Monday, November 30, 2009

Women's International Group Christmas Sale

Yesterday was the annual Christmas sale at the Intercontinental organized by the Women's International Group. It's an event all small shops and sellers want to get into and unfortunately we didn't hear about the registration until it was too late. Luckily, a friend of a friend was generous enough to give up 1/4 of her table to us. It was a great chance to sell some products and meet with other vendors who are involved in similar social enterprise projects around Cambodia.

Overall, I think we did quite well and had many, many positive comments about the project and, of course, the products. Children loved the monsters and one 2-year was besides herself with delight over her new Greta the Cat.

I also met two knitters (!) who live in PP. I mentioned that CK will likely start a knitting group (S&B) and possibly lessons for newbies at a local cafe in the new year and they were both keen to get in on the action. We will knit the town in red!

Saturday, November 28, 2009


Sorry for the lack of updates this past week, but things have been so busy I just haven't had the time. Tomorrow is the annual Women's International Group Christmas Bazaar at the Intercontinental Hotel and we've been frantically trying to prepare enough stock to sell. Two knitters from Toul Sambo, Vireak and Koun, joined us in the workshop for the week to help out. This was great not only because we needed the extra hands, but because it demonstrated to the trainers how far their students had come.

I had been in contact with Hagar for a few weeks, trying to meet with them to and hire a couple of their students. Hagar is another local organization that uses the social enterprise approach to help women from difficult (often devastating) backgrounds get back on their feet. I met with two of their graduate students and hired them on the spot. They both have training in sewing and work experience in this area, but were keen to try working with knitted items instead. They won't be doing any knitting, focusing on assembly instead.

Finally, I have to write about the latest addition to what is a plethora of massage options in Phnom Penh. One of the greatest things about living here is the availability of cheap, amazing massage. The options are almost limitless. You can go to a fancy spa on the riverside and have a 25$ Swedish massage, go to an arty French-run spa for an Indian head massage for 10$ or, one of my favourites, pay only 5$ for an incredible, stress releasing accupressure massage at Seeing Hands (massage by the blind). There are countless foot massage places, upscale spas and everything in between. There are 5000 riel (1.25$) massage places galore, but they only specialize in massaging a certain part of the male body... And then today I saw this:

I don't really know what to say... Rambo, massage by man. The man himself? Obviously not. Another man that is buff like Rambo? Or is the massage so violent and dangerous that it can only be described as Rambo? Is Rambo massage a new style of massage that will slowly become popular with time? People will walk out and show their cuts, bruises and other abrasions and say, 'it hurt, but man do I ever feel refreshed now that he stopped beating me.'

This, uh, spa, is only only meters away from our apartment. Will it become my new favourite? Will I get to know each and every masseuse and choose a favorite? Will I ever actually have the courage to give it a go?

I think I'll send Yeng first.

Friday, November 20, 2009


Yesterday we had a very informal graduation ceremony to give the TS knitters certificates of participation as well as the completion bonuses from sponsors. Mony gave each knitter a grade based on how well they knit, attendance and attitude and this was marked on their certificates. I also finally had a translator with me, so I'll be able to send out more info on your knitter to all sponsors this weekend.

We had planned on having a small party to celebrate the end of the training, but unfortunately, we received terrible news just as we were leaving town: the community where Tyna and Rofi live was ablaze. They quickly returned home to check on their families. We were too worried to stay at Toul Sambo too long and returned as soon as we could in case there was anything we could or needed to do. The blaze, which went on for most of the morning, destroyed over 200 homes, most of them being wooden. Everyone from CK was lucky, though, and their homes were spared. The houses next door to Rony, who now works from home, was burned down, but hers was not. Relief!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Welcome, 18 new knitters

Yesterday was our last day of training at Toul Sambo. That's a total of 15 training days spread out over a month and the results are fantastic! Today I went back to the community with Mony to talk to each of the knitters (I finally have a competent translator) and they were all pleased with the training and what they had accomplished. Several of them said they really enjoyed the training because it gave them a chance to sit together in a relaxed atmosphere and talk while learning. Others were, of course, looking forward to earning an income.

