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Sunday, August 19, 2007

TravelAid - End of Week Two

Markus Wegelius and University Scholar Se in back with children from Dai Thmei Village, Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Already the end of the second week! It is Sunday and we surprisingly were able to wake ourselves up bright and early to start another busy day of work at JWOC. I can’t even remember the last time I woke up so early on a Sunday morning but the beautiful turquoise sky coupled with the bright sun more than makes up for it. Our task for the day (as I specialize in Microfinance, along with Seb & Robin) was to explain to Narla, Piseth, Mai and several other scholarship students the changes that we had brought to the Power Point presentations of ‘How to construct a Business Plan’. These presentations will then be translated into Khmer (which is undoubtedly a lengthy process, as 1 page of English translates into 4 pages of Khmer!) and explained to villagers who have shown interest in the Microloan system. That meeting will take place later on in the day and we are confident it will be a success.

These 2 weeks have enabled us to understand how the JWOC Microfinance system works and to improve certain elements (with the advice of John) but more especially we realized the true benefit that the loans can bring to poor Cambodians. Cambodia has one of the worst banking systems in the world, with the private sector charging outrageous interest rates. According to the World Bank, Cambodia is ranked the 2nd worst country in the world for access to credit, outdone only by civil war-ridden Afghanistan! Microfinance was created in response to this, and has ‘changed the lives’ of countless Cambodians (their own words!). This is specifically why working with JWOC has been so gratifying and has enabled us to witness the difficult lives that most Cambodians lead; the lives that many tourists conveniently do not encounter traveling from their 5-star hotels to Angkor Wat and luxurious western restaurants. It really makes you look at things from a different perspective.

After 2 weeks of disciplined work, we finally allowed ourselves to go sightseeing for the first time! Yesterday, all seven of us left to ‘Tonle Sap’ which is the single biggest fresh-water lake in South-East Asia and a vital food source for the entire region. It has been designated as a UNESCO biosphere reserve, which basically means a protected natural conservation area. It was beautiful and is famous for its ‘floating villages’: there are thousands of ethnic Vietnamese who have built ‘boat-houses’ and live upon the lake. The interesting reason behind it is because of the monsoons during the rainy season (May - November) the Tonle Sap lake expands 4 times and in some places the water edge moves 50km! Thus the fishermen found a very ingenious technique to always wake up right by the water. Can’t wait for our next day off!

- Markus

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