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the toa Blog

April 2006


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The toa blog - April 24, 2006

Yes, I finally had my holiday. Well, sort of. Despite my desire to escape anything that remotely resembled work, guesthouse matters (and problems) still followed me around China. So...

toa goes to China (April 3 - 20)

It was my fifth trip to China and the first one in four years. The original plan was to fly into Xiamen (free Air Asia tickets), train to Beijing, train to Shanghai, onward to Huangshan, then finally a few days in Yangshuo before hopping a plane from Guilin back to Xiamen and then back to Bangkok. We did all of the above except Huangshan, which as it would be, was the one place I hadn't been to before, but with the ordeal of traveling with a ten-month old infant (who in fact travels very well) and a mother-in-law not used to traveling anywhere, we decided we had enough of packing and unpacking, trains and planes, and decided instead to spend six nights in Yangshuo.

Here's a quick synopsis of the trip. Much more detailed travelogues will, in time, find their way to the China pages.

-Air Asia to China. What a dumb idea. Air Asia is a super discount carrier and part of the deal is they don't assign seats. Most of the time this works. But not when the plane is flying to or from China. Pushing, shoving, yelling, scratching, biting, you name it, they did it. So much that a fist-fight nearly broke out boarding the plane to Xiamen. I will NEVER fly Air Asia to China again, with ot without an infant, and just to make a point, if I can find an alternative discount carrier (such as Nok Air, a much more class act) for a particular route elsewhere, I will use it. Air Asia is firmly at the bottom of my list of Asian discount carriers. Although the flight crew made some effort to accommodate families with children and babies (there were four on the flight to Xiamen) and get them boarded ahead of the scrum, the intensity and resolve of a number of Chinese who just have to be FIRST on the plane is difficult to overcome. When it reaches a point when you are trying to hold a baby and getting shoved with bags and elbows from behind it's time to find another carrier, though for it's worth on one occasion, I turned around to one particularly pushy person and shouted at him that if my baby so much as makes the slightest fuss you're getting punched in the nose. He probably didn't understand a word I said, but he seemed to get the point. Call me the ugly American I don't care. The pushiness of some people deserves no politeness or respect. It's plain ill-mannered and ignorant and should be treated in kind.

-Xiamen, Fujian province. Not much to say, we were here only a day, much of it spent dealing with SIM cards, shopping for the long train ride, and getting my China bearings back. It was my first experience with a Chinese Wal-Mart and say what you will about it, the grocery store was AWESOME. But then again, in what little time we had, I've come to the conclusion that Xiamen has some outstanding food - even the food courts were excellent (though I found a first-rate one in Beijing, too). Matthew, as would happen throughout China, received plenty of positive attention, though he got a little overwhelmed by a group of young sales clerks in a fashion store.

-Beijing. Absolutely frigid on arrival. Four degrees celsius (about 39 Yankee degrees) and sleeting. My wife had experienced cold in China before, but not this cold. As for my mother-in-law, four degrees celsius, was well beyond comprehension and it took a bit of prodding to convince of the need to dress appropriately. To her, cold was 15 celsius, not four. Stayed at the Haoyuan Guesthouse, which is a traditional courtyard style building on a hutong about a ten-minute walk from the Wanfujing Shopping Area. The guesthouse does have character and was certainly kept clean. However, the standard rooms, for the prices charged are really small and over-crowded with unnecessary furniture. The small suites, which we stayed in one for one night are a much better deal, but it took thirty minutes to get the water to warm up enough to take a shower and still then it was only lukewarm. Perfectly predictable in an 80Y ($10 US) room, but not in a 720Y ($90) room. And pillows had no substance whatsoever. Again, not acceptable when paying $90 a night. Laundry was priced very high and not cleaned very well. Guesthouse can arrange transport and tours anywhere but again, prices were a little unreasonable. While the staff was friendly and the place clean, I don't think I'd stay here again. And the hutong isn't much of a hutong. Across the street is a large empty lot no doubt destined to become a 30-story office tower and shopping complex.