The very good news is that Mony accepted over 60 finger puppets that had been knitted during the training. There are more still to be collected but they had not yet been mattress stitched together. Knitters at Toul Sambo will do all the knitting and stitching minus stuffing the head, putting on the eyes and attaching the head to the body. That will be done at the head office for consistency. About 5 of the knitters are still not confident with mattress stitch and Mony, Tyna and Rofi are going back out on Monday for a day of training on this.

On Thursday we'll give each knitter a certificate of completion and have a small party to celebrate the hard work of all the participants.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

100 hundred hats

Sorry for the lack of updates. More to come soon, I promise. I'm flat out busy with everything here, but soon...

In place of any local news, I direct your attention to this: . It's one woman's quest to knit 100 hundred hats in one year, all to be donated to charity. Her hats are all beautiful and knit with love for those who could use a little extra warmth in the winter.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Finger Puppets for Christmas

With the training coming to a close at Toul Sambo next week and about half the knitters there ready to start knitting for us, we're ready to take orders for finger puppets! These will make great Christmas, or any occasion, gifts for kids and adults alike. One friend even suggested that they might make good USB drive cozies!

The way to order is to send me an email and I'll send you a PayPal invoice for the total amount, including shipping. Once we've received payment, we'll prepare and ship your order asap.

If you are in Canada, however, and can wait until December, I can ship the puppets to you from Canada at lower cost that shipping from Cambodia. If you're in the GTA we can even get them to you directly. Just send me an email and we'll discuss the options.

Have a look at the order form below (click on the picture to see it in full size).
There are three options for shipping as follows:

  1. Regular mail via Cambodia Post: This is the cheapest option, but the slowest. It can take anywhere from 2 weeks to 2 months to get to you.
  2. Express Mail Service (EMS): This is much faster but more pricey. Package will arrive within 1 week depending on where you are.
  3. TNT: The fastest and best service similar to FedEx or UPS. You get a tracking code and you can follow your package all the way to your door through their online tracking service. Package arrives in 3-4 days.
Prices are listed below for orders of 1, 2 and 3 or 4 sets of puppets. You may need to click on the jpeg to see the prices more clearly.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Knititng patterns for everyone

As I wrote earlier, many of the knitters can not read or write. Interestingly, all the male knitters can read, while only a few of the women can. This is a reflection of how wider Cambodian society values women and education. Many, including professionals and those at the Ministry of Education, are quick to say that poor people do not value education and that this is the reason why so few send their children to school or support them past primary level. Others, who've worked with poor communities and in the education sector, know that this is simply not true. Poor people value education very highly and are eager to send their children, all of them, to school. They both understand and value what it can mean for their future to have educated children. However, informal and unofficial costs are prohibitive for the poorest of the poor and they simply don't have enough money to send them to school.

Unfortunately, girls are the ones that get less chances in poor families. If a family can send a child to school, and only one out of a handful, that chance will usually go to a boy. Not because boys are thought to be smarter, but because girls help more at home. They wake up earlier, do more chores and go to bed later. They do the housework, cooking, fetch the water, they feed the animals and take care of the younger children. Why send a girl to school when she has so much to do at home?

So this is why most of the female knitters can not read. One positive change in the community from past to present, is that all the children are going to school. In all the time I have spent there, all school age kids are gone until 11. Both boys and girls, all primary age, are studying and from the brief discussions I've had with community members, they want to keep it that way. I was worried that some families would want to pull children, especially girls, from school to work for us (which we would not allow), but not one family asked to do that.

Since early on, I worried about how illiterate knitters would work without being able to follow patterns. Initially, the trainers, and everyone at the community, said they could get help from others to read and follow the patterns. I was never happy with this. Both Yeng and I recognized that this is a short term solution to a bigger issue. I think the trainers think we're overreacting to the situation, but without being able to complete the work on her own, a knitter just isn't going to be independent. There will always be the risk that someone is not available to read the pattern or that tension in the household means she can't get the support and help she needs. All disempowering.

