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Sunday, August 29, 2010


Death in the morning

If you are a regular reader of these blogs you will know that one of the things that puts me off living in Cambodia is the loud noise associated with weddings and funerals. Being here at this time of year is a conscious choice. It's the rainy season. Most weddings are held in the outdoors and people don't often get married in the rainy season. Unfortunately most people don't have the luxury of choosing the time of their death.

When I left for Phnom Penh last week I noticed the sounds of a funeral starting up and was pleased to be missing it. After I returned to Kompong Chhnang I noticed music was being played from loudspeakers across the road—another funeral—a few nights ago. It didn't go too late into the evening so I was quite pleased. This warning also meant I could be prepared for the morning. I had my iPod and headphones ready. I bought them specifically for this purpose. When the music started up again at 4 am I was ready. The music I was playing did not drown out the external noise. I didn't want to burst my eardrums so I put up with a little of their noise seeping in. But at least I had something else to concentrate on. It was bearable but only just. When the mournful howling songs started at 4.30 it was a bit much but I survived.

Later I was told the story of the death. My informant speaks only passable English so maybe I didn't get the details correct but here is the gist of the story.

The man concerned was a father of five. I don't know how old he was. He drove a remorque moto, a Cambodian form of public transport with a motorcycle pulling a box trailer. His route took him to another town in the direction of Phnom Penh.

Coming in the opposite direction in the early hours of the morning was a truck returning from delivering a load of contraband timber taken from a national park to Phnom Penh. Perhaps the driver had been driving through the night so as not to be seen with his illicit load and in the early hours of the morning he fell asleep at the wheel and veered across the road right into the remorque moto which was pulled over on the side of the road.

The moto driver and his son were on board and were both injured, the father seriously. An ambulance was called. And here my informant veered off into a side story of how a spotter's fee is paid to the person who calls an ambulance. Apparently the ambulance passenger is charged a large sum of money for the journey. But the father died soon after he arrived at the hospital in Phnom Penh. The family was expected to pay another fee to bring the body back to Kompong Chhnang otherwise the hospital would sell the body for use in scientific experiments to recoup the costs.

Apparently the family paid up so they did have a body to cremate. But it all sounded rather tragic and helped me to understand the mournful singing.

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Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Profit making on the buses

I found my dentist. His surgery is in another part of town but still walkable from International Guest House. I had my first appointment with him on Monday morning. I need to return for root-canal treatment twice a week for about three weeks. He'll be working on the tooth next to the one that the dentist in Mahasarakham treated and crowning them both.

After my Monday morning appointment I took the bus to Kompong Chhnang. The KC bus service no longer operates. If you want to get a bus to KC now, you have to take one of the buses that goes to the towns beyond Kompong Chhnang. The Soriya Bus Service has made a few other changes too. I always wondered if the bus service made money. The bus was staffed by a driver and a conductor. Most people got on the bus at Phnom Penh (on the outward journey anyway) and paid at the bus station. So the conductor's main duty was to check your ticket as you got on the bus. They usually picked up one or two passengers along the 90 kilometre journey. But the conductor was hardly run off her feet.

In Thailand they have a similar system but the conductors who dress up like flight attendants serve you refreshments, such as they are. Even then I think they're superfluous.

I always wondered if Soriya trust their staff because once or twice along the way an inspector would get on to check the tickets. So there were a lot of people employed on those buses.

But this has all changed. We no longer have the little school-bus sized vehicle on the KC run. We get a real bus with comfortable full-size seats. I bought my ticket at the counter in Phnom Penh and showed it to the conductor who left the bus before it left the terminus. There were no ticket inspections. I had a comfortable ride and arrived in KC just before a mother of a storm hit.

I headed for Holiday Guesthouse but it's not there anymore. Never mind, they still have rooms and are happy to accommodate an old friend.

I've been enjoying the smiles of my friends for a couple of days and today returned to PP so I can make my 9 am appointment tomorrow with Dr Chum. The first bus that came along this morning was a GST Express. I waved, it stopped so I got on. It did have a conductor who showed me my seat and then disappeared for five minutes. When he returned he gave me a crumpled ticket and asked for $3. That's 50 cents more than Soriya charged to get me there.

Somehow I thought the ticket looked a bit sus. I was hoping an inspector would not come on board or one of us would have some explaining to do. When I got to PP I checked the ticket. It was dated 23 August. (Today is August 25.)

