thankfully, the line was drawn on Thursday afternoon. It was a great feeling compiling all our hard work together and sending it off to be read by investors! That night and the following morning focus turned to the pitch which was scheduled to take place over an internet meeting on Friday afternoon. Three of the most confident speakers in our group were chosen to lead the pitch with everyone else stepping in during question time. Overall the pitch was a success and went very smoothly. Everyone was knowledgeable during their speeches and in answering questions. It was also obvious how attached and passionate we had become about the whole project.
After the pitch we celebrated by having a night out at our favourite bar, listening to live music. This was a great way to round of an incredible experience with incredible and passionate people. It is something I will never forget and continuously look back upon when informing my own life.

Christopher Yong 2015 Bloom Microventure BUiLD Program Reflection

From riding shotgun with talkative cab drivers, playing volleyball with the village locals to reminiscing over my journey 63 floors above Hanoi, my Summer BUiLD Program was one not to be forgotten.

There have been too many experiences to recount on my 21-day journey but before I formally begin my reflection, I’d like to first give acknowledge and say thanks to a few people that helped make the trip what it was. First, a very warm thank you to Ly and Gina, our delightful program coordinators. From the offset Ly and Gina helped us to adapt and feel comfortable amid the hustle and bustle of Hanoi. Without their guidance, I can guarantee the trip wouldn’t have been as amazing as it was. Secondly, a very big thanks to UTS:BUiLD for providing me with a grant and facilitating such an amazing program.

Now onto my reflection, there is no better way to sum up my program than the homestays at Hoa Binh.

From the offset, the communities and 6 villages in Hoa Binh welcomed me with open arms. Despite there being countless moments of intense joy and awe, I will recount 3 experiences that I should always cherish:

1. Being invited to Chi’s house and being offered me homebrewed alcohol – Chi is a local laborer within Hoa Binh. Conveniently, he is situated right next to our homestay and always enjoys coming around for a game of bamboo push-of-war or helping us to round up the local boar.

This particular day, I had just found out that the Village Chief had agreed to let the group keep the local Boar if we managed to catch it. The boar was domesticated but they still let it roam free amongst the homestay and neighboring properties.

I decided to scurry over to Chi’s house and requested in broken Vietnamese that he help us catch the “big-black-pig”. Upon hearing this unusual request, Chi invited me into his place and sat me down.

With a sinister grin plastered across his face, he reached over to the cabinet that lay on his left. With a slight jiggle of the wooden knob, the cabinets opened and low and behold were two monstrous jugs. On the left, 20 to 25 finger-banana-sized hornets lay fermenting in a plastic jug. On the right, a two-toned snake was coiled in a translucent liquid. He said that if I took a shot, I’d become strong. I interpreted it as a rite of passage. As honored as I was, I passed it up.

2. An encounter with the wild (domesticated) boar – In light of my missed rite of passage, I thought it would be interesting to try and catch the boar. In short, Tyso, Aaron and I ran around the homestay frantically attempting to grasp the hind legs of the boar.

Needless to say, in the midst of the moment, when your eyes are locked with the deep, entrancing glare of the boar, you can’t help but cower away. In the process the boar managed to breach and damage a small vegetable patch.

We were incredibly apologetic and offered to help at any chance; the Village Chief on the other hand wanted none of it and expressed his happiness that we had a crack and was trying our best to integrate into community life!

3. Gifts from the Village Chief – It was the final morning of the homestay and everything seemed to go slower than it usually did. The bulk of us scurried around to make the most of the final moments while a few lay content on the wooden benches in the common area.

After breakfast, Tyso, Aaron and I headed up to the kitchen to drop off the dishes. The Village Chief was squatting in the middle of the open area with a meat clever in his hand and his foot firmly pressed against a bundle of bamboo straws. We watched as he carefully craft a hat.

Within a few minutes, Tyso and I had received matching fisherman hats – symbolic of patience. Whilst Aaron received a unique and slightly more elaborate hat – probably because there was an inside-joke throughout the village that we was going to marry the Chief’s daughter. The Village Chief expressed some remorse for not being able to make hats for the whole group but everyone was just grateful to have been there in the first place!

In hindsight I truly wish I had appreciated the little things a bit more. Often when you’re caught up in a barrage of awe-inspiring moments it is difficult to be grateful and appreciative of what’s happening. However with that being said, there were countless moments of awareness that will stick with me for years to come.

Moving forward, I have not only learnt to cherish what’s happening in the present but to always try and give back to others. I’ve learnt this not only from the communities in Hoa Binh but my friend’s that I was able to share this experience with.

Thank you UTS:BUiLD and Ly and Gina from BLOOM Microventures.

