Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending Hattha Kaksekar’s annual General Assembly, held at Sihanoukville, Cambodia’s resort town. When general manager Mr. Tong invited me I initially thought it was going to just a board meeting with a day at the beach thrown in for fun. Turns out I was very wrong. HKL is a large MFI. Everyone in the organization was invited, from the top managers and directors to security guards and janitors. Over 280 people attended, descending on Sihanoukville from nine HKL branches all over Cambodia. I hitched a ride on the bus chartered by the head office. Spirits were high as we left Phnom Penh, despite temperatures hovering around 100 in the packed bus. Everyone was excited for General Assembly, which is a highly anticipated event among HKL staff. It’s a chance to reconnect with friends and co-workers from other branches, some of whom they get to see only once a year. It was a festive five-hour drive down National Route 4 to the coast. Nonstop karaoke, drums, clapping, jokes, laughter. There were several leisurely rest stops along the way where we got out to stretch and sample questionable street vendor fare. As we passed through the Elephant Mountains, half the bus emptied at a roadside Buddhist shrine to light incense and make offerings for a safe journey. This is a must on Cambodian highways, where traffic laws are non-existent and safety consists of honking your horn as you pass on blind turns. Fortunately, we had a veteran driver.

group photo

HKL had practically rented out the entire Golden Sea Hotel for the occasion. The next day, everyone dressed in their finest business outfits. Most staff wore starched blue shirts with pressed pants or skirts, while management wore dark suits. I was hopelessly underdressed, but a tucked-in collared shirt goes a long way and they seemed to cut me some slack. Things started promptly at 7:30 with seven hours of power point presentations and speeches in Khmer. I sat up front with the management team trying to follow along, but could only comprehend numbers and whatever limited translations my seatmates whispered to me. 2007 had been the “year of valentine” for HKL, which I gathered meant that everyone was supposed to treat each other with love and respect. Mr. Tong declared 2008 to be the “year of happiness and prosperity.” Seven hours of business presentations in a foreign language was a bit of a challenge, but it was interesting to get a feel for the overall structure of HKL and its goals for the future.

The most anticipated event of the weekend was the banquet. Steaming mounds of rice topped with seasoned fish, mysterious crustaceans and mollusks caught that morning from the Gulf of Thailand and fresh fruit for dessert. And, of course, endless pitchers of Angkor beer. Cambodians love Angkor, which they drink with huge chunks of ice. Being unaccustomed to this practice, I politely declined because the beer was already ice cold. This turned out to be a mistake as the night wore on. Cambodians also love toasting, clinking glasses every minute or so. Having watered-down beer enables you to endure many toasts, which is essential because this banquet was especially large and long. Just about every credit officer from all nine branches wandered over to my table that night to introduce themselves and offer a toast. Trying to remember a single Cambodian name is hard enough for me, let alone over 250, but it was great to meet the faces behind the business profiles I’ve been editing.

toast

After dinner various speeches and pronouncements were made. The Kampong Cham branch performed a skit called “Six Ways to Make People Like You” which included cross-dressing and riotous laughter. Then a DJ played HKL’s official song (yes, they have a song), a distressingly catchy piece of Cambodian pop written, composed, and sung by members of the internal auditing team. I had this song stuck in my head the rest of the trip. Once the music started everyone got up for traditional Khmer dancing. To me, this appeared to consist of walking counter-clockwise around a table with undulating hands and arms. Didn’t look too tough. I gave it a shot, much to everyone’s delight. I soon discovered that the moves were actually very specific and complex. Trying to save me from further embarrassment, a few guys asked me to show them some “hip-hop moves.” I don’t have anything remotely resembling hip-hop moves, but I indulged them with something vague and mostly awkward. The party ended around midnight, which is late a country where most people are in bed by 9:30.

The next day was a free day. The Banteay Meanchey branch challenged the Phnom Penh branch to a soccer match and won decisively 11-3. I couldn’t play because of a smashed toe, and my moral support evidently didn’t count for much. The rest of the day I hung out with the guys from the Stoung branch, playing beach games and swimming in the warm water. Mostly they sat in the shade playing cards and drinking Angkor. Vendors hawked all sorts of stuff, from swim trunks and sea-shell trinkets to raw peanuts and grilled squid.

vendor

Lunch and dinner was banquet-style with more seafood, but nowhere near as festive as last night. Everyone was up by 5:30 the next morning for the ride back to Phnom Penh. Back to work.

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