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Sunday, August 22, 2010


10,000 reasons to be pissed off with Phnom Penh

I arrived in town late on Friday afternoon. At the airport I was besieged by tuk-tuk drivers offering to take me to town for $7. (US dollars are semi-legal tender in Cambodia.) I said, no that was too expensive and they quickly pointed out that car taxis charge $9. I said last time I was here I travelled by motorcycle and paid $2. They pointed out how difficult it would be with my bags on a motorcycle. But I've done it before. It can be done. Then a motorcycle driver who looked like he was blind in one eye turned up. He offered to take me. "How much?' I asked. '$5.' 'No way. I paid $2 last time.' Eventually I got him down to $3.50, so off we went. I'm sure if I'd actually walked out into the street outside the airport I could have found one to take me for less. But the one-eyed driver seemed a nice sort of guy so I went with him. He even knew where International Guest House was and while he tried to talk me into accommodation where he might get a commission, he was happy to take me there.

I first visited Phnom Penh early in 2005. At that time I remember one of my challenges was the fact that many of the motorcycle-taxi drivers knew the city hardly better than I did. Since then, whenever possible in Phnom Penh I walk where I can.

During this visit to PP I have several agendas. I want to visit a dentist who worked on my teeth a few years ago. I want to catch up with my friend, Vana, who is now working and living in Phnom Penh. On the plane from Australia I sat next to a young woman named Erika who was heading to Cambodia to do volunteer work on a similar basis to what I do. We agreed to try to catch up. And I needed to go to the Australian embassy to vote. To communicate with all these people I also needed to get a Cambodian SIM for my phone. I needed Vana's help for that. You need citizenship ID to get the SIM. I got my last one in his name.

Before I left Australia I emailed the Australian Embassy and asked if they would be open for voting. I got a quick response saying they would. I borrowed a phone from the reception guy at the guesthouse on Friday evening, called Erika and arranged to meet her at the Oz embassy at 10 am. I left the guesthouse at 9 am. This allowed me plenty of time to visit the dental surgery and walk to the embassy. I knew where it was. I'd been there before.

At the dental surgery they told me the dentist was now working elsewhere. They checked the number I had and said yes that would find him. OK, off to the embassy.

When I reached the corner of the street where I expected the embassy to be I asked someone for confirmation to make sure I had the right street. He said that the embassy had moved but he couldn't tell me where. I went on anyway. He had to be right because it certainly wasn't where I expected it to be.

On a corner there were two motorcycle drivers and a tuk-tuk driver. They offered to take me somewhere just as every other motorcycle and tuk-tuk driver had done on every corner I had passed. I asked if they knew where the Australian embassy was. One guy was very confident. He searched my map for about two minutes and then pointed to a mark on the map where it clearly said US embassy—and this was in the other end of town. One insisted that it was further along roughly in the direction I had been heading and the third vaguely described how to get to where it was before. Despite their inability to convince me they knew where it was now located each of them thought I should still go with them. I decided to continue walking but in the direction that seemed the most probable.

At the next corner another tuk-tuk driver asked if he could take me somewhere. I asked if he knew where the Australian embassy was. He described the direction that I thought had the most potential which suggested I was heading the right way. I was concerned because I was supposed to be meeting Erika. I didn't want to be late. I was prepared to get this guy to take me so I asked the fare. '$3'. He quoted. "No way.' I said.

To put this into context, you need to understand that the average income in Cambodia is about $50 a month. So, if he was quoting this fare to a Cambodian how many fares do you think he would get? Obviously this is a special price for foreigners. And having been raised in a country where all taxis have meters and therefore everyone, no matter who they are, pays the same fare. I find this attitude unfair. (No pun intended.)

He dropped his price to $1.50. I said 'no'. He asked what I'd pay. I said '2,000 reil' ie 50 cents. He rode off.

I simply kept walking in the direction I believed the embassy to be; stopped here and there to ask directions; spoke gruffly to any tuk-tuk or motorcycle driver who dared to approach me and eventually found the embassy at 10.30 am. There was no sign of Erika. When I signed in I checked the list of previous visitors and Erika's name wasn't there. I did my democratic duty, went outside and waited until a little after 11 am. Still no sign of Erika.

I walked back home dodging the motorcycles and tuk-tuks as much as possible, had some lunch and during the afternoon went to the National Museum where I was to meet Vana. He was almost an hour late which meant I sat in the shade on the opposite corner and I noticed the motorcycle and tuk-tuk drivers. Most of them never moved. It became obvious, if it wasn't already, that there were far too many of these guys so that very few of them can make any sort of living out of it. They sit around all day doing nothing, thinking they have a job but complaining how little money they make.

