The Meanderthals

What works?

Living in Cambodia for these past two weeks has already caused us to question some things. Such as “What really is civilization?”

It struck us as we were setting up our lives here that some things are actually MORE efficient and simple than in the western world, dispelling the myth that all third-world countries tend to be chaotic and challenging to get around.

It started as soon as we arrived when we were whisked through the visa application in a mere 10 minutes (hand over $25 and a photo, get your passport checked and voila you have a one-month visa) and we found ourselves sitting in our tuktuk from the airport less than 30 minutes after landing from Taipei, bags collected and loaded to go.

Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen our share of madness on the roads but have also found ourselves questioning which way may be more “civilized“. It is the crazy drivers who straddle lanes, motorbikes which squeeze between oncoming trucks and tuttuks who careen seemingly out of control (all the while smiling and nodding and helping one another when needed) or could it be the western drivers who obey rules, drive on the right side of the road then flip their neighbour the finger, curse, or even pull out a gun? We’re starting to think the Cambodians may have the right idea.

Then there was the experience of setting up a bank account. We walked into an airconditioned ANZ Bank, took a number and were seated in an airconditioned lounge for about 10 minutes before meeting with a delightful young Cambodian woman who smiled, greeted us warmly and gave us a business card (with her personal mobile phone number). The process was brief and simple and the account promptly set up at the branch. Our photos were taken (for the ATM card) and we were told to pick up our cards in 2 days time. In contrast, back home I recall waiting more than two weeks to get an ATM card which would (hopefully) arrive in the mail.

At our guesthouse (which charges a mere $14 for an airconditioned room with bathroom), we’re constantly tripping over staff who are mopping, polishing, cleaning and tending to the communal computers in the lobby (free to guests). While it may be inexpensive accommodation, weve never seen more attentive workers who always smile when we see them every morning, even though some of them have spent the night sprawled on the wooden benches located on each floor. And, when we hand in the key at the reception desk, they turn off the electricity in the room as a power-saving technique, and switch it back on when we return.

Don’t get me wrong. There are also plenty of disorganized and strange ways of doing things. Like last night when I ordered a Bombay Sapphire and tonic ($2,50) in a restaurant and the confused waiter told us they didn’t have any.  Skip pointed out the bottle of gin behind him and promptly hopped behind the bar to show them how it was made!

And if there’s anything to convince you of the absurdity of this place it has to be the house numbering system. Number 107 can be located next to 131 and next to that is number 43 and the next building may be another number 107. No rhyme or reason whatsoever! In fact, we were told never to pay attention to numbering and to go by landmarks when looking for anything. Our host the other night told us he was located above a wedding shop on street 63 between 178 and 268 and we eventually found him after trying to pay a visit to one of his neighbours two blocks down!

But surely the best example of efficiency came yesterday when we were shopping for new furniture with Booray and Penni, our new landlords. We selected a couch from the second store we visited then went with them to the “rattan district” where we spent about an hour browsing and exploring the little shops, piled high with cheap rattan bookshelves, patio furniture, coffee tables, and much more to delight the senses and the wallet.

After we’d picked out our patio set and were getting it loaded onto the delivery motorbike, Booray turned to us and said “The couch is at the apartment” … WHAT??… Surely not the couch we’d just ordered an hour ago.? Yup. That one. Delivered and firmly ensconsed in our new home before in less time than it would take to watch a movie.

Now, that’s what I call efficiency!

It’s a strange city of contrasts, craziness and disorganization. There’s madness on the streets and confusion on every corner.  But there are quite a few things, even from a comfortable western lifestyle, which really make sense!

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