Blogging has become a phenomenon across the globe, and in Cambodia it’s no different. Editor Marissa Carruthers explores how the tool is being increasingly used to paint an alternative picture of life in the Kingdom. Photography by Lucas Veuve.
Kounila Keo lifts her eyes from her laptop screen and takes a break from her ferocious typing. “I started blogging when I was a student because I had no other channel to vent my frustration, sadness, and express my opinions about living in Cambodia,” she says.
Having launched blueladyblog.com in 2007 as a way to communicate with the outside world, the 27-year-old has become a beacon for both blogging and social media in Cambodia. Focusing mainly on the Kingdom’s history and Khmer Rouge horror, travel, youth empowerment, women’s rights, politics and social media, the blog has captured an international audience, and led to Keo travelling the world to deliver talks and training on social media to students, as well as inspiring a younger generation to have a voice through blogging.
As internet usage and access to technology increases in Cambodia, so is the number of young Cambodians who are jumping online to share their views with the world. Mitty Steele, who runs Banyan Blog, says, “The swell of the youth population that is tech savvy, an ever-growing population of internet users, and the fact that many Cambodians get their news outside of mainstream sources all creates a ripe environment for more blogging in the Kingdom, which can only build openness, transparency and dialogue.”
The internet is rife with blogs presenting a diverse wealth of information about the Kingdom, tackling a range of topics. And as a free tool and medium to vent, offer advice, question and promote, a growing number of people are dabbling in the field, including expats who are using it as an invaluable tool in a variety of fields.
“Through blogs, you can become an activist, a politician, a volunteer, a self-published author, who can gain influence and a wide audience of people who trust and respect you,” says Keo, who is currently studying a Master in Public Policy at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.
In a country where the local population has limited access to independent news sources, many are taking it upon themselves to share their opinions and views online. A large number of younger Cambodians are also turning to blogs to access information on their own country as well as the outside world.
Keo believes blogs work in synergy with local media in Cambodia, providing people with a platform to freely express themselves and gather a more rounded perspective of current news. “Some local media in Cambodia, as many Cambodians might be aware, are restricted in certain ways, but with blogs, where ideas are carefully written and thought out, there will be a lot of good things that come out it,” Keo says. She adds that some Cambodian TV stations have shied away from reporting on controversial issues, such as land grabbing and other human rights abuse. However, blogs have handed people the power and medium to publicise events such as these.
“People have begun to share more about news like this, which wasn’t easy before,” she adds. “This has gained momentum among Internet users. A tech tool like a blog continues to play a role in many parts of the world to help people find their voice and express it.”
Royal University of Phnom Penh graduate, Lin Pich, regularly resorts to blogs to keep up-to-date with what is going on in his homeland. He says the shift came for him and many of his peers in the run up to the 2013 national elections. “You could not watch the truth on the TV, listen to it on local radio, or read it in the local Khmer newspapers,” he says. Instead, he called on other media, such as Facebook and blogs to garner information.
“I was able to get a different view on what we were being told by official news channels,” the 23-year-old office worker says. “It was sometimes surprising how different the two views were.” However, he adds the importance of questioning the reliability of unofficial news sources, preferring to analyse them as opinions instead of fact. “When reading blogs, it is important that we question them and the source of information,” he says. “They must not be digested the same as news mediums; this needs to be remembered.”
For many expats, a blog is a great way to keep friends and family back home up-to-date with life abroad. Many, though, are using the tool for other purposes, from promoting their business and skills, to offering advice and an insight into life in the Kingdom of Wonder, and the trials and tribulations it brings with it.
Steele, who has been writing bayanblog.com since October 2013, says, “Blogging allows people to hear a personal account, it enables people to learn a different perspective that might not otherwise be in the mainstream, it builds a community of discourse, and promotes the sharing of ideas. Most importantly, it reinforces freedom of expression and empowers people to have a voice without any filters.”
The site was initially started in a bid to reconnect with Steele’s motherland after moving back to Cambodia. As refugees in the wake of the Khmer Rouge reign, in 1980, at the age of five, Steele and her family moved to America. In July 2013, she moved back to her homeland and decided to start sharing her journey via her site.
She also wanted a way to smash negative stereotypes by presenting Cambodia in a positive light to the outside world. “Too often we only hear negative stories in the news,” she says. “When you only hear snippets and bad news, it creates a distorted image and perpetuates fear. Because of this, many, especially in the diaspora, are afraid to visit.”