Compared to my first visit in 2005 the number of tuk-tuks has increased greatly. There are probably more motorcycles too but proportionally, the tuk-tuks have increased far more. My guesstimate is that there has to be about 10,000 tuk-tuk drivers in town—maybe more than there are in Bangkok, a much bigger city. There must be far fewer tourists than tuk-tuks. I certainly don't see as many Westerners as I do tuk-tuk drivers. Most have a spot where they sit all day and return to if they are lucky enough to get a fare. I guess they pay someone for this right. Whether such a payment is official or not I don't know. This being Cambodia I suspect it's not. Those who don't have such a spot cruise.

The cruisers can be more persistent. They come along beside you as you walk, engaging you in conversation. One guy was quite good. He saw me going to a statue to take photos and waited where I had to pass coming back. He started chatting and was a good conversationist, drawing me out. In fact, I dumped a lot of my feelings about his profession on him. He didn't disagree but during the conversation pointed out, as they often do, the costs and other challenges involved in running this business.

I can sympathise but the reality is they have got themselves into a business that simply can't make money. There is far too much competition. In most of the world of business competition means lower prices but not in Cambodia. The way they figure it is that because they can't get so much business they have to charge more to get the same income. Elsewhere they would go out of business but somehow they hang in there and it is simply a crazy situation. If other travellers feel the same as me they are actually having a negative impact on tourism. I don't recommend anyone visit Phnom Penh unless they are prepared to put up with constant harassment from these guys. Come to Cambodia by all means but go elsewhere.

I want to end this on a positive note. I love Cambodia. The Cambodian people are the friendliest I've met anywhere. They are so generous with their smiles it is a delight to be among them. Please come to Cambodia and enjoy your stay anywhere outside of Phnom Penh.

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Hang in there

There is a young woman who lives in the building where I'm staying in Bangkok named Roxanne. No, Roxanne is not a Thai name. Roxy, as she is known, is Philippinno. She was staying here when I lived here two years ago so she's been here a while. She teaches English at a primary school nearby.

Yesterday when I went downstairs to fill up my water bottles at the ionised water machine she and Titee were sitting having a chat so I joined them. At one point we got talking about names and their meanings and Roxy said that her name meant 'sexy girl'. This didn't make sense to me. Would a parent give such a name to a little baby knowing that is what it meant?

I checked online to find the meaning and I have to say that the site I found disagrees with Roxy. According to this site it has two optional meanings 'graceful rose' and 'dawn'. Nothing there about sexy girl.

I noticed that the site also gives meanings of last names so I decided to check 'Shield'. Here it says that our name means 'dweller at Shields (shepherd's summer hut)', guess that makes us shepherds or 'one who made armour'. (Is that armour or amor?) On the same page it shows a small family crest which links to a page that offers to sell you a larger version. Personally, I wouldn't bother but I notice that as well as suggesting we had something to do with pigeons the crest gives a family motto 'Vincit qui patitur'.

Isn't the internet wonderful. A few years ago that would have stumped me but it doesn't take long to do a search and I discovered that it means 'He who endures will conquer/succeed.' So, to all family members reading this who might be having a tough time now or in the future just remember, hang in there, you'll get on top of it in the end.


Sunday, August 08, 2010


Old routines 2

With my allergies I have to be careful what I eat. It can be a challenge, especially in a foreign country, to communicate what I don't want. Every now and then, despite speaking in my best Thai, 'mai sai goong, mai sai tooah', when the meal arrives it has prawns and peanuts all over it.

Therefore, to keep life simple, once I know a particular place will serve what I want, I go back again and always order the same thing. At this place it's pad thai, at that one it's pad see eu, at another it's pad pak and so on. The people at each of these places probably think that I only eat one thing. But I don't. It's just that when I want to eat something else I go somewhere else. It works for me.

When I arrived back at Jirapong Apartments I asked myself, 'Where did I eat when I lived here before?' Then I remembered the little place on the other side of Ramintra Road, more or less at the foot of the overpass. But what was it that I used to eat there? I couldn't remember.

I decided to go over and just see what would happen. When I got there the woman who runs the place beamed. She seemed so excited to see me and started rambling on in Thai. I think I managed to understand about 25% of what she was saying. I smiled and nodded and gave an answer when I really did understand. She asked where I'd been and I told her I'd been in Australia. All the time I'm thinking 'And what did I used to eat here?' Eventually, she solved the problem. 'Au pad see eu gai mai ka?' I was able to answer 'Au khap' and the problem was solved.

