Riika Knuutila is a nurse. But since she first visited Cambodia five years a go, her dream has been to settle down here as a designer and owner of a jewellery shop.
“I just have to stay here in Sihanoukville. This is my home now, this is where I belong. I can’t see my self going back to Finland to stay there 12 months a year,” the 31 year old woman says.
It’s a Tuesday around noon, and Riika Knuutila is presenting her shop, and telling about her life in her shop, which is also her home, and has been that since the opening of “Funky Sun Silver” in September 2008.
“I came to Cambodia first time five years ago, says Riika Knuutila .
“It was fantastic. Almost from the very start here in Sihanoukville I learned about M´lop Tapang (Shielding Tree). Its an organisation working to improve the lives of street kids (www.mloptapang.com). I had been doing similar work in Helsinki, and it was a great experience to see the people here making wonders for kids in need,” Riika Knuutila tells.
Using a very simple camera, she took photos of the children who were connected to M´lop Tapang. Back in Helsinki, she turned many of the pictures into an exhibition called “Cambodia Smiles”.
2 + 2 = 4
“During one of my first stays I had to make some money, so I got a job as a bartender”. Working legally would be impossible in most of the other countries in The Far East, but the Cambodian immigration rules allow foreigners to work, as long as they buy a business visa for USD 25 / month.
Her salary was an amazing two dollars a day, plus the same amount in tips. And for four dollars a day, she found out that she could have a decent life in Cambodia.
“As a bartender you get a lot of free drinks on top of the tips, so I only had to pay for food and a simple room my self. The price was that during three months I did not see the beautiful sunset, because I was sleeping my day away, and working until early morning.”
Later, the life as a bartender got to tough, and Riika Knuutila exchanged it with jobs as a nurse in Finland or Norway. And it was during one of these periods working in Norway, that she made the drawings of the shop where we are sitting during this interview.
“I knew exactly how I wanted it. Even the tiles and bricks you see here, are specially made after my drawings,” Riika Knuutila explains.
When she returned to Cambodia, she landed in Bangkok, and took the bus to Trat, close to the Cambodian border.
“A helpful guy to my backpack, and he almost stumbled. “Do you carry stones in you backpack,” he asked me. And I could only say “Yes!” – because I carried 9000 beads (pearls) from Finland, plus several other things!” she laughs
Back in Sihanoukville, Riika Knuutila rejected one possible shop after the other, until she finally found the current shop.
“It’s a matter of location. This could be more central for sure, but on the other hand it’s possible for me to pay the rent here also when I am not here. And there is a room where I can sleep, and at the back I made a combined veranda and kitchen”, explain Riika Knuutila.
The grand opening was September 1. 2008, and the first season was OK despite the crisis.
“It was my first season, and I had many visitors. Surprisingly many bought something before they left. I also got my designs displayed at a travel agency, ANA Travel on Beach Road. And one day I got a visit from the women who runs “Green Papaya” in Bali, Indonesia. So now I have several of her designs in my collection,” Riika says.
Buy my motorcycle!
When the 2008/ 2009 season ended, it was time to go back to Finland to recharge, and not to forget, to refill her Visa card account. Everything she had done in the shop had been much more expensive than planned.
“I managed to get an air ticket. But before you can board the plane, you need money to get to the airport. I did not have more than a few dollars. At the very same day that the plane departed at 9 AM, I went to the local market at 7 AM and simply started yelling if anybody wanted to buy my old motorcycle. I was so embarrassed, but what could I do? And I made it just in time. I sold the motorcycle for 200 dollars and I got on the plane in time!”
But now she is here, Riika Knuutila, a jewel in herself, back in Sihanoukville, coping with a new season.
“It’s wonderful to be back, but I do expect a slower season this time. Many of the Scandinavian travel agencies that tried Cambodia out, have stopped their tours, so we get fewer tourists this season,” Riika Knuutila explains.
However, something is clearly different in a positive sense. One day the Finn almost drove straight into a three meter tall wall, because she couldn’t get her eyes off a fantastic, tall and good looking guy on the footpath. The very same guy, five years her junior, is now taking his share of her life and energy, except when he is not attending his studies at the local university.
Something could happen.
“My biological clock is ticking. I can feel the desire to get a family, including a baby, so we never know”, Riika Knuutila laughs.
And the street kids from M´lop Tapang are laughing too. They are making money from making shopping bags for “Funky Sun Silver”.