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Sunday, September 19, 2010


Proud to be humble

My mother seemed to think that pride was one of the worst sins. And if we are talking about excessive pride then I have to agree that it does not make a person attractive to others. However, if we ever said anything positive about ourselves we were put in our place. It seemed that even the smallest amount of pride was a sin. I suspect that what I say is right about many of my generation, we grew up with very low self esteem because every time we felt good about ourselves it triggered a follow-on feeling of guilt.

I want 'proud' to stop being a dirty word because if we can do that we can start being honest. I'm hearing so many people saying these days 'I felt humbled' when under the circumstances they are describing they should be saying 'I felt proud'.

My dictionary defines humble as 'having or showing a modest or low estimate of one's own importance'. If someone has just paid you a big compliment or said something that acknowledged your ability in some way, why would that make you be humble? Let's be honest. There is nothing wrong with admitting a little pride. Let's cut the bullshit and without getting carried away by it all simply say 'I felt proud.'

Thursday, September 16, 2010


Not a review

For some time I have been feeling a need to respond to the books I'm reading. I don't want to commit myself to being a book reviewer. My reading is quite diverse and is certainly not just new releases. I've therefore decided to start a new blog called 'Not a review' in which I can indulge myself with my thoughts that perhaps agree or perhaps argue with the writer. If you're interested, you'll find the page here.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


Getting out of Pakse

I had no real purpose in coming to Pakse. It was just where the bus happened to stop on the way from Phnom Penh to Vientiane. Still, I decided to stay a couple of nights as I was in no hurry to go on. While in town I inquired about my options for travelling on to Vientiane.

Apparently there is what is known as a local bus. It is very basic, non-aircon and stops at every little place along the way. If I wanted to take a few days to see Laos stopping here and there perhaps that would be the way to go but I'd set my mind on getting to Vientiane and the only other way was the sleeping bus.

As far as I know, there are two bus companies operating sleeping buses between Pakse and Vientiane. I chose the one that the travelfish website said would take you all the way into Vientiane. The bus station is actually on the edge of Vientiane, perhaps about 10 km out. You think you've bought a ticket to Vientiane but once you get to the bus depot you still have to get to Vientiane.

The bus leaves at 8 pm. I needed to checkout of my guesthouse by midday. I didn't want to be taking tuk-tuks back and forth. I decided to pack my stuff and head off to the bus station at midday and then decide what to do with the rest of the day. I went outside the guesthouse and found a seat under a shady tree and just sat. I had plenty of time.

After five minutes a samlor came along. This is the same kind of vehicle that had brought me into the guesthouse from the bus station. To me a samlor is a pedicab; a three-wheeled cycle with a seat for a passenger in front of, alongside or behind the driver. This one was a motorcycle with a sidecar. The roof of the sidecar was the same style as on cycle samlors found elsewhere. I wasn't sure what to call this vehicle. After, I asked some tuk-tuk drivers and they told me 'samlor'.

I had already checked out the going rate to get to the bus station with the guesthouse manager. He told me to expect to pay about 6,000 kip. I asked the driver if he knew the Kriang Kai bus station. At first he didn't but when I changed my pronunciation (kree ung kai) he did. He was ready to throw my bags on board. They do this. They just want to get going, get you to the destination, we can discuss the fare later. But no, I said. How much? 20,000 kip. It would be easy to just pay this amount and be done with it. It wouldn't break me but I had plenty of time and I don't like to be ripped off. No, I said.

How much you pay?

5,000 kip.

10,000 he came back with. Amazing isn't it. A minute ago he's asking 20,000 and now he is ready to accept 10,000. What would he have charged me if I'd gone without negotiating?

As I said, I had plenty of time. I stuck to 5,000.

He sat there for five minutes. He asked again, 10,000? I said 5. He drove off.

Five minutes later he returned. 7,000 he said. I agreed and off we went.

At the bus station I bought my ticket. The woman spoke reasonable English. She offered me top or bottom bunk; front or back of the bus but beyond this made no effort to explain ticket options. My fare was 150,000 kip. On the ticket she wrote in English 'DOUBLE'. Fair enough, I thought.

I noticed there was an internet cafe there but first I went off to a food stall and got some lunch. At the internet cafe I was able to plug in my own computer, upload some photos and answer a few emails. It wasn't airconditioned but there was a fan. I was happy except that the woman running the place kept playing online games that played repetitive loud music. That was giving me encouragement to cut my time short but after a while she stopped so I stayed online long enough to do all I needed and my computer battery had almost expired.

When I came out the sky was full of rain clouds and the temperature had dropped quite a bit. It was now not unpleasant to sit in the semi-open waiting area so I got a book out of my bag and sat and read for most of the afternoon. After the storm had finished I went and visited the market next to the bus station. I was able to amuse myself one way or another until it was time to get on the bus.

By time I got on board most of the other passengers had already done so. I showed the conductor my ticket. She pointed to a bed. The beds are all roughly equal to the size of a regular single bed but in most of them there are two people. The bed she pointed me towards had a young man already lying on it. I have double I said. But she didn't speak English and wasn't interested in discussing it. Laos people have a great knack of ignoring you when they don't want to get involved. I was left to make the most of half of a single bed.

