As a tourist in Cambodia you get a one month visa upon arrival, with the option to renew for another month before you are required to leave the country. My time to exit the country was due next week and this was playing on my mind. Then last week one of the orphans was summonsed to Phnom Penh for an appointment. Arrangements were made for her surgery at the relevant hospital but the young staff member escorting her was not confident to travel and locate the hospital alone. They asked if I would go along. This was the excuse I needed to leave town (and country) and sort out my visa. The cheapest option was an overnight trip to Kuala Lumpur. I wrote most of this from a bunk bed in a hostel on a busy tourist strip of central KL. When I re-enter Cambodia this afternoon I hope to obtain a general visa, allowing me long-term, multiple entry into the country. It seems I’m going to need it, although exactly how I am going to spend the rest of this year remains an unconfirmed outline which could change at anytime.
The airport in KL is enormous. I think I walked my 10,000 daily steps just going from the aeroplane, through Immigration, to the exit yesterday. It’s modern, spacious and full of glitzy shops and restaurants. A far cry from Cambodia! On our night in Phnom Penh together, the three of us from Phter Koma ate out and walked away reeling that we’d spent US$15 ($5 each) on a single meal – probably the most those two particular Cambodians ever spent on themselves in one sitting. On arrival in KL my Cambodian-trained brain took me to a cashpoint in the airport and I withdrew 300 ringit, which equates to around US$100. That’s a week’s budget in Cambodia so I figured it was more than generous for a single night in Malaysia. It took a couple of hours to knock that sense out of me!
After checking into the hostel, I headed out the door almost immediately in search of somewhere I could check off my to-do list (hair cut and colour, medications for one of the orphans which we couldn’t find in Kampong Cham, and a few other bits and pieces far easier done in the First World). Following directions I found the most amazing shopping mall filled with glitzy shops, food halls, displays etc and promptly got lost in the vast extravagance. Hours later I somehow managed to find the correct exit and re-emerged onto the street with new hair, new nails, and in possession of my first pair of Havaiana thongs. These are important because on Saturday Bea and I are going to a wedding under a tent on a rural dusty road somewhere near the town of Skun, an hour out of Kampong Cham. For the occasion I needed a fancy pair of shoes – they are blue with pink straps and they are going to end up dust-orange!
Back at the hostel I dumped my bags and headed out to the local restaurant strip. One wine and one Diet Coke later, I found myself in the embarrassing position of owing 65 ringit (about $20) but with only 54 ringit in my purse. Negotiations with the bar manager saw me escorted to a cashpoint by her waitress, who apologised to me as soon as we were alone. When I said I understood, she called me “Mummy”! This apparently sudden transition into a mother of adults perplexes me. In 2007 I quite enjoyed 13yo Mathew calling me “Mum”. Even though I was more than old enough to be his mother, I rationalised having a teenage “son” by understanding that I was just being slotted into the obligation system, where everyone earns a family connection of some sort and it is common for young people to refer to themselves as aunts, uncles and grandparents. I used this same rationalisation two years ago when his sister had her first baby, introducing him to me as my grandson, then again as recently as last week when her second-born was announced to me via a connected friend who gleefully emailed “congratulations grandma!”. But my rationalising lost it’s effectiveness last week when one of my old staff introduced me to his tiny twin grandchildren who both started crying when the white lady looked at them. He laughingly reassured them there was no need to cry because “she is your grandmother”! I keep asking myself, how did I miss being a mother and suddenly inherit all these grandchildren and adult offspring? There is no point caring I guess. Wrinkles and grey hair only happen to the luckiest of us, after all <sniff>.
Anyway, it turns out that my Malaysian “daughter” is actually Filipino and moved to Malaysia for work. As a waitress she earns 1,000 ringit (about US$270) per month, working 6 x 12 hour shifts per week. Once upon a time this would have shocked me but again my Cambodian brain kicked in and thought how generous this sounded, at three or more times the amount many of my Cambodian friends and colleagues earn! As I sat in the restaurant watching tourists enjoy their opulent holidays I pondered on the varying degrees of wealth in the world. Tourists to this part of Malaysia are likely on the lower rung of the financial ladder in their respective western countries, choosing a comparatively afforadble destination. Yet to the local staff serving them they must appear extremely affluent. Most Cambodians laying eyes on this particular place, would consider even the wait staff to be affluent.
For obvious reasons Cambodians don’t travel, busy as most of them are, simply surviving from one day to the next. Any flight I have taken into or out of Cambodia has contained very few Cambodian passengers, similar to the observation you can make on commercial flights in and out of the heavily-indigenous areas of Australia, which contain very few indigenous passengers. Flying, and travel in general, is another entitlement enjoyed only by the most privileged of us. Leaving Phnom Penh Airport yesterday morning we were delayed as a chartered Laos Airlines flight carrying “a dignitary” (according to our pilot) arrived amidst pomp and ceremony from out of the window as we sat at the gate waiting for clearance to take off. How such pomp and ceremony can be considered relevant in a country where the masses are literally starving, is beyond me.
As we descended into Kuala Lumpur, about 1.5 hours after leaving Phnom Penh, the woman in the seat across from me answered her telephone! Shy of making a public scene, I decided not to challenge her, choosing to let her risk interfering with our landing gear instead! Glaring at her, I was doubly horrified when her friend then pulled out her phone and began tapping on the screen, then I looked through the gap in the seat ahead of me and a woman there was also playing on her touch phone! The airline staff were all seated for landing and I spent the entire landing time arguing with myself about whether to shout at them or stay quiet. I was probably wrong to stay quiet but I live to tell the tale.
Kuala Lumpur is a big, bustling, first world city with a very different atmosphere to anywhere in Cambodia, Phnom Penh included. The population are a mix of Indian and Chinese Malay, with Seikh and Muslim attire scattered amongst modern fashions. My taxi driver, who also announced halfway to the city that he wanted to go out with me “because I like mature women”, before explaining to me that the reason he can’t get a date is because “women are the problem”, told me that Kuala Lumpur is a very multi-cultural place with no racism, moments before informing me that the Africans in Malaysia grow and sell drugs!
Chinese New Year celebrations have been in progress since last week and, like Cambodia, setting off ridiculously loud firecrackers is a popular way to mark celebrations in Kuala Lumpur. Walking to the cashpoint machine with the waitress last night, a yellow dragon with many human legs danced in the street to the jingle of Chinese chimes at a crowded temporary market erected in the road much like Cambodians erect wedding tents. Whole cooked pigs adorned with salads and fruits lay on an infinitely long table under awnings decorated with red and yellow lanterns. Waiters shouted above the din at the crowds walking by, inviting us to feast, and a fireworks display flashed above us between the lights of the skyscrapers towering over the scene. Almost every restaurant advertises it’s Halal status for the sake of Muslim clientele, who walked past the displays of pork without any glimpse of concern and burqa-clad women with only their eyes on show wander alongside skimpily-clad tourists. In one direction local Indian restaurants line the street while in another, Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants are the theme. In between the two, an undercover area serving Islamic customers. It is perhaps one of the most multicultural places I’ve ever visited.
Arriving at the check in counter this afternoon I was informed that my return ticket was booked for the 27th March rather than today. US$160 later a new ticket was in my hand. Feeling sick about the extravagance, I sat down to check my emails and learned that our 14yo orphan not only had her damaged ear drum repaired yesterday, but today her deformed ear lobe, which causes her great embarrassment, will also be repaired. News such as this washes away my First World Problems every time! The Children’s Surgical Centre are to be thanked for this. Another great NGO doing valuable work with vulnerable people.