So, welcome to chart reading 101. I thought we'd try to present the simpler puppet patterns in a chart. There are only 5 symbols, knit, purl, knit2tog, kfb, and the same symbol for cast on and bind off. We started with the hippo pattern and for many of the women, they caught on quickly. A few were still asking again and again what to do next. I encouraged the trainers to keep referring them to the charts (they are too quick to simply give the answer) so they get used to following them. Srey Mao, who I worked with, got it right away and told me when I was trying to help her (with a bit of shut up tone), "I got it." What was nice was to see two knitters who can't read, Thyda and Thy, bent over one of the charts later in the morning, helping each other out.

We'll have to see how they go, but I think this might be the solution!

And for no reason other than it's painfully cute, a picture of Stinky sleeping in a helmet...

Friday, November 6, 2009

First puppets from Toul Sambo

Yesterday, the trainers went out to the community armed with plastic eyes, tapestry needles and coloured thread. Each knitter got to make up one or more of their finished puppets to keep for themselves or their children. I went this morning and some of them were wonderful! See photos below:

Finally for Lena: your knitter, Touch Chayron with her first monkey.

Ven Thy and Chan Thyda.

Soy Srey Neang.

Sin Soeun and Noun Soka.

Krouch Koun, and the best monkey of the lot.

Our champion knitter, Ven Vireak.

All this is very good as we have a handful of orders for Christmas and will need more knitters soon. Hopefully, we get more orders to we can keep purchasing from the TS knitters and keep them working. I got some of our smaller items into Baitong Restaurant yesterday. They support several other NGOs and social enterprises and have a small shop area at the front of the restaurant to display items such as honey from Mondulkiri, baskets from Battambang and pepper from Kampot. All good projects, all providing jobs.

Oh, and the website looks better organized ( but the links are still AWOL and I want to put more information on it over the coming week. I also hope our graphic design guardian angel in Amsterdam gives us some advice...

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Website Drama

Deep sigh. Of frustration, not relief.

We decided a few days ago we need to get he website up and running. Only been thinking about that for months, but of course, there is always something else that needs to be done...

Yeng and I thought that if I did a nice layout in Pages it would easily export to HTML and make a nice start to a website. If only life were so easy. The layout went completely wonk, no links, pictures too small, just all wrong! Why is this so complicated and frustrating!?

This is what it should, and hopefully soon will, look like:

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

5 days can equal 7 days if you want it to

A story of misunderstood logic, if you can call it that.

So this morning, Bunda came to the house and gave us an envelope with an announcement of the 7 days ceremony for her aunt's death. She had spent all of Thursday night last week taking care of her aunt, so I assumed that the aunt had then, unfortunately passed away on Friday, later in the day. Bunda had been really tired and fell into a deep sleep and we sent her home to get some rest.

So when I saw the 7 day ceremony flyer, I assumed that the ceremony must be this coming Friday or later since, clearly, her aunt was still alive this time last week, until at least Friday. We were given the flyer as a way to ask for a contribution, which is normal and fine. I was just saying to Yeng that we should give Bunda Friday off and wondered how much cash we needed to give her. He then told me that the 7 day ceremony had been today.

I scratched my head, confused.

"But Bunda was taking care of her aunt on Thursday night..." I say.
"Yes," husband replies.
"So she was alive 7 days ago?" I continue.
"Yes. She died on Friday," the reply
"Um, so shouldn't the 7 day ceremony be on Friday then," say I, utterly dumbfounded.

And then, "they can choose when to hold the 7 day ceremony."

It was one of those I-don't-know-how-to-even-start-to-respond-to-that moments... Why call it a 7 day ceremony if it doesn't actually have to be 7 days after. Why a 7 day ceremony if it canbe 4 days or 9 days???