I wasn't impressed. But perhaps the young man wasn't impressed to be sharing with me. I don't know. The point is that if I had been given the option I would have chosen to pay to have the whole bed to myself. This option was not offered to me. Perhaps in a communist country such as Laos it is normal to share ones bed with ones comrades.

And I should have known better. I should have known that the English used by people in their own country does not necessarily have the same meaning as we use in the rest of the world. I had learned something. Now I know that in Laos 'double' means you share a single bed with a stranger.

The challenge for me was that I had brought my technology bag with me. It was too big to fit on the rack provided so I had to put it at my feet, greatly reducing my leg room. Eventually I was able to work out a way to stretch my legs. Perhaps I stole a little of the young man's room but he didn't complain. I slept reasonably through the night. The driver rarely, if ever, sounded the horn. Once I got used to the road noise and the swaying it was not too uncomfortable.

When I woke at about 5.45 am we were driving through suburbia and it was raining heavily. We arrived at the bus terminal on time. There was water about two inches deep where the bus pulled in.

There was no option of being taken into town as the travelfish site had said. I had to get a sorngtheau. Set price was 20,000 kip. It took a while before we left. The sorngtheu wasn't leaving until he had a full load. It seemed that on the way into town he dropped all the locals at their homes so the trip into town was not exactly a fast one.

I met my friend, Chantelle at a fountain near the centre of town. We had breakfast before she went onto work and I spent a relaxing day at her house that overlooks the Mekong River.

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Saturday, September 11, 2010


Rules of the guesthouse

This notice was on the back of the door of my guesthouse in Pakse. I post it here for the benefit of other travellers. If you have difficulty reading it, click on it for a larger version.

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Friday, September 10, 2010


Phnom Penh's new transport system

When I think about the issues in Phnom Penh that make it difficult for anyone to get around I am aware that there is a lack of transport infrastructure. Phnom Penh is a city of 2,000,000 people but it has no co-ordinated public transport system that I am aware of. I have a dream that before they start building too many tall buildings, which is happening, they could put in an underground rail network. This would provide regular meaningful work for so many people but somehow I just don't see it happening.

At the moment I am in Pakse, a Lao city much smaller than Phnom Penh and what I see in Pakse are sorngtheaus. It hit me. This is the answer for Phnom Penh. The word sorngtheau means 'two rows'. Basically a sorngtheau is a pick-up truck with a roof over the back and two rows of seats. In a town like Mahasarakham I can travel from one end of town to the other on a sorngtheau for eight baht. Every medium-sized Thai town has a system of sorngtheaus which gets people around the town quickly and cheaply.

Surely the investment in such a system is not huge. I am aware that Phnom Penh is looking more prosperous than it was eighteen months ago. Previously, new cars were relatively rare. Now there are many. The last guesthouse I stayed in in Phnom Penh this visit is owned and operated by a man who has been living in Australia for about twenty years. He returned to Phnom Penh a relatively rich man. There must be many such people, Cambodians who have migrated to Western countries and been successful. They can now return to Cambodia and create a new middle class.

Perhaps such a person would be able to invest in Phnom Penh's new sorngtheau transport system. Hopefully the government would see the value of this and give support to such a person.

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Wednesday, September 08, 2010


Getting to Laos

Originally I thought I would have to go to the Laos embassy in Phnom Penh for my visa. At most land crossings into Laos it is possible to get a 30-day tourist visa on entry. The route I was taking, from Phnom Penh to Vientiane via Pakse did not, until recently, have a visa facility at the border. Online reports suggested this may have changed but it was not certain. I had advice from two people that it was definitely possible, so I decided against making the trip to the embassy—actually it would have been two trips on a moto. This option seems to be much better.

The distance between the two capitals is apparently less than 800 kilometres. My first thought was that it should take about 12 hours. That wasn't really smart on my part because I have a lot of experience with Cambodian roads. I should have known better. Perhaps it was wishful thinking.

There is a bus that leaves from Sorya bus depot every morning at 6.45 am. It costs US$45 to go to Vientiane and $27 to Pakse. When I checked the arrival time with the ticket seller, she told me 24 hours. 24 hours! How could that be!? I simply did not want to believe it. And that would mean staying overnight on a bus. I've only ever once done an overnight bus trip. It was horrible. I didn't want to do it again.

Eventually I decided on a ticket to Pakse. That is a 12-hour trip. I figured I'd get off in Pakse stay overnight and then get a day bus the rest of the way the next day. So, yesterday morning I set off. Sorya bus station is only a few blocks from my guesthouse in Phnom Penh but I'm carrying far too much at the moment so I relented and took a tuk-tuk. I didn't want to do my back in before I started.

When I got on the bus I was pleasantly surprised. The seats were quite wide and comfortable. I was in the second row. The front row was raised as it was above the driver. This meant that the view to the front was obscured to me as would oncoming headlights be. And somehow the arrangement gave my seat lots of leg room. I was pretty content and even started thinking that maybe I could cope with overnight on this bus.