In the eight years since I was last in Beijing, I'd say the most noticeable difference is that the traffic is much worse and there are a lot more 30-story highrises. I think there must be a building height limit as central Beijing has some of the most massive 20 to 30-story structures I've ever seen but nothing much taller than that.

Did the usual tourist things - Tiananmen, Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, Great Wall. Weather wasn't very conducive to strolling around Tiananmen. Forbidden City and the Summr Palace were ridiculously over-crowded, and in the case of the latter, there was little to see as much of it was under restoration (again). Same at the Temple of Heaven.

Saw the Great Wall at Mutainyu. I'd like to have gone back to Simitai, but with child and mother-in-law, such an adventure was out of the question. Mutainyu has a large restored section, easy to walk around on. Thought about the Ming Tombs, but hunger and a late hour took precedence. Next time, maybe.

Other than the first day, weather was at least dry if not cold. Still, all four of us caught colds, of which nearly three weeks later, I'm still not recovered from mine.

Definitely recommend express Z trains, particularly soft sleeper class. A fast overnight to Shanghai, well-rested, saved one night on a hotel room (a major expense when visiting eastern cities). Still can't fathom the Chinese propensity to push and shove there way on to a train that doesn't leave for another half and hour and the seating/berths are reserved. Go figure.

Shanghai - in the four days we had there, we really only had a day and a half of decent weather and even that was pushing it. Day one - warm enough but rain. Day two - warm and hazy. Day three - heavy rain, gusting winds, and temps almost as cold as Beijing - the day was a complete wash-out and we spent most of it either in our hotel room or a shopping mall. Absolutely miserable day. Day four - clear but very cold and windy - even the locals said it was unusually cold for April - no more than about 8 celsius (46 F).

They say Shanghai changes a lot. I think a better way to describe it is that it just keeps growing with more of the same - more tall buildings, more malls, more highways, more subways, more, more, more. Between the weather and the usual slow-downs a baby causes, we really didn't get to see too much of Shanghai other than to do more of what I did a lot of in 1998 - wander around. No surprise I suppose, wife and mother-in-law found Nanjing Road and it's shopping options to be to their tastes. Me, in one day walking Nanjing Road from Renmin Park to the Bund and back I was accosted (I counted) eighteen times with offers to buy watches, bags, DVDs, all (except for the DVDs) I saw selling openly on the sidewalks in 1998. By the tenth person or so I began shouting back at them "You're number 11!", "You're number 12!" etc. A couple of them, in hearing a number, thought I was offering a price. At night, the offers for bags, watches, and DVDs were replaced with lady and massage.

Yangshuo - I've ended all five trips to China with anywhere from three to nine days here. If for any reason, because it was easy, peaceful, and outrageously scenic. Well... it's still scenic. With four years since I was last there, I can't with any degree of honesty suggest that I'm surprised at the amount of changes here. If there was ever any doubt as to what direction Yangshuo has turned those doubts can be dispelled. What was once a peaceful hangout for mostly young western independents (err... backpackers?) has well and thoroughly been taken over by young Chinese independents (and groups). Though remnants of Yangshuo's past still remain - most of the cafes are still there, even if they've all turned into Chinese nightclubs, and with a little looking you can still find Chinese lessons, calligraphy lessons, English teaching opportunities, etc, but no longer are they thrust in your face every time you stroll West Street. After all, we're not the target market anymore.

Out in the countryside, surprisingly I think, some areas have been entirely missed by the influx of Chinese tourists. The long loop - head south towards Moon Hill, turn left and take the not very good road all the way to the end (10 ks or so) and turn left on the better road that brings you back to the main traffic circle south of town - was nearly deserted when we did it. The only thing that looked like a tourist were two western women on bicycles and they weren't very far from Yangshuo. The rest was as if it were still 1998. On the other hand, head over to the Yulong River - once bucolic and isolated, even from Dragon Bridge southward - and marvel at the hundreds of young Chinese doing the bamboo raft thing.