Kenyan Magdalene Kim started penning her thoughts five years ago as a way to update loved ones back at home, offer a glimpse into her life in Cambodia, and to immortalise memories. “It started as a very, very public diary,” she says. However, A Kenyan in Cambodia (maggie-kenyanincambodia.blogspot.com) soon snowballed when she started writing about her experiences being an African living in Cambodia, and the racism she regularly encounters. This led to Kim developing an FAQ about Being Black in Cambodia section.
Offering a frank account of the issues she often faces, Kim is regularly contacted by other Africans seeking information before relocating. “Cambodia and other Southeast Asian countries are notorious for their attitude towards African expats,” she says. “I have a lot of people wanting to get more information on this before they come so they can be somewhat prepared. I do my best to give them as much information, and I try to be as honest as possible, because I wish I had access to such information before I came to Cambodia.”
The blogging landscape in Cambodia has grown considerably in the last few years, spearheaded by the likes of Keo, Tharum Bun, Santel Phin, and Chak Sopheap. “They spoke their minds and shared their observations even though the environment was less open to do so,” says Steele. “They helped build a community and empowered other aspiring bloggers to share their thoughts and opinions and in some cases, challenge the status quo.”
This is a trend that looks set to continue into the future as more people take to the online world to share their views. And with blogging providing a free platform to promote business, market products and showcase expertise in a certain field, the entrepreneurial spirit that exists in Cambodia means its popularity will continue to rise.
“There is never a lack of opportunity with blogging,” Keo says, adding many friends living across the region often use blogs as a way to find employment or find their feet in a new industry. Schools across the Kingdom are also starting to encourage students to use blogging to post their essays and work, and in Thailand, professors often post assignments on blogs.
With blogging allowing people to tell their stories, offering different accounts and enabling people to learn about different perspectives, the tool comes complete with a string of benefits. But, whatever its use, for many blogging has proved to be a powerful and effective platform. Keo says, “Whether your blog is a formal business affair or a personal online diary, blogging is a powerful form of self-expression that you shouldn’t miss.”
With so many blogs to choose from, AsiaLIFE throws the spotlight on a few more of the most popular and informative sites.
In the Kitchen
“I needed a place to channel all my musings and brain-stormings about food,” says Rebecca Luria-Phillips, recalling why she started food blog, In the Kitchen, almost a year ago. Her aim was to build connections with Cambodian food, focusing on home-cooking, small-batch food production and sustainability. “The platform is meant to be a place that unites the many voices in Cambodia that are passionate and curious about food,” she says.
Through In the Kitchen, the former AsiaLIFE columnist has created a hub of information on the country’s diverse culinary offering. On it she shares recipes using local ingredients as well as guides to what is available here and backstories to foods, such as mangoes and honey. “I wanted to create a space for more localised information about the food we eat in Cambodia. So I created it as both an inspiration and a guide,” she adds.
To date, the response has been immense with international media stumbling across the blog and interviewing Luria-Phillips about Cambodian food, helping to raise its profile globally. realfoodcambodia.com
Santel Phin set up his blog in 2008 as a way to let the outside world learn more about his homeland. He initially started writing about everyday life and events, as well as using Khmer Bird as a tool to promote Cambodian arts and culture.
As the country’s technology sector started to boom, Santel shifted the blog’s focus onto the emerging mobile technology market, offering top tips, app reviews, and digital and Facebook marketing.
“I believe it might be useful to a small business owner to know how to promote their business on the internet at a very low cost. That’s our current mission,” he says, adding that blogging, if used correctly, is a great advertising and marketing platform.
Sharing a mutual passion for lifestyle, design and travel, a year ago, Caitlin Decker and Tiffany Tsang launched Cait+Tiff. Focusing on life and design in Southeast Asia, the duo throw the spotlight on creatives, food, travel, style, fashion and other topics they deem important.
They also use the platform as a marketing tool to promote their design and fashion services, and drum up business. “We wanted to have a space to document our own growth into new careers, and share the things that excite us about living in Phnom Penh,” says Decker. “The blog is a platform for us to brag about it.”
Writing the blog together also adds two points of view, with Tsang focusing on design and the art of creation, such as how a certain product or cocktail is produced, while Decker concentrates on textiles and fashion.