Most of the seats were empty including the one next to me. I even had space to spread out. However, along the way the bus stopped and picked up passengers and also dropped them off. I had the company of a pleasant young Belgian lady for a few hours but for the rest of the journey the seat was empty.
I sat back and watched the view, taking the occasional picture. We crossed lots of rivers and passed through many flooded fields. We also passed through towns and villages and rice fields. I really enjoy the Cambodian countryside. Just before 4.00 pm we reached the border.

Cleared the Cambodian immigration, no problem. Paid the $1 fee that these guys charge for doing their job. They were most obliging and even accepted it in reil. Walked the 100 metre no mans land in the hot sun. Filled out a form to state I didn't have any flu symptoms and presented my fee and papers for the Laos visa (including the extra fee here also). The hardest part was that I had to stand on a west-facing verandah in the hot sun and it takes about ten minutes. I was lucky, I got in first. The dawdlers had to wait while everyone else was processed. Altogether it took about an hour.

I see there are buildings under construction. I trust this rather primitive system is only a temporary one.

We had a couple more hours of driving on Laos roads which are much better than on the Cambodian side of the border. I'd also say that on average the Laos housing was slightly better than Cambodian. There seemed to be fewer vehicles on the road. There weren't so many rice fields and there was a lot more bush.

I had still been thinking about staying on this bus but I noticed that on the Laos side of the border the driver beeped his horn much more. Are Laos drivers more dreamy? They seem to be. Also the conductor told me that it was a different bus from Pakse on. That convinced me that I wanted to get off at Pakse.

Eventually we reached Pakse and I discovered that the onward bus was a 'sleeping bus'. It had proper bunks rather than reclining seats. But I grabbed a moto with a sidecar and headed for my guesthouse. I'd got a couple of names from the travelfish site. I rejected the Narin Thachalern Hotel. The fan room did not have any window or ventilation. When I lay on the bed I could feel the springs sticking into me. No thank you. I ended up at Sedone River Guesthouse. It is very basic but has a firm bed that suits me and after Phnom Penh, it is incredibly quiet. : )

I decided to stay a second night because I didn't want to be rushing in the morning to find a bus. After I paid for the second night I asked about buses to Vientiane. There is very little choice. There are two bus companies and both offer only sleeping buses that travel at night. There are no day buses. I have to wait until Thursday evening and will still have to endure a night on a bus.

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Sunday, September 05, 2010


Teaching violence

Two recent incidents in the news in Thailand have been getting a few comments in online forums.

First a teacher was charged for caning students. A student filmed the act on his mobile-phone camera. The film showed the teacher, who really looked like he was enjoying it, swinging the cane wildly before bringing it down on each boy's bottom. There were also shots showing the bruises left by the caning. The students' crime? Their dormitory rooms were untidy.

In a separate incident, a nine-year-old boy was shot dead while leaving a Bangkok bus on his way to school. There was apparently a gang war between students from two different schools and this unfortunate kid got in the way.

Some of the forum posters suggested that the reason there are gang wars is that there is not enough discipline and that kids should be caned more to make them behave themselves. I disagree strongly and would like to explain why.

I believe that one of the most powerful teaching tools is demonstration, ie kids learn from what is demonstrated to them at home and in the world at large. This has been shown, for example, with literacy. There has been much research to show that children who come from homes where parents are seen to read and write regularly are more likely to do well at reading and writing tasks at school.

I believe that if we want to stop this gang warfare that occurs in Australia, perhaps as much as in Thailand, we need to ask what we demonstrate to our children about the use of violence.

If we demonstrate that when we have a problem with someone, we smack them or beat them then the child grows up believing that violence is a way to solve problems.

If we demonstrate that we can exert our power over another who is smaller than us, the child grows up looking for smaller or weaker people to bully.

If we demonstrate that we are more powerful because we have a weapon, the child who wants to be powerful will be looking to acquire weapons.

If we sit at home with our children watching movies where violence is seen as a solution to a problem, the children are learning that violence is the best solution to problems.

If our children watch the news every night and see people with shirts of one colour or another challenging authority with violence then they may grow up believing that they have a right to use violence to get their needs met.

On the other hand, if we demonstrate that we can have rational discussions with our children; that we can set clear boundaries so they know what they should and shouldn't do; that there are rewards and punishments that are fair and understood and administered fairly and consistently then there is some hope that our children will inherit a peaceful society where one can catch a bus without the fear of being shot.

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Wednesday, September 01, 2010


Gallery plug

If you take my advice and come to visit Cambodia and you ignore my advice and spend time in Phnom Penh then I would like to suggest an art gallery for you to visit. Most art galleries have hand produced copies of copies of copies of rural and Angkor scenes. What you see in one is almost the same as the next. Over the years I've spent a lot of time in Phnom Penh and so far I have only noticed one art gallery displaying original work. The work still draws on Khmer traditions but they are interpreted creatively. The gallery is situated diagonally across from the entrance to the National Museum (also worth a visit). It's called Asasax Art Gallery. I trust you will enjoy it.

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