Thursday, 29 September 2011

Pack with care.

Most people will take more meds than they need, and never use them.

good habits:
Most people seem to drift through life, repeating endlessly habits and customs, however, as a traveller, this is not for you. You must develope good habits

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

My friend Claire.

Last year I was shocked and saddened to hear of the death of my friend and former neighbour Claire. I met Claire when I moved into my new home. She and I were different in outlook, but I could see that she was a good person. We shared an interest in computers, hers was at a complete starting point. To begin she knew nothing, however, over the next few years she mastered the wintel computer and learned to use sophisticated photographic software far better than I ever could. She also taught herself digital photography, mastering the skill, and turning her hobby into a business. She left two sons. You are missed. Claire RIP.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

The Perfect Hotel Room

Light speed, as we all know thanks to Albert Einstein is something approached asymptotically. The closer we get, the harder the next increment—or to put it another way—perfection is something we can aspire to, but never hope to reach. This is true for space ships, and it is equally true for hotel rooms. In south east Asia I have stayed in everything from one to five stars in a half dozen countries in, but have never found a perfect room. 

However, for your edification, here, I shall outline what I see as a perfect room.

First the basics, for me a room must be clean, and well laid out. In short, what I refer to as a ‘western room’. Something where I feel at home and in which I can relax. Admittedly, much of what makes me feel comfortable is what we I am used to, what I grew up with, but there it is. I am content, in fact, happier with a single room, a ‘standard’ room in hotel parlance, big enough for what I need, small enough to be unburden-some.

And in this room I require the following: 
• bottled water, a good hotel provides a few bottles of water for their guests, complimentary.
• wifi, we live in the modern world. The internet is what is needed for so many things. Near mandatory, certainly for a stay of over a day.
• Aircon, again mandatory. 
• Private facilities. I don’t like to share the private things. A shower is the minimum, a bath is a relaxing addition.
• Tissues. It is a little thing, but a box of tissues laid out for your use is a convenience.
• Fridge. Useful for storing drinks, fruit or food of any type.
• Double bed. I like my space, and, who knows, a guest might want to stay over.
• Wall hooks. I have a bag, a hat, and a few other things which are more conveniently stored on hooks. 
• Bedside lamp. A small lamp next to one’s bed allows sufficient light without drowning the room in an unfriendly blast of light. 
• decor. Minimalism is best, but one or two eye-catching pieces of artwork is pleasant. A theme for the room, not a jumble of bits and pieces. 
• cleaning. Once a day.

Finding a room such as this is not difficult. Look not at the top spots—on the river or on the main road—but look a block or two back. Here you will find smaller, family or privately run guesthouses and hotels. These provide the services listed above, and do so in a friendlier atmosphere. You can find a room such as this anywhere in SEA (perhaps not Sing) for $15–$25 a night. Discounts for longer stays. 
Booking agencies. I detest these companies. Websites such as agoda, for example. The discounts offered are no more than the standard price, something you can get by a direct approach to the hotel, artificially raised so that the website can offer a discount. They require payment in advance, which is not always good if you are a traveller, and horror stories abound of refunds and general service. Make an effort, surf the net, look for unbiased fellow traveller reviews, then check for the hotel’s website.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

3rd world folk, health, fitness—reality and myth

It is widely regarded as a truism that people in the 3rd world lead a healthy life—that they rarely if ever suffer 'western' lifestyle diseases. This perception is based upon the belief that 3rd worlders eat simple, natural foods, and lead an inherently healthy lifestyle. This belief is a myth—the reality is the opposite—people in the third world, or at least the population of south east Asia (SEA), have a poor and unhealthy diet and lifestyle, and, as a consequence, suffer form a wide variety of diseases.

This poor lifestyle manifests in many different forms, but the most obvious: the large majority of people in these countries smoke excessively, drink too much alcohol, eat too much fatty food, conversely, they do not eat enough of the more healthier foods, and avoid exercise as they would the plague. All of which results in, or or at least exacerbates, a wide variety of illnesses. For example, the number of Thai women who suffer from osteoporosis is astounding. Few women over fifty in Thailand seem to be free of the disease.

