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Sandra Hoffman – Co-founder of Villa Paradiso

Sandra Hoffman has lived in Phnom Penh with her husband, Philipp, and their two children for three years now. The family previously lived in Dubai for eleven years.

Sandra is very well travelled and has visited more than 80 countries during her life so far. So what made Sandra and her family choose Phnom Penh as their home town? The answer was definitely surprising to hear, it was all because of an excel spreadsheet.

Sandra explains that after 11 years in Dubai the family was ready to move on to a new country, but they didn’t know where they wanted to go. They listed all the 80 countries they had visited in an excel spreadsheet. She says ‘we made it mathematical, we used the UN safety index, the  cost of living and French school for the kids, the top three countries according to our list were Nicaragua, Argentina and Cambodia. Sandra and her husband then lived in each of these three countries for a month to see which one would fit their family the best. In the end the couple decided to settle down in Phnom Penh, as they thought it would be a good place to open a business.

At the time, Sandra and Philip, felt it was hard to find a quiet and cosy place to stay in Phnom Penh so they decided to open a boutique hotel. Today their boutique hotel, Villa Paradiso, is one of the most popular boutique hotels in Phnom Penh, located on a quiet street in the centre of Phnom Penh.

Sandra really enjoys her life in Phnom Penh but it was not love at first sight. In the beginning the children found it tough to see the Cambodian kids in the street, much more than Sandra thought they would. But as they started to get more connected with the Cambodians and get Cambodian friends they started to like it more. Now they love to play football with our Cambodian night guard. ’Cambodia is a place that grows on you, and it grew on us’. For Sandra it’s the Cambodian people that make the place special.

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Stéph Delaprée – The Happy Painter in Phnom Penh

If you have spent any time in Cambodia, you will probably be familiar with Happy Paintings. Happy Paintings vividly depict scenes of everyday life in Asia. Even the king of Cambodia owns a Happy Painting. The Happy Painting gallery and shop is located on Phnom Penh’s riverside, next to FCC.

Stéph Delaprée is the artists behind Happy Paintings. I caught up with the long-term Phnom Penh resident over a pastis on the riverside, to find out how Happy Paintings came about and what Stéph thinks about life in Phnom Penh.

Stéph tells me he doesn’t like elitism in art, he describes his paintings as being art democratisation,  ‘it’s art for everyone, an art which everyone can understand, Happy Painting is the painting of happiness, an art of feelings and pleasure’.

The name Happy Paintings came around at the time of his first exhibition in Cambodia. ‘I tried to find an easy to remember name, I came up with Happy Painting. After so many years I don’t like so much the name, but it’s a good representation of what I do’.

Stéph hails from Paris originally, but he grew up in Quebec and has travelled extensively. He has lived in Phnom Penh since 1993. He originally moved to Cambodia for a two month job with a human rights NGO, drawing illustrations to make people aware of their rights. He is surprised to find himself living in Cambodia almost 20 years on ‘every day I wake up surprised that I’m still here!’

Stéph has created many paintings about the positive side of Cambodian life. His paintings typically show smiling women washing clothes by a river, people working in rice fields and families on bicycles. Stéph says ‘Phnom Penh is a good city, it’s living, it’s like a heart beating, boom boom boom, now it’s more like vroom vroom vroom with all the car engines’.

I asked Stéph about his plans for the future, he said ‘at the beginning I travelled a lot in Cambodia. I’m ready to travel and meet people again, I’m ready to be re-born in work and life’.  Stéph has exciting commissions coming up for a Tokyo Gallery and a church in France. It looks like there’s no shortage of demand for Stéph and his Happy Paintings.


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A Traditional Cambodian Makeover and Photo-shoot

Having a traditional Cambodian makeover and photo shoot had been on my Phnom Penh ‘to do’ list for some time.There are makeover shops throughout the city. I went to a shop on Monivong Boulevard.

