.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


Noise pollution

A few blogs back I listed some of the challenges that might be found when living in Cambodia. For me the most difficult one is fortunately only an occasional one. There is a tradition in Cambodia that weddings and funerals are celebrated with noise at such an uncomfortable level that I can't see that it can possibly be enjoyable to anyone.

No one has ever told me that when there is such a celebration taking place near their home they say something like, 'Oh goodie. Now I can enjoy a few days of loud distorted music, speeches and monks chanting.'

If it benefits no one, then why does it continue? My only explanation is that it is also a part of Cambodian culture that no one should question or challenge anything. Obviously history provides contradictions to this. Pol Pol and his accomplices must have questioned the status quo prior to their ascendancy. But when they came to power it seems that no one questioned or challenged them, at least not successfully. It took an invasion from an external power to unseat them.

I have been fortunate that no one has seen fit to marry or die in my neighbourhood since my recent arrival here—until today. Actually the celebrations started yesterday afternoon. Fortunately yesterday the volume of the music was kept to an almost bearable level and they turned it off early in the evening. However they started again this morning at full blast, probably about 200 decibels, before 6 am. At least I can be thankful that they didn't start up earlier. 5 am is not unusual here in Kompong Chhnang.

To some extent I was prepared. When I chose this room I selected one that is half way down the building and so protected from noise invasion on three sides. I have earplugs from Australia. I was not able to buy any in Cambodia last year—no one knew what I was talking about. I have an iPod and a set of expensive Bose headphones.

After I was woken first I tried the earplugs. These are good quality mouldable earplugs, rated for about 30 decibels. They made almost no distinguishable difference. Without connecting the iPod I put on the headphones on top of the earplugs. With the combination of the two the difference was discernible but the noise was still too loud to allow me to go back to sleep. I removed the earplugs and plugged the headphones into some music. This was the best combination. It didn't drown the external noise but gave me something more pleasant to concentrate on. I am careful to use my iPod at only half volume. These things have the power to damage hearing just as I'm sure the speakers outside are doing for anyone stupid enough to get close—that's all the wedding guests.

By about 9.45 am, I'd done my usual morning rituals, breakfasted and done my chores and they'd got on to the speeches. Some woman was sounding off in a fiery manner but my ability with Khmer language is not yet good enough for me to benefit from her wisdom. I headed off to the internet cafe. It's at least a kilometre away. Maybe it'd be quieter there. Unfortunately it was not open. Not sure what time it does. I returned to my room. Speeches were still being broadcast but at least the noise had been toned down a little. As I write, just before midday, I can hear something in the distance but it is at a bearable level—no worse than your teenage neighbour would do when his parents are out. I don't expect it'll stay that way. If they follow the traditions it'll be loud into the night this evening and start again tomorrow morning early. I've got my iPod battery fully charged. Hopefully I'm prepared.

* * *

This morning I rang Esther, my Khmer teacher, and suggested she think about another venue for my lesson this afternoon. Esther lives directly behind the house where the wedding was taking place. By time I headed off for the lesson I realised this was not necessary. As I was walking down the street I could see that all the hired chairs, equipment and speakers were being loaded onto a truck. Wow, they had finished the wedding already. I won't have to put up with it any more today and tomorrow.

Esther confirmed that the wedding had in fact finished this morning apparently because the family is quite poor. The toned-down noise I could hear this morning was a funeral a little further away. I've also learned that the reason the internet cafe was closed was that the staff all attended the wedding.

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, October 29, 2007


50 smiles

I think I've figured what it is I need in life. Fifty smiles a day and I can cope with almost anything else. And yes, here in Kompong Chhnang my needs are being met.

Just for the record, all these photos were taken in Cambodia, most in Kompong Chhnang. If you are really keen perhaps you can identify many of them on my flickr pages. Have fun.

Which ones do you think are related?

Add a comment and vote for the happiest smile. Maybe I'll give a prize to the winner—ie the owner of the smile—if I can track them down.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, October 25, 2007


Vote buying

In developing countries it is not uncommon at election time for there to be accusations of vote buying. But isn't that exactly what is happening in Australia? Aren't the major parties saying, 'If you vote for us, we'll give you this...' Perhaps they're not buying individual votes but they are offering incentives to us to give our votes to them.