This abusive life style is readily apparent, in many guises. For example, one major cause of ill-health is sugar. It is an addiction found throughout the region, and is the cheapest and perhaps the most deadly of drugs. In a hotel buffet breakfast Thais will line up at the sugar bowl, spoon three or four spoonfuls of sugar into their morning tea or coffee, and then add one spoonful of salt. The reason: they are addicted to sugar, but even with this addiction they find this quantity of sweetness repellent, so they mask it with salt. A different take on this is found in Cambodia where there are 'sugar drink machines'. Essentially, a few lengths of sugar cane are run through a squeezer, the resulting liquid drops into a glass, which is then drunk. This is too sweet for me to contemplate, but quaffed without reservation by Cambodians. These machines are found everywhere, and are usually busy. In the more prosperous Thailand it is the mis-named 'energy' drinks that are the norm. Did I mention diabetes?

Another example of an abusive lifestyle is eyesight. If you were to ask someone over 30 or 35 to read, they will likely refuse—shack their head, turn away with a smile—not because they are illiterate, but because their eyesight is poor. Their eyesight is poor because of their harsh environment, and a corresponding lack of eye care. Tropical countries have a hot, dusty, and sun rich environment.  People's eyesight suffers badly from this combination. The simple use of sunglasses would go a long way to tackle this problem, but few take the trouble to do so.

Much of this ill health and its effects are not readily visible. This is because people do not like to 'air their dirty linen in public', and Buddhists are doubly compelled to show their best face to guests and outsiders. However, if you talk to people, watch closely, and observe, this sad state of health will be all to readily apparent. Take a look down town alleyways during and after public holidays. These will contain drunks, 'sleeping off' their alcohol binges.

The flip side of this lifestyle is exercise, and here again 3rd world folk fail. Exercise for the vast majority of the population is something to be avoided. The dream of most SEAs is to get a job in a bank, with a comfortable chair, lots of cold aircon, and to sit all days shuffling papers. Physical exertion is for farmers and labourers—not successful people. There are gyms and public exercise gear available, and some, a handful of locals make use, but these people are the exception. There are many myths about exercise, some women believe that it will make them too masculine, some young people believe that only older people need to exercise as younger people are 'naturally fit'. Even the simple act of a short walk, 5 or 10 minutes, is regarded as something to avoid.

One cause in all of this are the long work hours most locals experience. Twelve hour shifts are the norm. People finish work tired and drained, with little energy for exercise. A desire to relax, eat and drink with friends, to find some joy in the day, before sleep, is understandable.

This leads to another factor, a lack of sufficient and good sleep. Most locals do not sleep well. This is due to a number of factors. A hot and humid sleep environment, and small and crowded rooms are the most obvious, however, another factor, though hard to be certain of, is a belief and apprehensiveness of 'ghosts'. People are concerned that ghosts/spirits will appear in their dreams or while they sleep. I realise that this last point sounds insane to most westerners, but it is something which is truly there in the social makeup of many people in SEA.

There is one other area of illness that receives even less discussion, psychological. In SEA there are many people with psychological problems. Again, this is something which is hidden from common view, there is little social acceptance of this form of illness, and it is widely hidden and ignored, with little medical assistance available.

I will add one more factor into this equation: intellectual exercise. There is little. Most education is poor, with an emphasis on memorisation and rote learning. After graduation, few people seem to read books, rather, television viewing is a near universally popular, almost compulsive activity. Even when talking with friends a tv will most likely be on in the background, and these shows never revolve around an intellectual theme. The vast majority of tv is a love story, a ghost story, or an historical epic. Docos are few and far between.

The picture I have painted here is a sad one, but one I believe to be true. Personal health in the third world is poor. Smoking, drinking, a poor diet and lifestyle are the culprits. It is a problem that many local health care individuals and institutions are aware of, but few take action. The populations of countries such as Malaysia and Thailand are ageing. With better public health, such as immunisation, better post-natal care, and a safer work environment, people are living longer—long enough to begin experiencing the deleterious effects of the lifestyle described above. Over the next generation this problem will gradually emerge into the public arena, individuals will show greater personal responsibility and institutions great public responsibility, one hopes.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Phnom Penh—the city of Grandmother Penh

Just to bring you all, and myself, up to date.