I can only surmise that Yangshuo is promoted to young Chinese as a place to come for the weekend - spend a day riding bikes to Moon Hill and rafting the Yulong, and spend the evenings in any of the countless nightclubs (formerly backpacker cafes) on West Street, shake off your hangover and make your way back to Guangzhou or Shenzhen or wherever you came from.

I did finally make it up to the rice terraces of Longsheng, but don't ask me if they were impressive or not. It was foggy and raining and we could hardly see a thing. Much like our first day in Shanghai. Other than this one day, we had pretty good weather in Yangshuo this time - in stark contrast to the deluge we suffered through there in 2002.

Hard to say if China trip #6 (whenever it may be) will finish in Yangshuo. It's been a tradition, but maybe with the enormous changes there now, perhaps it's time to change tradition and find another place to cool our heels for a few days before heading back to Thailand. And no, Dali or Lijiang won't do it.

Anyway, that's the quick report. In time - well, seeing as I never finished writing up 2002 or even 2000, maybe it'll take awhile, no, I promise I'll be faster, I'll get the detailed reports up.

For a pictorial essay seen through the eyes of my eleven-month-old son, have a look at Matthew Goes to China. However, it's not finished yet, the Yangshuo bit won't be up until tomorrow or Thursday.

Obligatory Cambodia content

Here's an interesting website:


Have a look at the travel info, which must be at least fifteen years out of date. How things have changed.

Other Cambodia news, not

Every month I write a monthly columm for Untamed Travel magazine (formerly Farang) which is usually nothing more than a few cut and pastes from this blog (as per agreement). However, my last deadline caught me in China so there was nothing to send. So I came up with this:

If you’re looking for the latest updates on Cambodia I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint you for the simple reason that I’m not there and haven’t been for nearly a month.

This is the annual expat flee-season (apparent there’s an expat flea-season, but we’d probably do well not to delve to deeply into that one) and from April to June western business owners in Siem Reap can be rather scarce.

Why April? With the arrival of April come two things worth avoiding – miserable heat and miserable holiday traditions. April bakes. March starts with a slow sizzle that turns scorching come April and by, oh roundabout April 20-something, the temperature soars beyond 40 (that’s 104 for my fellow metrically-challenged Yanks – c’mon guys, get with the rest of the world and learn metric – if I learned to adapt so too, can you) and physical activity is limited to doing little more than turning up a fan or the A/C, reaching for your beer, and telling the person next to you, as if they didn’t know, “hey, it’s hot.”

Then there’s this new year holiday. Cambodians cheat. If you don’t believe me ask yourself how is it in the course of one year they can celebrate a new year three times? Think about that next time you feel like you’ve paid too much, these folks have scored three years in one.

The third and final new year holiday is the biggest. In Thailand it’s called Songkran, and though Cambodia has a name, all you’ll hear is “Cambodia New Year”. This same new year is also celebrated in Laos, Myanmar, and parts of southern Yunnan province, China. All countries who cheat and celebrate the new year three times in four months.

But forget holiday tradition, this holiday is about one thing and one thing only – soaking people with water. Well, that’s how it seems. People either love this holiday or hate it and there’s not a whole lot of in between. I hate it with passion, but rather than complain about it (an utterly pointless endeavor as nobody cares – they’re either having a ball or they’ve left) I leave – I tried a couple of Songkrans/Khmer New Years back in 98 and 99 and have since successfully vacated the region for five of the last seven years – three times to China and twice to Malaysia. This year I’m in China.

Cambodia has a large ethnic Chinese population, and like Chinese populations throughout Asia they tend to be the ones with money. Irrespective of this population, Chinese-made products are everywhere. Our guesthouse rents mountain bikes. Guess what, same bikes are here, too. Televisions. Cambodian is flooded with cheap TVs (12-inch at $40-45 US and 19-inch at $65-70 US) all bearing names like Sony and Panasonic. Well, here I am in China and for the second time I’m seeing a TV in my hotel room that is exactly the same model (same remote, on-screen display, etc) as the ones in our guesthouse and it’s not a Sony or a Panasonic. It’s a Kawa and the picture quality is just as crappy here as it is in Cambodia. And fashion, wander through any clothing market in Cambodia and you’ll see plenty of clothing from China. In Cambodia, it’s fashion, in China it’s piled high in the discount bins outside Wal-Mart.

