7 November 2010
I didn’t mention it in my posts earlier, but a couple of weeks ago there was gridlock on an intersections near my school. People won’t wait for the intersection to clear before they attempt to cross it. Jumping the lights is a national pastime. I think it ranks number 5, after (1) driving on the wrong side of the road, (2) driving with your headlights off at night, (3) having no helmet, or a helmet without the straps done up, and (4) talking on your cell phone as your steer your motor bike.
So there was this intersection with nobody going anywhere. Now, jump forward in time: I just had four nights in Bangkok. Thailand is light years ahead of Cambodia economically. There are real motorways, most people have cars, and it makes me wonder how Phnom Penh’s out-of date, ill-repaired road system, will cope in ten years’ time when the traffic (which is ninety per cent motorbikes) turns into a larger number of cars. As incomes begin to rise this city is going to turn from traffic nightmare to traffic hell.
So: Bangkok: Sunday: On my way into town, the taxi driver turned around in his seat to face a building, put both his hands together in front of his face in something like a little prayer gesture. I asked what the building was and he replied ‘King Number 5’. Now it turns out King Rama V died in 1910, but is credited with steering the country into the 20th century. Reverence for the Monarch is taken very seriously here. At a stage show later in the week everyone was asked to stand while they played the national anthem and showed film clips of the current King.
On Sunday night I went to the Bangkok flower market. It sells beautiful stuff, but I did feel unsafe on the bus system at night. Maybe it’s just my age: but I decided the time to figure out a new city’s transport system is during the day.
Next day was temple seeing: the Royal Palace and the Pagoda of the Emerald Buddha. The emerald Buddha is actually made of jade. (They made a mistake when they first discovered it: it was encrusted with plaster and they realised there was something else underneath, pulled of the plaster and thought they had a real emerald Buddha.) The architecture is beautiful.
The Royal Palace and the Palace of the Emerald Buddha are connected by gates so it’s effectively one large complex. My shorts didn’t cover my ankles so they made me hire a new set of pants to wear. Women were made to hire enough shirts and long trousers so as not to have any real skin showing. BUT they gave you the whole hire fee back at the end. I.e., they didn’t use the hiring to make money. The architecture is beautiful. Pictures will follow when my card reader decides to work again.
On the way back to the hotel the taxi driver feels the urgent call of nature, stops the taxi, tells me to catch another, doesn’t charge me, but bolts to somewhere to relieve himself, leaving the taxi in the middle of the street. I catch another one further up the road. Fortunately the taxis are mostly shades of fluorescent pink, orange or yellow and green so they are hard to miss.
One of the four evenings I end up in a cafe next to two guys, I think one Canadian and one American. They both teach English in Cambodia. The second admits to using a fake degree scroll, because although he went to uni for 6 years he just never graduated.
Side note: bear in mind there are 14 million Cambodians drinking maybe 2-3 litres of water a day and the bottles vary from 750 mills to 1.5 litres. Nobody drinks the tap water. Rough calculation: 14 million people x 3 bottles a day x 365 days a year = 15 billion bottles a year. This figure can’t possibly be right so someone must be using the village well, but I don’t know who.
The two guys ask what I think of Phnom Penh. I say I am depressed by the beggars, and the small kids picking through rubbish piles for recyclables late at night. They disagree: the kids are bringing in income to the household, the plastic water bottles need recycling, and the next best alternative is [OK, dear reader: insert your least-disliked expression for the sale of oral sex.] “Because,” they tell me, “that’s the next best alternative.” I feel repulsed. They say it’s not so different to Britain 100 years ago. There were times when kids worked in coal mines. After they quote some statistics about foreign revenue earned by sex workers I tell them the conversation is making me feel more depressed. They change topic. I leave after two cans of coke and get some food elsewhere.