Anyone out there, reading this, if you are Khmer or have lived here for a long time and understand this, please help me to.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Water Festival at night

One post about the Water Festival just isn't enough. Below are some photos from last night. During the day, most PP residents opt to watch the races on TV but in the evenings, everyone comes out to the riverside for the festivities. All the streets for several kilometers around the Royal Palace are closed off to traffic and it is one of the few times Cambodians walk. And walk they do! Up and down the riverside are people from all walks of life and from around the country. There are concerts, games, food stalls, vendors, performances, music and fireworks every night.

These boats float up and down the river and each one represents a major institution. There is the crest of the Royal Palace, Ministry of Defense, National Assembly, Phnom Penh municipality and so on. There is one for the Ministry of Justice which we joked should have exclamation points on either side of it... This year there was a new float for the Ministry of Tourism's Kingdom of Wonder campaign, but it was so ugly I couldn't even force myself to take a picture of it. the one pictured here is the Ministry of Defense and has two intertwined Naga's (7 headed snake monsters) spitting out a stream of water.

This afternoon the races ended and all the big wigs, including the King were at the main podium to cheer the winners. Yeng told me there is a special formation at the very end of the races, where all the boats, or all the winning boats, or just a lot of boats, gather in front of the King. This is to depict Jayavaraman's Royal Navy as it entered the ancient Khmer kingdom to win it back for the Khmers. As well as celebrating the changing the of the direction of the river, the festival is also connected to the naval war which put King Jayavaraman VII into power and marked the beginning of the most successful period of the ancient Khmer empire. Bas reliefs at Angkor Wat show the beloved king on the bow of a ship, riding into victory.

If all goes well, I'd love to enter a Cambodia Knits team next year or the following year. There are a few all female teams and I think we'd kick butt!!

Water Festival

Yesterday, Yeng and I relived our first date which took place during the Water Festival in 2006, since the festival is on again. We did all the things we did on our first date, from lunch at Garden Center, to watching the boat races, getting a Seeing Hands massage and eating Vietnamese noodles near the riverside. So I thought I would write about the amazing Water Festival. For those of you wanting to know more about life in Cambodia, this is is for you.

First a little about the Tonle Sap, on which the festival takes place:

The Tonle Sap is perhaps the most incredible and unique geographical system in the world. Sap in Khmer means fresh. Tonle translates into both river and lake, depending on context. In the case of the Tonle Sap, it means both because the Tonle Sap is a river/lake system, but I will refer to them as lake and river to avoid confusion.

The Tonle Sap Lake is located roughly in the middle of Cambodia and runs, via the Tonle Sap River, into the Mekong River. It is at the confluence of these two rivers, that the city of Phnom Penh, the capital, is located. The Mekong then continues its way into Vietnam, and eventually the South China Sea. Now the mighty Mekong isn't called such for no reason. During the rainy season from mid-May to mid-October, the Mekong river changes level at an incredible rate and to extremes, in some locations, by as much as 30 meters. The Mekong is the fifth longest river in the world and starts in East Tibet. It has many tributaries and before reaching Cambodia, it passes between Burma, Laos and Thailand.

By the time the turbulent waters reach Phnom Penh, the force of the river is so incredibly swollen and strong that it actually forces the Tonle Sap River to flow backwards! In doing so, it also causes the Tonle Sap Lake to flood. Don't think that the Tonle Sap River or Lake are small by any means. A trip along the meandering river to the lake takes about 2 hours by speedboat. During the dry season the Tonle Sap Lake is about 3,000km2 with an average depth of 1 m. During the wet season, it expands to 10,000km2 with an average depth of 12. That's about 2 and half times its original size and many more times the volume. Imagine any lake near you expanding and contracting that much each and every year. Compare and contrast.

The Tonle Sap is largely responsible for the location and success of the ancient Khmer Empire, with Angkor Wat, the most important temple, located about 10 kilometers from it's shores. And today it plays a vital role in the region's economy; the yearly flooding provides water for rice irrigation as well as a spawning area for a variety of fish life. The system also prevents excessive flooding further down along the Mekong, at the Mekong River Delta in Vietnam. If it wasn't for this natural water reservoir, the lands south of Phnom Penh would be much more devastated, and more permanently, by flooding.