With some interest I’ve watched the quiet expansion of the Chinese presence in Cambodia, regrettably at the denial of many ethnic Khmers who continue to fear Vietnamese influence and refuse to notice that if there are puppet strings controlling Cambodia, they may be coming more from Beijing than Hanoi or Washington. From Chinese schools, to infrastructure development support, to the race with the United States to see who can build the bigger, more expensive new embassy (I think the US won that battle), China’s presence has grown such that some have even surmised that should another cold war occur, one between China and the US, Cambodia will once again be dragged into the middle of it. But then again Cambodia does have problems with self-determination, but when you willingly hold your hand out to international aid that amounts to half of your annual national budget, standing on your own two feet can prove to be a challenge.

We’ve all heard the bit about history repeating itself. I learned from history that April is a lousy time to be in Southeast Asia and neither the weather nor moronic holiday celebrations will make any concessions to my preferences so I leave. Think globally, act locally. Or something like that.

The toa blog - April 2, 2006

Okay, I'm back...

Random Musings

-A few weeks ago Cambodia finally got around to deporting Mr. Suicide, Roger Graham (see November 2005). See, all the hysteria was for nothing. This seemed all along to be the easiest course of action, and while it took five months, it's a done deal. Be interesting to see if he finds a new suicide paradise.

-Hmm... speaking of hysteria, seems the bird flu scare is quieting down. The imminent pandemic still hasn't materialized and CNN, BBC, et al, though not forgotten, appear to have moved on to other things. For awhile, anyway.

-Today is the big day in Thailand. The snap election goes down and one can pretty well assume Thaksin will come out the winner, though None of the Above stands a chance of making a very good showing. If the protests for the past month have seemed over the top, just and wait and see what happens after the results are in. Fortunately, we're leaving for a few weeks...

-...Yes, I'm finally taking a real holiday, resuming my April tradition of heading north to China (1998, 1999, 2000, and 2002) for a few weeks to escape the oppressive heat and the ridiculousness of the so-called Songkran/Khmer New Year holiday. Free Air Asia plane tickets to Xiamen, and then onward to Beijing, Shanghai, Huangshan, and keeping with the spring in China tradition, finishing up with a few days in Yangshuo - which I may no longer recognize. It's a family affair - me, the missus, the little one, and the M-in-law.

-I've made one of those maps for countries you've visited. Here's what it looks like:

Too bad you can't make out the small Caribbean nations I visited as a kid a few times. I suppose a trip to Russia and Brazil would have the map looking a bit fuller. Go here: to create your own visited country map.

-Concerned about medical care in Cambodia? This story went out on the wires last week and was forwarded to me by the author herself, Bronwyn Sloan:

Australian faces Cambodian court, accused of posing as a doctor

Phnom Penh - An Australian woman who set up a popular medical clinic in Phnom Penh that was widely used by tourists was facing hefty fines and a potential jail sentence after being accused of falsely claiming to be a highly qualified medical expert, Cambodian authorities said Thursday.

The Health Ministry‘s deputy director general for health, Chi Mean Hea, said Gloria A. Christie, 50, also known as "Doctor Gloria," faced a court hearing after authorities inspected her Surya Clinic and found that she held only an expired license issued four years ago in the name of a Cambodian doctor whose whereabouts she could not identify.

The popular clinic had offered services that included minor surgery, a pharmacy, an ambulance service and in-patient facilities. It was closed by authorities on Tuesday and ordered not to reopen.

A ministry official said Thursday morning that Christie had not yet been able to provide evidence of any medical training or certificates although she had told him she was still looking.

The Surya Clinic advertised widely in tourist-oriented publications as a clinic with "international standards" and was also used by expatriates and Cambodian nationals.