Consider the developing countries. Perhaps in many of them the unspoken message of the politicians is, 'Give us your vote so that we can give ourselves more money.' Of course in countries like Burma they don't waste time with charades like elections.

Consider the Chinese. Compared to people in many of the countries I visit, the Chinese I met are not too badly off. They agree. But some told me that they still want the right to choose their government. Strange that the government of that country thinks they have the right to speak on behalf of the people of Tibet and Taiwan when they haven't even the courage to allow the people of China to decide they approve or disapprove of them. At least no votes are bought in China.

What do you, my Australian friends and family, want from the next government? Tax cuts? More money for your child's education? For your health?

And when you get it will you be happy?

Labels: ,

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


Life in Cambodia

I had hoped to return to my previous home in Kompong Chhnang and the life I had in Cambodia last year. Discovered a few days before I arrived that an international organisation had approached the landlord and offered to rent the house for three years. It's been empty since I left a year ago. He took the better offer and I don't blame him.

At first I was disappointed but then I saw it as an opportunity to stay in Phnom Penh and study Khmer. Besides, my friend, Vana, is now living in Phnom Penh and that would give me someone who speaks the language to help with any problems.

We decided to make a day trip to Kompong Chhnang the day after I arrived. No one else knew I was coming. Vana and I reached the Sorya bus station in Phnom Penh at 9.45 am. It was more crowded than usual as there had been a holiday for the P'chum Ben Festival. The ticket office told us that the next bus to Kompong Chhnang was at 10.30. We bought our tickets and went to get some breakfast. Arrived back at the bus station at 10.15 am. Waited until 11.30 when Vana discovered that the bus was at the service station on the other side of the road. I don't know if he asked or heard an announcement but there was no information given in English. There never is. We went across and there was the usual situation that I compare to if you had put a bunch of bananas in the bus and a mob of monkeys were all trying to be the first to get in. In Cambodia, no one wants to be last on the bus.
Despite all this rush there were plenty of seats. But I discovered the system has changed. In the past, I usually sat in the middle of the back row because then I could stretch my legs into the aisle. There is insufficient room for westerners' legs in most seats. Now they have scrawled numbers on the ceiling with a marker and the seat numbers are allocated on the ticket. The conductor insisted we sit in the allocated seats. I was whinging and carrying on. I do this in English and very few people have a clue what I am saying but it gets it off my chest. Perhaps the conductor did understand. After a few minutes he decided that as the back row was empty and Cambodians don't usually want to sit there we could move down the back.

I understand why they number the seats. The back row fits five. But sometimes I get on, the bus is full except in the back row there are three young guys occupying five spaces. They're sitting with knees so far apart you'd think they each had a pair of footballs between their legs. I have to bully them to get them to move enough for one skinny westerner to fit in. Most Cambodians wouldn't say anything, they just stand quietly and let the conductor do the bullying.

Anyway, that is not an issue today. There are ample seats. We leave for KC without calling in at the bus station. I probably would have missed the bus if I'd been on my own. But then if I'd been on my own I'd have checked way earlier and they probably would have sent a message to me somehow. I was well known by the ticket sellers at this bus station. I've waited a long time for buses in the past but I don't think I ever missed one.

A couple of hours later we get off in KC and walk down the street to Vana's family home. He has been storing some of my stuff and we sort through it a bit. He has some work to do too in relation to the job he is doing in PP. I borrow a bicycle and head for the market. We have not told anyone that I am coming. When I get to the Seinah & Seinee family stall their mother is outside. She calls out 'John!' before I'm even close enough to see them properly. I miss the opportunity to see the looks on the faces of the twins who are inside.

I sit with them and chat. After a while they need to get back to work. I wander off to see who else I can find. At Savern's stall, her mother is lying in a hammock, which is the usual way they wait for customers. She call's to Savern who is busy with a customer at the other end of the stall. The mother stays in the hammock holding my hand until Savern finishes with the customer. Then Savern comes and gives me a hug over the top of the mother. This is unusual here as physical affection is not usually shown in public in Asian countries, at least not between males and females.

I chat for a while with Savern. She has forgotten most of the English she knew so speaks mostly in Khmer which evolves into a Khmer lesson for me. This often happened when I was there before. She is a natural teacher. Vana's mother, who was also not aware that I was here, turns up. Then she spreads the word to a few relatives who have stalls a little further down. I spend some time with each of them. I try to buy a pair of sunglasses from one. They refuse to take my money. At that price, maybe I could buy a new pair of reading glasses too but they don't have the right strength. Vana turns up and we walk around the rest of the market together.