It's natural wonder of hydrology and no surprise that the annual change in flow is marked with the largest national festival. Hundreds of thousands, millions even, come into the city for the three day celebration and boat races. Teams from all over the country row long boats manned with up to 60 rowers, from the Japanese Friendship bridge to in front of the Royal Palace, where the King himself sits and watches the races. The total distance is about 1700 meters and takes only several minutes to complete as the boats are propelled by the force of the water flowing back into the Mekong.

This team opted for traditional dress.

These boats just finished their races and were on their way back up river. Here they are just passing the King's viewing podium and saluting his Royal Highness.

Some boats have a woman in traditional dress at the front of the boat. She often has the whistle that signals the rhythm for the rowers.

Trying to capture just how many boats and how colourful the festival is!

I love this festival! Everyone is in a good mood, full of smiles even though the competition for first place is fierce. Fights sometimes do break out between teams as they slowly work their way back up to the starting point, but for the most part there is a lot of hand slapping and camaraderie. Last year there were over 500 boats competing and sadly there are far fewer this year because of the floods after Ketsana. A lot of villages that usually send teams were unable to this year, being preoccupied with rebuilding after the devastation of the typhoon...

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Lace Dreams

Today I started teaching Mony, Tyna and Rofi how to knit lace. They were really interested when they saw me knitting my first lace scarf (Branching Out for you Rav'ers) and were floored when they saw the lace shawl my sister gave me as a wedding present. And when I asked if they wanted to learn lace knitting, the answer was an overwhelming yes. Yesterday we looked at some free Ravelry patterns and they selected the one below. And since I cast on in order to be able demonstrate, I'm going to end up making one as well. In a colour I don't particularly like and in a yarn not really suitable. But once I started, there was no frogging it.

For those interested the free pattern, it's available here. I wonder if my sister is slapping herself in the forehead and shouting at the computer: That's too hard for a first lace project!! I have no idea what is easy to start with or not, but I think this one is doable (too late now...). Things have not gone as smoothly as I thought they would and we barely got through the set up rows without multiple mistakes... I think the knitters are not that good at knitting through yarn overs on the following rows. We'll work on it more on Thursday afternoon.

I wanted Mony, Rofi and Tyna to knit something for themselves. They have been knitting for months and not experiencing the joy of creating something for themselves in all that time. Well Mony has knit herself a couple of sweaters. I honestly don't know where she gets the energy from. Both were her own creations, from pattern to finished product and in the new year I want to work with her and see if we can't write up the pattern and get it up for sale. She has the potential to be a pattern writer because she is so creative and has gone so long without patterns that she can make almost anything just by looking at it.

The other reason I want the three of them to learn lace knitting is that I have a vision! Yes!! Everywhere you look in Cambodia, from the temples at Angkor Wat to certain modern buildings, on the headpieces of Apsara dancers to Buddhist ceremonial umbrellas, you see beautiful, Khmer ornamentation, generally called 'kbach' in Khmer. It's unique, exquisite and organic. Most of the patterns are based on themes from nature like the ones below.

There are many patterns based on leaves and flowers, others on shapes from animals like buffalo and fish teeth and my favourite, pretty little swirls to imitate snail shells. Some are incredibly fine and intricate, others simple. But there is a story and meaning behind all of them.

Now imagine this: 100% Khmer golden silk yarn, knitted into lace shawls of traditional Khmer design. That's the vision! We are a long, long way from that. For one, although Khmer golden silk is considered amongst the most exquisite in the world, production has yet to reach pre-war levels and most raw silk is imported from China and Thailand. As for writing patterns to capture 'kbach', well, I have no idea who's going to be the brains behind that... but I dare to dream that one of my knitters will be able to do it. I am planting the seeds now and hopefully with lots of practice and little encouragement, they can one day transfer the beauty of traditional 'kbach' to knitted fabric.