Kimleng and the Cambodian Silk Scarves, Part 1

With ChiangMai deep in the rear view mirror, I headed to Bangkok, then on into Cambodia, to Siem Reap, the city adjacent to the World Heritage Site of Angkor Wat (arguably the most amazing example of architecture on the face of the planet).

I visited Siem Reap last year, and I met a girl named Kimleng, who worked at her parents’ tiny grocery store a few doors down from my hotel. She was cute, sweet, and she spoke a bit of English, all of which conspired to make me do my small shopping at her place. On a typical day, I would have a Coke there in the evening, and chat with her about pretty much anything: life in the West; life in Cambodia; music; her school work; whatever. They have only snacks, cold drinks and the like, and they are, I suspect, barely making ends meet. When I left Siem Reap, I stopped by to say goodbye, and she asked if she could have my email address, so she could ask me questions about English usage. I told her she could email me whenever she liked, and about whatever subject struck her fancy, and she took me up on it. Over the course of a year or so, we became pretty good pals, a situation that was enhanced when we became facebook friends several months later.

Now, a small digression: when I returned from Siem Reap to Japan last year, I brought some Cambodian silk scarves as souvenirs. They were unanimously well-received, and I was mildly chided for upping the game at souvenir-giving, as most of my friends typically brought back cookies or snacks as souvenirs from their travels. I assured them that they had probably paid more for the cookies than I had for the scarves, an assertion I am not sure was widely believed. I asked a couple of the recipients what they thought such scarves might be worth in a First World market, and the responses I got were in the $25-30 range. Hmm! A possible business opportunity.

Okay, back to the main thread of the story. At some point in my facebook chats with Kimleng, I asked her what she planned to do after high school. University perhaps? She said that she would really like to continue her education, but there was simply no money for that. She said she would probably continue to work at her parents’ shop, and perhaps get married somewhere along the way.  A shop girl in her situation can expect to make perhaps $60 per month. As it is now, she goes to high school in the mornings from around 630-1200, and then again from 2-6pm, then comes home and works until after midnight, sometimes as late as 2am.  When the shop is not too busy, she can work in some studying, and somehow she has managed to place 4th in her class of 75 students.

One night on facebook, I asked her if she might be interested in serving as the Cambodian end of a small silk scarf enterprise, in which she would buy the scarves at the local market, send them to me in Japan, and I would sell them either in Japan or in North America. Her command of the language, plus the fact that she was a local buying the scarves in some quantity, suggested that she might be able to secure a better price than I could ever negotiate as a foreigner. My access to higher-paying markets, on the other hand, suggested that there could be a decent spread between the buy and sell prices. She texted me back, and said that it was a lovely idea, but that she had no money to buy scarves, and thanked me profusely for thinking of her nonetheless. Of course I had no intention of her paying for them, and I told her that, but still there remained the problem of how to get money to her to get the fledgling business off the ground…

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