When We Established a Presence in Cambodia

I had been to Phnom Penh many times before, but it was something different with the city when I saw it through the thin clouds flying in exactly two years ago (27 May 2013). I noticed so many more details. The vessels on Mekong heavily loaded with sand, the blue roofs on many of the buildings close to the airport, the many construction sites and the dust on the roads caused by months without rain. The hot and humid air covered the city like a heavy blanket. I was moving to Cambodia. With a mission to set up RWI’s sixth representative office.

I was travelling with two suitcases, a good programme that had been developed over the last six months, and secured funding. Nothing else.

It was the second time I was tasked with establishing an office from scratch and even if I had experience (from Jakarta) I was suddenly overwhelmed by what I had in front of me. Where to start? Find office space, recruit colleagues, rent office car, get internet, furniture, sort out registration issues, labour law, tax law, cell phone, printer, agreements, MoUs, visas, bank accounts etc.

In addition, the programme had to be implemented and many activities were lined up. I also had to sort out private issues since my family would join me in two months – where to live, school for the children etc. I did not even have a bed.

At the same time I was very excited. This is exactly the type of work that inspires me. I remember that I at one point was standing at Russian market in 43 degrees heat trying to explain that I needed ink for a printer. To a person who only spoke Khmer.

One hour later I had a suit-and-tie-meeting with one of the state secretaries. The variety of tasks and the intensity during the office establishment phase makes it extremely stimulating. There is no normal schedule. Your mission is everything. Failure is not an alternative. Not until the office is operational you can really start to focus on implementing the programme, which is the real reason you are there. It has to go quick. There is no opportunity to analyse every single decision, but you have to act. Sometimes you take the wrong road and then you have to redo everything again.

In the beginning I rented a serviced office space just to get going. I thought it would be a simple and efficient way of getting the office operational. I guess I was right to some degree. There was a desk, a chair, internet connection and air conditioning. And a receptionist who knocked on my door every five minutes to check if the chair was comfortable or if I needed help to adjust it. My chair was comfortable. Every time.

However, I did not have “administrative authorisation” on the computer I had brought from Sweden. That meant that I could not connect a printer, i.e. install relevant software. I called the IT support in Sweden who informed me that they could give me such authorisation. It was a great relief. However, then they continued “…but your computer must be in Sweden in order for us to do that.”
I had no other option than to take a tuk-tuk to a computer shop and buy a new computer. When I came to the shop I realised that the computers did not have a Swedish keyboard. I should have thought about that. I would accordingly not be able to write documents in Swedish on that computer (which I must do sometimes).

At the same time I had to be able to print documents. I understood that the only alternative was to use two computers for some time. One computer I could print from and one computer I could use when I wanted to write Swedish documents. If I wanted to print a document that I had written in Swedish I basically had to send it via email to my other computer.

After having purchased the computer I noted that it did not come with original software, but with plenty of different pirate programmes. I had to ask the computer shop to delete all pirate programmes and at the same time install original software. The salesperson was a little bit surprised and informed me that it was a very bad decision since it was much more expensive. I tried to explain that I could not use pirate software. It resulted in her trying to explain to me how to use the software.

“It is the same, just do like this,” the salesperson explained.

“No, no, I cannot use the pirate software,” I clarified.

“Why?” the salesperson asked.

“Simply because it is wrong,” I tried to explain.

The salesperson insisted that there was nothing wrong with the pirate software she was trying to sell to me. “It is very good quality,” she said.

After a long time I managed to order the original software. I was informed that it would take approximately two months for delivery. I left the computer shop after a couple of hours with basically a useless computer and went back to my temporary office. The chair was still comfortable. I had received an email from the Swedish Tax authorities. I was asked to fill out a form (in Swedish) and print it and sign it…

After the initial chaotic month, I recruited the first staff member to the Cambodia office (Seila). It was a relief to have somebody to talk to and work with. Seila and I spent plenty of time trying to find a good location for the office. We visited in total 27 places until we found the perfect place – an apartment located just in between our major partners. The following weeks became more chaotic than the first month.

I now did not have a serviced office from where I could work. I had a rundown apartment without furniture and internet. We tried to implement activities at the same time as the office were being equipped and painted. We had no internet and had to run down to the local café to send emails. We spent the time meeting with partners, sending emails from different cafés and shopping for furniture. We were basically only in the office to receive furniture. At that time we realised the downside of our new office. The stairs were too narrow to carry up furniture. Instead we had to use ropes and drag the furniture up to our balcony. It was heavy, but it worked out well.

We now have a very nice office. And good internet. But we still have to use the ropes now and then.

And I actually have no idea how to adjust my chair.

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