I take him to vendors who I know but he doesn't. I chat to them with my limited Khmer but this time we can communicate a little more than usual because Vana can translate. He is quite surprised at how warmly so many people are greeting me. After we've done the circuit he says, 'I know that Seinah, Seinie and Savern love you but I did not know that so many people all over the market love you.'

When we go back to his place we start packing stuff for me to take back to Phnom Penh but it is too late now to go back that day. We stay at his place the night. He keeps telling me that he can find a house for me if I want to stay in KC. He thinks this is where I belong because so many people want me to come and stay. In fact he has only seen part of it. I could take him to four monasteries in town where I would get a similar reception from many of the monks.

Me, I'm feeling confused. All this demonstration of affection is very appealing but on the other hand my communication with the majority of these people is limited by my lack of ability in Khmer language. I am thinking that learning Khmer is my priority and that I can probably do that best in PP.

That night Vana's parents give up their bed for me. I try to insist that I am happy to sleep on a mat on the floor but he insists 'You are my guest' and the parents sleep on a mat on the verandah.

When I wake the next morning I have a feeling that I should make plans to come back to stay in KC. I feel sure that I can find a teacher in town. We go for a walk and Vana shows me some accommodation that has been offered to me but it's not really suited to my preferred lifestyle.

Vana's brother is going to give him a ride back to PP on his motorcycle. First they take me to a guesthouse to check if there is a vacancy so I can stay there until a house turns up, then they drop me at the bus station. It's about 8.15 and the bus is due to leave at 9 o'clock. It seems the bus company has made some changes. In the past, several buses would stay overnight at KC and they would leave at roughly one hour intervals in the morning. But today there is no bus there. It arrives way past 9 am and by then there are many people waiting.

Last year they would leave with about six people on board. We go through the monkey boarding procedure again. I wait back. I choose to not be a monkey. And my karma must be good. Somehow the best seat on the bus is empty. This one is at the front just behind the entrance. There is no seat in front of it. I grab it. There are a few others who don't get proper seats. They sit on the spare wheel and on the engine covering.

As we head in towards PP, there is a lot of flooding across the road. It rained heavily the previous night. There are also a lot more passengers who board. The bus reaches a point where, in a western country, it would be considered full. As you can see from the picture above, it's not a very big bus. We stop and there are seven people waiting to get on. That's seven adults, there's also a baby and two of the adults are elderly. They also have several sacks. One looks like it's filled with charcoal, another perhaps rice. Somehow this is all fitted in. The old folks and the mother all sit on the sacks in the aisle. Everyone else squeezes further back.

I wondered what would happen if there was anyone else waiting. I'm not sure if this bus company puts passengers on the roof. It doesn't. From then on the driver signals 'no room' to other prospective passengers. It's midday before we finally reach PP.

I spent a few days deliberating over my decision to return to Kompong Chhnang. Somehow I wasn't sure it was right. But by Wednesday I was convinced it was so have now returned with all my stuff. I'm still in the guesthouse but have found a home. It's not ready yet so I'll write about it after I move in, perhaps in a week or two. I've also found a Khmer teacher close by and am having regular lessons. I'm happy with these arrangements. I feel I've made the right decision.

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, October 22, 2007



I'm hoping to stay in Cambodia again for some time. Not sure how long I'll be here. It does have it's challenges. If I can come to terms with being surrounded by extreme poverty and the social issues that creates; living amongst poorly educated people and the social issues that creates; bad roads; limited services; poor hygiene; extreme heat and humidity; six months of rain each year and occasional oppressive noise pollution, then I'll be able to enjoy the company of perhaps the friendliest and most genuine people I have met anywhere, living in a delightfully green environment. Besides, getting a visa here is much easier than anywhere else that appeals to me.

Paradise? Come visit and decide for yourself.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, October 19, 2007


Confusion & honesty

Having been away from Cambodia for a year it could be said that my Khmer language skills are a little rusty. My familiarity with local prices is also out of touch. This helps me to understand why in some places vendors increase prices for foreigners. This morning I had a plate of bor bor (rice porridge). When I finished I asked, 'Ponman?' (How much?).