Cambodian couples often have their photo taken at these shops before their wedding day. They pose together in traditional costumes and the photo is displayed at their wedding ceremony. Cambodian people also have these makeovers for fun. Khmerphoto-shoots are becoming increasingly popular with expats. I’d definitely recommend it as a fun afternoon out.

Two women worked on my makeover. The proceeding started with selecting my outfit. I opted for a red sequined number. Then we moved on to my make-up. The women painted layer upon layer of thick foundation on to my skin. My eye make-up, lipstick and blusher were similarly heavy. I wasn’t surprised to end up looking like a drag queen, but I liked my new look. I was particularly taken with my thick painted eyebrows.

The women crimped my bangs into a quiff and the rest of my hair was styled into a side ponytail. I hadn’t expected to get an eighties hair-do, so that was a bonus. I was then weighted down with armbands, bracelets, necklaces and tiaras. My transformation was complete!

I was taken to a separate room with a photographer. He gave me advice on how to pose and was very patient about my blinking eyes.

I kept my thick make-up on for the rest of the day. I gave my face a bit of a wash before going out in the evening, but I still had considerably more make-up on than I have ever worn before in my life.

I have just received my makeover photos back. They have been heavily PhotoShopped. My freckles and moles are a thing of the past. I’ve also been super imposed on to a room full of teak. I like the photos so much, that I’m choosing one to be my ‘Your Phnom Penh’ profile picture.

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Ken – a beggar in Phnom Penh

Today as the rain suddenly began to pour we ran for what shelter we could find in the Phsar Chas Market on Street 13. We navigated the market passageways beneath the makeshift plastic roof, the small alleys quickly filling with water. We jumped from one patch of higher ground to another, shrieking each time a hole in the plastic let the rain run down on us. As we made our way towards the center of the market, we came across an old woman sitting on a couple of boards begging; the rivers of water washing across her feet.  We all huddled together to wait out the storm and she began to tell us her story.

Her name is Ken, she is 74 years old and has been begging in Phnom Penh for four days. She was once married, but her husband and her four siblings were all killed under the Pol Pot regime, leaving her alone to support her young daughter. When Ken’s daughter was old enough she married, which helped their financial situation until three years ago when her husband “was not cured in time” and died. Ken and her daughter share a small parcel of land, enough to supply one bag of rice per season, however Ken and her daughter, now 40, are both in poor health and are not able to work the land.

Ken’s daughter now works as a garbage collector in Stueng Mean Chey Commune, and when Ken is well enough and can afford to make the trip she comes to Phnom Penh to beg. On a typical day in Phnom Penh Ken receives between 5,000 – 7,000 Riel. (About $1.50)  It costs her 2,500 Riel to sleep at the train station, leaving about 2,000 Riel ($0.50) for dinner.  She has no breakfast, and eats lunch only when she can afford it.

Sometimes the rain became so loud, pounding against simple roof that we could not hear each other over the storm. In these moments she would look at us with a smile, the lines beside her eyes spreading into her grey hairline, and her hands folded at her chin in a way that seemed to imply both please and thank you. As the storm began to subside and we stood to get back on our way, we had a quick conversation amongst our group. It was decided. We handed her a $5.00 bill. She stood to accept it, and bowed graciously, but then shyly told us she didn’t know how to convert it into Riel and asked if we had Riel instead. We told her she could buy food and they would change it for her. And then, though she had thanked us most sincerely, we realized she couldn’t know how much this was worth. “This is 20,000 Riel, thank you for talking with us.” We all stood in a circle and she looked at us, taking our hands in hers, thanking us each one by one.

Five dollars is more than most would typically give to someone begging, in fact, I typically do not give at all.  Children I want to encourage to go to school, not to beg, so I support them via The Ponheary Ly Foundation, but hearing Ken’s story as we all stood there in the rain, and feeling the warm sincerity of this woman made us all think twice before saying no to the older people begging.