Journeyed from Pakse in southern Laos to Phnom Penh. The bus trip began early in the morning, and we arrived in PP around about 21.00. We were delayed over an hour with a blown tyre. The stop was interesting, just south of the Cambo border, maybe 100kms in. We had a chance to chit chat and visit locals living in wooden houses along the highway. The bus was only half full, even with a dozen or so backpackers we picked up, who were waiting at the Laos/Cambo border for a ride. Road was a bit bumpy, and the trip a bit noisy, but no hassles (foam ear inserts).

Phnom Penh is as I remembered it (here one year ago). Stayed at the same hotel, BJs, one street back from the Mekong River. Pleasant, small room, breeky, wifi, good service, $21 a night—what more can one ask for?

The city itself, PP is a small city, based upon my baseline of Australian cities. The population is anywhere between two and three million, depending on who you ask, however the city is small. It is just small enough to be able to walk from one side of the central area to the other. The reason for this perceived smallness is that the population density is high. Unlike Australian cities, with sprawling suburbs filled with 1/4 acre occupying houses, the good people of PP live in small rooms, a family or a group of workmates living together, in apartment blocks. There are more than a few larger houses, usually French colonial places, most looking a little the worse for wear. Intermixed with this are new constructions, largely commercial. It is seemingly odd to see a new 'KFC' or a "Wendies" ice cream sitting next to an old, fading French apartment building. But there it is.

The people of Cambodia are caught in something of a poverty trap. Salaries in PP are in the $100+ range. A $200 a month salary is a good salary, however, a small room might cost $100 a month. Thus people on average incomes are forced to live together. Walking around the streets of the city at night you will see many small restaurants, bars, and generally people sitting outside, talking, eating and drinking. Part of the reason for this is that there homes are small, noisy and crowded. It is better to stay out, socialise, than to go home.

As a comparison, a native English teacher can earn something like $10-$15 an hour. You can see how working ~20 hours a week will bring in over $1,000 a month. This will pay for a nice, one room apartment at ~$300 a month, leaving much for a fun month. Food is also (to a western eye) cheap. Avoiding the 4 and 5 star hotels and restaurants, one can eat at a pleasant restaurant for $5 or at at street stall for $1, or of course, if one is so inclined, cook for oneself even more cheaply.

A few other pieces of info. Surprisingly, Cambodia, or at least Phnom Penh imports much of its food from Thailand. The reason, transportation infrastructure. It is difficult to move bulk goods around most of the country, while there are good highways between PP and the Thai border, as well as a few other important cities. Also, there are many Philippine nationals in the city, teaching English and working in general as professionals.

To put aside myths about the city it is not a haven for sex fiends, pedophiles or criminal activity in general. In fact PP seems a depressingly respectable city, not to say that hookers cannot be found, but they can be found in every city of the world. You can walk safely around PP at night. Safe that is from human ill-will. There are dangers, to start: traffic, traffic is a bitch in PP. Lots of cars, lots and lots of bikes, and seemingly no order. This last is not true, there is order, but it is an informal order, also, these vehicles travel slowly, maybe 30kms an hour. The trick is, look, take care, and cross the road. If driving a vehicle, blow that horn to let people know you are approaching an intersection, and slow down. Easy. Next danger: footpaths, they are broken, jumbled and under repair. Watch where you put your feet and you will be ok. The way to avoid danger, keep your eyes open, mind alert, and don't drink alcohol. Easy.

Sex/pedohilia? From a magazine article I read on the subject, from a copper I met last year who works with the task force, and from what I have seen in PP and in SEA, the vast majority of pedo activity takes place within the family, as everywhere. The percentage of foreigners involved is minuscule.

Overall, Phnom Penh is a pleasant city in which to live. The main streets are wide and broad, a legacy of the French design. There are a good range of services, albeit not as broad as say Bangkok. And the good folk of the city are friendly towards foreigners.

It is a nice place to visit, a good place to work (as a foreigner), but to be frank, not that exciting as a tourist destination. There is not a great deal to see in the city. There are of course the standard features: a museum, the royal palace, a few temples, but apart from that, a quiet, 3rd world working city. Worth a look, but head to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat, and then back home to the world.

at the border.

Major Stupa, next to the train station.

a Moon festival cake.

2 pretty girls, at a bakery.

Cambodian fruit, no details.

a tasty vegetarian meal, $3.

my preferred hotel.

A classy nightclub.