'Pram roi,' was the answer.

I had to think about this for a while to make sense of it. I mean, pram roi is 500 reil which is less than 14 Australian cents. If she had said 'pram buan' (5,000 reil or $A1.40), I would simply have paid without thinking about it. So you see, when I first returned, it was easy for me to make this mistake. On several occasions I did. And offered to pay ten times the correct price. On each occasion, so far as I know, the overpayment was returned to me. I don't think anyone took advantage of my confusion.

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, October 13, 2007


Back to Cambodia

Today I flew from Bangkok to Phnom Penh. Unfortunately I didn't have a window seat. I could see the flooded river below. Wow! There was more water below us than land. It is really amazing to see it from the sky having seen it so many times from ground level.

I would like to have got a photo but while I had my camera, unfortunately I didn't have a window seat. The guy who did, didn't appreciate it. He was too engrossed in his book. I wonder how many times he's seen it. Wouldn't make any difference to me. For nine months I made a weekly bus trip through this territory and I never tired of the ever-changing view.

Vana, a friend from Kompong Chhnang is now working in Phnom Penh. He is staying in a house in the suburbs with his boss who is a Frenchman. So, for the moment I am staying in that house.

Cambodia is delightfully undeveloped. Even in the capital, once you get off the main roads the streets are dirt with pools of water. Guess it'll be dusty when the rainy season is over. Here's the street where I'm staying. I'm in the last of that row of four houses. Pretty luxurious for Cambodia. It has running water but only cold, western style toilets, in fact each bedroom has a bathroom.

People here are delightfully friendly. We were travelling into town in a tuk-tuk similar to this one. As we overtook them I pointed my camera and just look at the smiles I got.

Tomorrow we are planning a day trip to Kompong Chhnang, the town where I was living last year. No one knows I'm coming so it will be fun to see the looks on the faces when they see me.

If you'd like to see some of the other photos I took on the way into town, just click the exotic transport link in the sidebar.

Labels: , ,

Monday, October 08, 2007


Smiling in the rain

The rainy season in Thailand should end by the end of this month. When I arrived in Mahasarakham more than a week ago there was a storm. At the bus station water was right across the road. I stepped off the bus into 10-15 cm of water. It's rained on and off since.

The other day I took a walk in the rain with my umbrella to my favourite BBQ restaurant. The rain was pouring down. It was still quite heavy as I walked back after lunch. Water was several centimetres deep across the road in places.

It's been raining like this on and off for about six months. You'd think people would be sick of it by now. I observed the students coming up the street from the university on their motorcycles with umbrellas, two or three on board. They were getting wet and most of them were smiling or laughing.

Even when the weather is uncomfortable Thailand is still the land of smiles.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, October 04, 2007


Secret silk village

If you followed the antics of this year's APEC conference in Sydney you might have noticed that the world leaders attending gathered together at the Opera House wearing their Drizabone jackets. In 2003, APEC was held in Thailand and the leaders were presented with Thai silk clothing. Last week a friend took me to Surin in north-east Thailand for a few days. This gave me the opportunity to visit Ban Tha Sawang where the fine silk was woven.

I was met by a young guy who is a student of traditional Thai art. He showed me around some of the looms and explained the weaving process.
The finest silk is dyed using only natural dyes sourced from materials such as those in this picture.

The actual weaving of such fine and intricate garments is performed on a four-person loom by one weaver and three others who arrange strands above and below the loom to create the patterns. In these days of computers it is amazing to consider that this process produces only a five centimetre length of cloth each day. Obviously this process is expensive but then Thai villagers do not earn the sort of wages that we in the west are accustomed to. Garments presented to the world leaders were each valued at $US2,200.

This is only one end of the spectrum. The village also produces everyday silks that still look beautiful at a fraction of the price. Prices of goods sold in village stalls are extremely reasonable.

Surin is not often visited by western tourists. To me this is a pity and also a blessing. Because of the lack of tourists the people of the whole of the Isaan area are delightfully natural. To me, Isaan is the real Thailand. But don't tell anyone. Just quietly come up here, enjoy the hospitality and pick up some silk bargains.

PS. The third picture is right-way-up. The woman is working at a lower level underneath the loom.

Labels: , , ,

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?