"To operate like this ... is against Cambodian law," Chi Mean Hea said. "The law is very explicit on this point, so we must act. We will meet with our lawyers and health committees on Friday to decide exactly what action we will take, but to avoid any accusations of corruption, the ministry must be firm. She should go to court."

Christie was inspected by Health Ministry authorities after a tip-off from a journalist who investigated the clinic after she said her daughter was grossly misdiagnosed by both Christie and another Australian working at the clinic, Jeff Gaden.

Late last year, Prime Minister Hun Sen gave a speech urging the ministry to act to crack down on fraudulent foreign doctors, whom he said came to Cambodia to practise medicine without adequate qualifications because they believed they could do so with impunity.

If convicted, Christie faces thousands of dollars in fines and a potential jail term if inspections of her cases by ministry officials turn up evidence that her treatment of any patients led to their harm or death.

The Australian embassy had previously said it was unable to act in the case even though Christie is an Australian citizen because she was operating under Cambodian law.

Scary, huh? And it's always been the Cambodian doctors that so many expatriates have been afraid of...

-Funny weather this spring. Just as the rainy season didn't want to end last year, with semi-regular showers lasting into December, this March has already seen several hellacious rainstorms. A couple of weeks we, and the entire guesthouse were awoken at 4 a.m. by one of the most intense thunderstorms I've ever heard. And the other day another round of storms uprooted trees all over Cambodia and Thailand and caused damage to several minor structures in the Koh Ker temple complex.

-Despite all the construction to upgrade the water system in Siem Reap, the dry season has still resulted in sporadic water outages. I suppose all the new pipes in the world won't make a bit of difference if there's no water to run through them.

-Electrical outages continue to plague Phnom Penh, and to a lesser extent Siem Reap. A simple demand exceeds supply thing and therefore someone's going to get cut. Our guesthouse has always avoided these outages and we believe it's because there's somebody important on our power grid. Choose your neighbors wisely...

-Thailand contines to make major changes to their side of the Poipet/Aranyaprathet border post, erecting new booths to process arrivals which is likely temporary as further construction continues on some permanent customs/immigration facilities a hundred meters or so down the road. But like the missing water in Siem Reap, all the structural changes probably won't make a bit of difference if the immigration staff continue to be surly and slow. The only thing speeding up the queues on the Thai side seem to be that less people are using this border for visa runs.

-Meetings with government officials Cambodia-style. A long-time expat involved in the dissemination of information to tourists and expats (not me), knew someone who worked under a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Tourist Police (Public Affairs division), who suggested that the expat, along with a couple of his expat friends (one of them me), also involved in the dissemination of information, chat with his boss about some of the problems independent tourists encounter in Cambodia and which the Tourist Police might be in a position to do something about.

So an appointment was arranged for a Wednesday afternoon. But the Lt.-Col. in charge of public affairs for the national Tourist Police didn’t speak much English so a translator was needed. But the translator thought the meeting was Tuesday. And one of the expats thought it was for the following week. Then when the date and time was sorted the translator decided to go to the bank or something, necessitating a last minute search for a replacement.

Off to the Interior Ministry, told were not important enough to use the front entrance, search for the Tourist Police office, pass by the Economic Police office (bribery control), the Anti-Terrorism Unit (not much activity there), anti-drug office (better keep moving), find the building, head upstairs, meet the Lt.-Col. and find out he has no idea why we’re there. And the meeting still lasted an hour and a half.

Recent Updates on toa

April 30: Bronwyn Sloan's Phnom Penh Perspective returns with a take on the Khmer Rouge Trials.
April 30: Added three new contributions to the Readers' Submissions section.
April 28: Added another new contribution to the Readers' Submissions section.
April 23: The most recent of several updates to the Overland Bangkok to Siem Reap Travelers' Reports.
April 23: Added eight new contributions to the Readers' Submissions section.
March 26: Added a new listing in the Business/Employment section.
March 24: Updated the Bangkok-Siem Reap section of Cambodia Overland

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