I'm back in the routine now. I go there for lunch every few days and order my pad see eu gai. Sometimes her father sits down and chats with me and I understand about 10% of what he says. Life is pleasant.

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Thursday, August 05, 2010


What goes around...

The way my chosen lifestyle has developed over the past (almost) eight years, I have learned to live with little. Because I move on fairly regularly I have to accept that when I do I have to cull many of the possessions that I have accumulated. If I'm looking to stay somewhere for a while, I do start to accumulate things—speakers for my computer, a microwave oven, bedding, etc—but sooner or later I move on and if I can't carry it, I have to leave it behind.

I spent most of last year in Mahasarakham and I was seriously thinking at the time that I would like to stay there semi-permanently. When circumstances took me back to Australia, I put my stuff into storage with an expectation that I would return sooner or later. When the time came to return to Asia, I decided there were other fish to fry so it was time to let go of all that stuff. In Mahasarakham I sorted through my stuff, carried off what I reasonably could and left the rest behind. MSU is setting up a house for scholarship students from Cambodia to live in. We agreed that what I left behind could be put into that house.

For much of 2008 I lived in Jirapong Apartments on the outskirts of Bangkok. That time too I accumulated a few possessions. At the end of the year I returned to Australia via India. I was running out of time when I was sorting and packing. I suggested that if I left stuff in the room for them to clean up they could have anything of value for their trouble. They agreed.

Now I'm back in Bangkok but will stay for only three weeks. I returned to Jirapong. There's not a lot of point in investing in things for the sake of a three-week stay but I do appreciate some basic stuff like an electric jug. I asked if they would have a spare jug lying around, then I went off to the store to buy some of the more disposable things I would need. When I returned to my room, inside was a jug, an iron, various bowls, dishes and other things. I thought they look familiar. It seemed they'd kept much of my old stuff and now I get to use it once again.

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Monday, August 02, 2010


Respectful relations

On the way back from Mahasarakham I dropped into Korat to spend some time with Nid. She knows that I don't mind visiting the occasional temple so had picked out one or two of the, literally, thousands of temples in the district, that she thought I might find interesting. But first we took a look at the floats for the Tian pansa candle procession. You can see the photos of these on my flickr page.

We started at Wat Phayup which includes a 'cave' temple. Wat or วัด is Thai for temple or monastery. At Wat Phayup we found a small open-air tour bus that was doing the rounds of temples and other interesting sites of Korat. It was only 20 baht (less than A$1) a head so we joined and got commentary as well—in Thai.

I would have been happy with this. Nid seems to feel an obligation to this man she calls 'Dad'. I have no such expectation. Still, she wanted to show me even more on Sunday before I checked out of my hotel at midday and headed on to Bangkok.

She met me for breakfast Sunday morning. She'd managed to find a map and we set off to Wat Narai Maharaj. The main temple was locked and Nid went off to find someone to let us in. She returned with monk, a young man about the same age as my son David.

Chut (ฉัดร) was a friendly guy who spoke good English and after he'd shown us the various shrines around his monastery he offered to take us to Mahajula University, a Buddhist university that he had attended. I was concerned about how much time we had but neither he nor Nid seemed to think there was a problem. So we set off in a sorngtheau.

At the university we passed some classrooms and even though it was Sunday morning there were classes in progress. Chut started a conversation with a teacher from one of the classes and next I was invited to take over the lesson. It turned out that it was an English class and the Thai teacher was keen to have a native speaker talk with his students, just as I used to invite any visiting foreigner to speak with my students at Wat Xam in Cambodia.

Eventually it was decided that we should start making tracks back to the wat and then to my hotel. While we were waiting for the sorngtheau Nid and Chut were carrying on a conversation in Thai about what Chut should call me. He wanted to call me 'Dad' (he actually said 'Daddy') as Nid does and I have no problem with this. I really like this young man who was going out of his way to be kind to two people he'd only just met. Then again, this sort of thing is not uncommon in Thailand. On the other hand Nid suggested to him that 'Sir' might be more respectful considering the age difference. He felt that 'Dad' was indeed respectful and suggested a much closer relationship and I agree. The last thing I need is to have someone calling me 'Sir', especially someone I am fond of.

So, to Nid and Chut, thank you for your kindness and respect during my visit to Korat. I look forward to seeing you both again on my next visit.

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