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Why Did My Taxi Driver Run Away?

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 There are real motorways, most people have cars, and it makes me wonder how Phnom Penh’s out-of date, ill-repaired road system, will cope in ten years’ time when the traffic (which is ninety per cent motorbikes) turns into a larger number of cars.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.

The Hospital that Didn’t Exist

I had breakfast with a French guy who runs an NGO. He’s a Captain in the French Army Reserve. He was telling me how he once arranged a shipping container of medical equipment to go to a supposedly needy hospital in rural Cambodia. Later he tried to visit the hospital. It didn’t exist. So where did the stuff go? Well, I’m not stupid enough to write the most likely answer in this blog while I’m still in the country.  But Transparency International just relaeased its Index of Corruption for 2010. Denmark, New Zealand and Singapore tied for first place a non-corrupt. Cambodia came in at 154 out of 178 countries.

If you want to know more, click on the link below. There’s the actual list and scores and a color-coded map of the world. It will make you think about giving money to some charities and some countries. It’s sad but…

The French Army Captain now insists on accompanying the deliveries himself with his own interpreter.

Another odd thing about teaching in Cambodia

Another odd thing about teaching in Cambodia:

To appreciate this it helps to know that

  1. Cambodians refer to themselves as “Khmer” and their language as “Khmai”, so Cambodian internet sites end with “.kh”
  2. Cambodians tend to accent the last syllables of words. They abbreviate their names to the last syllables not the first.  If Jonathan were Cambodian he’d be Than, not John.
  3. They have many vowel sounds which are so short I generally can’t hear them, and involve little jaw and lip movement, and therefore:
  4.  When teaching some English words you have to drag out the vowel to triple its normal length and physically show them how to round their lips by pinching your own mouth on the sides with your finger and thumb to emphasise that the lips need to be rounded to get the “ooh” sound. Or put your finger under your chin and make them watch how your finger drops when you say “cup” etc.  Attempts to get the students to imitate this are met with embarrassed laughter and sometimes outright refusal. They find my pronunciation antics highly amusing.
  5. Google exists in Cambodia: the site is  I’ve seen the hotel staff using it. I’ve seen people on it in internet cafes. I know that people know about it. Google defaults to this site unless you put “” , “” or “” into the name to force it to the British, New Zealand  or Australian sites. If you look for the American Google site it goes to the .kh site. Even if you Google Google itself, and click the link to the American Google, you end up back on the Cambodian one.
  6. In China, where the internet is censored and sites are blocked, you can’t get Wikipedia, Facebook or Twitter. But you can get them on Cambodia’s version of Google.


I’m talking about something in the classroom to a bunch of 16-25 year olds  and I suggest if they want to know more about whatever it was they should look it up on Google.


Google, on the internet: how many of you can get to an internet?

 Lots of hands go up.

Well you know Google then? On the internet?

Eyebrows are screwed up, heads are tilted, “what teacher?”

I draw a big rectangle on the board, draw an address bar and write

Howls of laughter.

“No teacher, you say it wrong. It  G’GOL. G’GOL

I do the round lip thing: “Well in English you say Gooooogle.  Try that Goooogle”.

Hysterical laughter. Faces are hidden in books and behind pencil case. Some of them try and the rest collapse laughing.

Tonight they did the end of semester exam. It’s my last day in this university. They had to write sentences with comparative adjectives and the “as adjective as” pattern.

One student has written: “Richard is funnier than my old teacher. He is as funny as a joker.”

Monkey Business

They want what you've got.
Lying in wait for tourists with bags

On the weekend I went to a seaside town called Kep. There are lots of monkeys there. they have  yellowy-brown fur with white chests and stomachs, and  they follow tourists around wanting food and trying to snatch bags. One of them, about two foot tall, went straight in front of me opened its mouth and bared its teeth. Fortunately, if you splash some water at them they run away.  I was a bit concerned ‘cos I don’t know if they have diseases that can be transmitted to humans, but

They want your food, or whatever is in that plastic bag.

But all’s well that ends well. I retreated to the safety of a tuk tuk to take some more photos. It seems that the more tourists feed them the more they expect to be fed. The town of kep itself is an odd mixture of things. There are still burnt-out buildings form the 1970s, when the Khmer Rouge hated the town and burnt lot of it down. It had been a playground of the wealthy, and the Khmer being Moaist communists, well… The strange thing is thatnew buildings are being put up while the old ones are left intact as empty shells. I’m having a spare set of glasses made here. The cost is $160. In Australia the same thing might cost me $500 (frames plus lenses.) Here’s to living in a cheap country.

The Trash Mountain at Street 122

Tonight is Thursday.

On Tuesday the reidents of Street 122 had moved their trash mountain out into one of the lanes of Jawaharlal Nerhru Boulevard (Street 215).  I’m teaching at a place in street 112, and I bicycle south slong nehru and pass street 122 as I go. The even street numbers get bigger as you go south. (See previous posts about trash mountains). It was occupying one of the three  south-bound  lanes of  Nehru .  When I went to school on Thursday night the mound had disappeared. Obvously the municiple garbage people had decided to collect it. On Thursday night as I came back, they were putting out another pile, also going into Nehru Avenue. We’ll see if this one is removed as promptly. I wonder of it was a delbiberate tactic.

At the moment i cant find the device for inserting my camera’s memory stick into the computer, so I can’t show any photos.

Bloody ATMs

You may alreadyhave read an earlier post about a cambodian ATM eating my credit card, and the bank who owned the machine wanting a letter from Westpac in Australia saying it was OK to give it back to me. Well…

I tried to use my Cambodian Public Bank (CPB) card in an ANZ Royal ATM and it ate the card. This time I had used an ATM attached to a bank, while the bank was open. Clever move. I went in. They wanted to see my passport and CPB pass book. They said the machine may not have been able to read my card because the numbers were not sufficiently raised. But the card doesn’t bear my name or signature, so … back to the hotel to get my passport and account book to proove its my card. Back to ANZ Royal. They returned the card.  Then so as not to risk the card getting eaten by a non CPB machine I go to the CPB branch near Olympic Stadium. It takes my card, processes  the withdrawal, and while I am looking at the transaction slip, it takes back the cash.Trip to inside CPB branch Today is Thursday. They can’t give me money back till Monday when machine is cleared. I hope they can. It was a VERY large withdrawal. I do a cash advance on my Westpac ATM.

 From now on anything I do will be over the counter.

Well, Finally Somebody Sidewsiped Me on a Motorbike.

Friday night I went to school and there had been a murder near the school. Allegedly there was a collision between a tuktuk driver and a four while drive, an argument, and the 4WD guy took out a gun and shot the tuktuk driver dead. One of the other teachers had to excuse a student from class because she had witnessed the incident and was too upset to be inclass. On Saturday night I went to the only English speaking cinema in town: Flicks on Street 95.  The film  was  american. The plot was an  amlagamaton of  Star Wars IV,  Matrix,  and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Some young kid is the saviour of the world but doesnt really want to has to learn to control all elements: earth fire water and air so e can thwart the evil fire benders who intent on taking over the world… or something.

I took some of my stuff to UPS to ship back home. It cost $145

Tonight a motor bike sidewiped  me. The only smashed my basket. They drove on.

Today (Tuesday) I’m having another tage of the root canal surgery done, then I’ll probably go to see the Royal Palace.