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Wednesday, November 10, 2010


The serviette index

At the moment I am in Cambodia, a country considered to be one of the least developed in Asia.

Prior to coming here I was in Malaysia. While I was in Melaka there was a celebration because the state of Melaka had achieved developed status. One English-language newspaper had a supplement celebrating this occasion. A whole page was devoted to listing the criteria by which Melaka could be compared with developed countries and found to also be developed.

There was one criteria that I believe was missing. That is the serviette index.

In Asia, dining out is the norm. More often than not it is cheaper to dine out than to eat at home. So why go to all the trouble of preparing a meal? I'm not suggesting that everyone always dines in classy restaurants. Most people don't. They buy street food or something that is just one step above that. The food is still good. But you're not paying for classy surroundings. In Malaysia there are food courts, independent of malls, that sell a wide variety of foods at reasonable prices. This is where many Malaysian people eat on a daily basis.

Until my recent visit, I've had three years of spending very little time in Malaysia. Prior to that I'd stayed in Malaysia for months at a stretch. What I noticed on my return was that most of these cheaper eating places, including many restaurants, no longer provide serviettes.

OK, let's get this straight. You don't get a real serviette in any but the more expensive restaurants and there you still do. In the others, the cheaper restaurants, the food courts and the street establishments, you used to get tissues. They do the job. You finish the meal and you need something to wipe your mouth and fingers. A tissue is all you need. There used always to be a plastic box of tissues on the table and you helped yourself.

They're no longer there.

I asked my friends, 'Has this changed or is my memory deceiving me?'

My friends told me that in recent years tissues have gradually disappeared from the tables of all these cheaper eating places. You need to bring your own.

There is one place in Melaka where I used to eat regularly when I stayed there before. The first night I went there on my return the woman who ran the place didn't seem to recognise me. But the second night she seemed to be staring at me a lot. When I went to pay my bill she said, 'How come you not come long time?'

This place is the exception. They still have proper paper serviettes. Not tissues but real serviette-sized thick folded paper for wiping your face and hands. But they don't leave it on the tables. They have it on the counter.

At this restaurant I recognised a guy, about my age, who seemed to eat there every night. He stares straight at me every night but can't so much as nod. And this guy, I noticed on several nights, goes to the counter and casually takes a bundle of serviettes, folds them and puts them in his pocket. Perhaps it's because of people like him that the other places have stopped providing tissues.

But now back in Cambodia everywhere I eat, even the cheapest street stalls, they always provide a box of tissues. If there was a serviette index for measuring development, Cambodia would be considered a more developed country than Malaysia.

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Tuesday, November 09, 2010


I know where it is—yeah sure

My return appointment, and hopefully my last one, with the dentist was for 3 pm. When I have a morning appointment I usually walk the kilometre or so. I enjoy walking. It gives me the opportunity to see this city, it gives me exercise and it gives me the opportunity to take a few photos. But walking in the heat in the early afternoon has less appeal. I decided to take a moto (motorcycle taxi).

They are usually everywhere. No sooner have you told one that you don't want him then another starts badgering you. I walked out of the guesthouse expecting to be surrounded but no. When you want them, where are they? Actually there was one there. He was doing a bit of maintenance on his bike and hadn't seen me. But he was only too happy to take me.

I have a business card from my dentist. On the back is printed a map, with wording in Khmer, showing how to find the surgery. The moto takes it from me looking at it upside down.

'I know. I know. It's near Wat Phnom,' he says, pointing in the opposite direction.

I turn the map around. Perhaps he doesn't read Khmer. Maybe he never went to school. I carefully point out all the landmarks to him and explain where it is. 'Yes, yes,' he can handle it.

He's a nice guy. We chat on the way there. He speaks good English. But I just think it's a pity a foreigner has to show a moto the way around this city.

Sunday, November 07, 2010


Life in Phnom Penh

I'm back in Phnom Penh, back to the dentist. My appointment is 10.00 am but thanks to running on Malaysian time I'm there at 9.00 am. He often has no one at this time, I might get in anyway. Besides I brought my book with me, didn't I?

Well, he already had a patient and when I checked my bag I didn't have my book after all so I headed around the corner to where there is usually a young woman selling English-language newspapers outside Lucky Supermarket. The vendor is there and also a middle-aged woman with two small kids, begging.

'How much is Cambodia Daily,' I ask.

'1,500 reil.'

'But on the cover it says "1,200",' I point out.

'Yes, 300 for me.' She can't be more upfront than that, can she? I know that when she sells the Phnom Penh Post she charges the cover price. I guess whoever she gets the Dailies from doesn't allow her a margin. And 300 reil is less than 10 cents. I give her the money.

All the time this transaction is taking place there is a two-year-old kid at my ankles with his hand out asking for money. Without paying him much attention I interrupt my purchasing a couple of times to say 'no'. When I have my paper in my hand, he's still there with his hand out. I look him in the eyes, 'Ot tay.'

He obviously understands Khmer because now he backs off. The mother/aunt/grandmother smiles at me with betel-stained teeth.

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Tuesday, November 02, 2010


Taxi ripoffs

A couple of weeks ago I was in Kuala Lumpur and wanted to go to Melaka. I was staying in the Chinatown-Petaling Street area and the bus station was just around the corner. Or so I thought. When I got there with my far too many bags I could see that the entrance I usually used was closed. I asked a passerby how to get inside. 'Oh, it's closed. They're rebuilding it.'

I asked where I needed to go to get a bus to Melaka. Fortunately I was more or less outside a railway station on the line that would take me to the temporary bus station. I didn't have a deadline and it was still early in the day so not a big deal. When I got off the train I had to walk perhaps 200 metres to the bus station. The bus fare to Melaka was about RM12 (about A$4).

The Melaka bus station is no longer in the centre of Melaka. Unfortunately these days, it seems, bus stations are not being built in the centre of cities, or downtown as the Americans say, they are built out in the suburbs. When I first went to Melaka the bus station was in the Hung Tuah area which was not all that far from Chinatown. If that was where you were heading you could walk assuming you knew the way. It's still walkable from the new bus station but only to a long-distance trekker with a boy to carry his luggage. Now there are taxis to take the rest of us there. There are also buses if you know which one to get and I do but this time I was carrying way too many bags and felt I really needed a taxi.

But I needed something else even more when the bus pulled into the bus station. I needed to eat. So when the taxi tout approached this skinny guy with far too may bags I was able to say 'No, I'm going to eat first.' That was only postponing the inevitable. So I returned a while later and tried to negotiate a fare. It didn't matter who I asked. The fare was RM30. I pointed out that I'd travelled all the way from KL for only RM12 and that paying RM30 to go the last two or three kilometres was absolutely crazy. But they wouldn't budge. I didn't like either of the other options, ie bussing or walking so I shut up and paid up. BTW, taxis in Melaka don't have meters.

I had a delightful two weeks in Melaka. I had forgotten how much I love this place. Eventually it was time to return to KL and the guesthouse rang a taxi to get me to the bus station. When he turned up, I asked how much.

'Fifteen ringgit'.

I'd already put my far-too-many bags in his boot. He could have asked for 30 or maybe more. But this time it seemed I'd got one of the honest taxi drivers. I trust there are a few more of them.

When the bus reached the bus station in suburban KL there were half a dozen taxi touts waiting at the door. I was the last to get off. There was only one tout left. 'Where you go? You want taxi?'

'No, thank you. I'm getting the train.'

'Train? No train here. You have to walk six kilometres.'

'Bullshit,' I said, grabbed my far too many bags from the hold of the bus and walked past him. Ten minutes later I was on a train on the way to Chinatown.

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