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Review: The TEDxPhnom Penh conference

By: Thomas Wanhoff Posted: February-06-2011 in
TEDxPhnomPenh speakers & staff - photo credit - Keeda Oikawa
Thomas Wanhoff

A dream came true for me: getting an invitation to a TEDx-conference. For those who dont know what TED is, check out Basically, it is a invite only conference for the brightest people. The claim is "Ideas Worh Spreading:, and Phnom Penhs subtitle was "Building The Future".
The brightest people in Cambodia to answer the question are, at least the TED organizers selection:

  • Keeda Oikawa & Kung Nai: Live Painting & Chapei
  • Sithen Sum “Self-Education”
  • Mike Rios “Dong Chim the Quarter-Life Crisis”
  • Enemies of the People Video Presentation by Rob Lemkin & Thet Sambath Live
  • Tiny Toones “Dance Your Life Around”
  • Kounila Keo “Blogging: The New Generation of Cambodia”
  • Chris Brown “Lean Startup – a bootstrapping guide for young entrepreneurs”
  • Channe Suy “Building the Future of Cambodia starts with Sharing”
  • Colin Wright “Extreme Lifestyle Experiments”
  • Chris Noble “From Little Things, Big Things Grow”
  • Theary Seng “Reconciling Peace with Justice in Cambodia”
  • Phloeun Prim & Cambodian Living Arts Performers “Transformation of a Nation through the Arts”

The dramaturgy of the event was well prepared and executed. I don't now how much they had to follow TED rules, but the organizers did a great job. Keeda Oikawas live painting, while Kung Nai was playing, was already a highlight right at the beginning.
Sithen Sums call for more self-education was exactly the kind of talk I was expecting at TED conference, well presented, leaving me a lot of things to think about. I found myself in this talk as someone who has no degree or diploma. Most things you need you find in life, not at school.

Mike Rios vibrant talk about the life quarter crisis after you finish university went in the same direction. "Give your life a meaning" was his key point, and if you have to quit your job for that, do it. I hear this many times at conferences, and I actually followed this advice four years ago, but I can also understand why people still walk in the treadmill of a 9-5 job. It's not that they can't leave, it's because the treadmill is comfortable and safe. To understand, that emotional safety and balance is at least as important as financial stability, is, in my opinion, probably only possible if you have gone through a crisis first.

Although Rob Lemkin & Thet Sambath did a great job with their movie "Enemies of the people" I was a bit disappointed to see it at TED, where the claim is "Building the future". Same counts for Theary Sang. It's not that I am saying the past is not important, and they we need to understand the past to build the future, but I would like to see a shift in the importance of topics. Cambodia needs after the economy development a social development, in culture and education. To constantly tell people that their families are either killer or victims, doesn't bring a society forward. My hope was that TED was focusing on the future. It was, at least partially, not.

Kounila Keo, a young Cambodian women who I admire a lot and who helped me, was talking about the future and the social development I am demanding. "Blogging gives us a way to express our thoughts and feelings and make it public", she said. And she is right. Blogging can have political or social impacts, but it has impacts. Since Cambodia is still a bit more relaxed compared to their neighbors Thailand and Vietnam, she calls for taking the chance and participate in a civil dialogue.

Chris Brown is an old Barcamp buddy, I always love to listen to his talks about lean businesses and how to start up, minimizing the risks. "Fail fast, fail cheap" is one mantra, and "Customer development before product development" another. I hope that his engagement and enthusiasm will encourage more Cambodian people to start their own business. The upcoming Khmertalks and the Cambodian Young entrepreneurs are a good sign.

I know Channe Suy from a Minibarcamp at the Insteed headquarter, where she works. These guys doing a great job developing software for disaster and health response. Geochat is an application that works as a group and locations based sms communication tool. It gives people the tool to respond fast and share with other. Building the future means for her sharing information and knowledge. I cannot agree more.

It is a already challenge to move to another country, and even more if you do it every 4 months. This is exactly what Colin Wright is doing. He calls it the extreme lifestyle, and it certainly is, at least for someone from a western country. His most important defiance is to deal with the unexpected. You can prepare a lot, but you will for example not think about that internet connections in New Zealand are just bad.

Chris Noble, the founder of Footprints and Worldnomads, talked about how travelers can make a positive impact to the places they visiting. He received one million Dollar from 400.000 donors, to build houses, roads, roofs or whatever was needed in rural and poor areas. I personally think that the impact for the so called voluntourist is bigger than for the communitys. Having a bunch or young travelers in your village might be a a welcoming distraction from the daily life, but doesn't mean the house will be build faster and better.

Last but not least the impressive talk by Phloeun Prim, who I also admire a lot, about transforming a country through the living arts. He talked about preserving the Cambodian culture as a fundament a future is build on. Again, the debate about how to build a future is a starting point, and arts were always a basis for a developed society. Cambodia developed the arts centuries ago, and need to remember the values this art gives the country, but also daily life.

So my conclusion: A well organised conference, where I learned a lot, where I learned from other people as well, and where I had moments when some tears came out. TED is not just a rational event, but also emotional. This TEdxPP followed this claim. In the future, the planning team should try to get a location that represents Cambodia better then the expat compound of Northbridge. There are good and suitable locations in town. Also I would like to see more Khmer people in the planning team, and not only the usual young white volunteer gang. And please, no more "from that dark ages of the Khmer rouge regime" talks. We know it, thanks.

Again, a big thank you to the organizers for making a dream come true for me.


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