My Experience with Bloom Microventures

I had no idea of what to expect from Vietnam. As a child born into a family of Vietnamese immigrants, the stories I have heard were punctuated by laughter that masked the dark aftermath of war. My knowledge of Vietnamese culture was knowing that nước mắm was delicious despite its smell; my grasp of the language allowing me to be able to order certain dishes, count to three and pronounce phở correctly. Coming out the other end of Vietnam (literally – I flew out of Vietnam from Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon) and the Bloom Program, I can definitely say that I have learnt many things.

Squad 2Squad 1

The first lesson I learnt was smiles was an international currency. More often than not, the group would find ourselves at a loss in markets around Hanoi as we tried to bargain for that knick-knack we had our eye on. We quickly learnt how useful the calculator app was on our phones, as we paired up the numbers with smiles and pleading eyes that would put puppies to shame. A smile also goes great when we were riding around the villages on bicycles or tractors, waving to the bemused locals.

The second lesson I learnt was that a little goes a long way. A simple ‘xin chào’ would be enough to brighten someone’s face. A ‘cảm ơn’ would bring on confusion, especially after having a conversation with our lovely guide as translator. 1000 or 2000 VND that the odd cabbie would try to keep was no longer 6 cents during the last few days, but the principle of having being short-changed (we obviously did not budget well). This concept really struck home for me when I made my Vietnamese-speaking mother send a quick message to the Village Chief. The voice clip was less than a minute long, and said a simple thanks from one parent to another for caring for their child in their native tongue. The Village Chief was thrilled, and began to interview me. He asked me how I felt visiting Vietnam for the first time, how my mother and her family regards Vietnam, and he asked what he could do as a leader that could improve the villages so as to bring pride to those who have left their homes and families following the war. He ended the interview by sending a video message back to my mother, thanking her for her thanks, wishing her a new year, and inviting the rest of my family to stay in his care.

I made sure to exchange new year’s greetings with the lovely team at Bloom and the Village Chief’s family, and needless to say they were thrilled to bits to see a loud, thriving Vietnamese family much like their own bring in the year of the goat all the way in Australia. My Vietnamese vocabulary has somewhat expanded, though most words are food related. This fantastic experience has allowed me to establish a connection to a country I only previously heard stories about, and helped me further my understanding of a culture whose principals are the core foundations of my family’s values. Big thanks to BUiLD for presenting me with this opportunity, to Bloom for being a wonderful bridge that facilitated this experience for me in the best way possible, and the crew of 12 other oddballs from UTS for all the laughs, the talks and the flu.

BLOOM Microventures, Vietnam – Jan 15

I went on this trip hoping to learn more about microfinance, a field that has intrigued me as a great way to be able help people in a way that is practical and sustainable. This field appears to me as a way to link my professional skills of accounting and finance with my professional interests of social work and philanthropy. On our trip we were presented with mini lectures of an hour a day in Hanoi teaching us about poverty in Vietnam and the ways that microfinance can be used to help alleviate this poverty. We learnt about what the typical day of a microfinance officer is like and how applicants are assessed. From a risk criteria sheet, we made a list of questions that were sensitive to the situation but allowed us to get a feel for the applicant’s home life, dependents, health, and financial security.
One day on our field trip we had an opportunity to speak with 4 new loan applicants, by asking general questions, as well as the specific questions we had prepared to gain an insight into the risk of each applicant. This gave an opportunity to see real life scenarios that allowed an insight into the structure and considerations of microfinance to be able to understand more fully how it works and see it’s effects. As we spoke to the applicants I found most were very forthcoming with information and were so grateful for the opportunities that BLOOM had given them to be able to grow their family businesses. Although it was confronting at times to see the living conditions of some of these poor villagers, with their simple housing and many without a bed to sleep on, talking to these people proved to me that microfinance is really such a powerful tool for these communities to use and it was remarkable to see what some of these women had been able to do with their loans. Hearing their stories gave a personal touch and being able to hear how they were making their way to a more independent living was at times very emotional as we sat on their cold, hard cement floor where they ate, socialised and slept at night.
The next day of our field trip we then visited 4 women who have existing BLOOM loans, as a part of the check up that a loan officer would do. This was a much poorer village to visit and we really saw some devastating effects of poverty. It was a sombre mood between us students as we listened to stories of disability and domestic abuse that had led these women into deep poverty. The only positive was hearing how highly they spoke of microloans in helping them to survive and have hope for the future. We left this village feeling very confronted by how hard these lives can be, but trusting in the ability of BLOOM microloans to be able to provide some comfort to these women.
I feel like I came away from the trip with a fuller knowledge of microfinance and it’s uses and effects on communities. I believe it is an area that shows much potential and one in which I want to continue to pursue as a possible area to apply myself to. During this trip we were looked after incredibly by Ly and her assistant Gina who were very hands-on, acting as interpreters, carers, and gave advice on great restaurants to eat at. I couldn’t have asked for a better organisation than BLOOM to do this trip. The villagers were welcoming and friendly, giving us a cultural performance night of traditional singing and dancing both times we visited the village.