An Italian journalist who lived for more than twenty years in Asia once wrote that traveling and living abroad makes you tired, it makes you older. After three and half years in Cambodia I start to believe that this is true. I feel a bit tired, though I am not sure I feel older yet.
Signs of this tiredness are more evident after a trip to another country, having the opportunity to observe another way of life a different culture. I am just back from a short trip from Malaysia where I spent together with Katja and Olga about 10 days. When planning the trip we have been thinking about our destination and decided to go to a country we did not know yet and that had good facilities to make it easier to travel around with a baby. Malaysia was our choice. Kuala Lumpur is just two hours by plane from Phnom Penh, and we heard that infrastructure and communications were quite developed.
The presentation of what Malaysia is today starts immediately at the new international airport. Marble everywhere, people in orderly queues, electric mini-train that links the two terminals and that arrives and departs next to the coffee/restaurants area. Station with train service to downtown Kuala Lumpur that is located three levels directly below the luggage claim area. At the departure track electronic ticketing machines. Kuala Lumpur is a very modern town and it presents itself after twenty minutes by train with the view of the huge Petronas towers. In between the seventy kilometers that separate the airport and the town there is just one plantation after another of oil palms.
As soon as we reach the central station again we are immersed in our Western world as the train station built on various levels is basically a shopping centre. After Cambodia however I felt a kind of relief to be able to have an ice coffee where the ices cube where safe to drink. It was also a relieve to have a ticket counter where to ask prices and get information and having almost everybody around able to speak English.
Kuala Lumpur (KL) as Malaysia itself is a mix of cultures, languages and religions. Around KL there are mosques, churches, Hindu temples and pagodas. The building reflect also the style and the culture they belong to and it is amazing to see the change by walking in little India with all the sari and silk shops and stepping into China town with hundreds of small shops selling almost anything still making business in bricked old colonial houses.
KL surprised me in being relatively small (just over 1 ml people) and having so many green areas and parks where people go an jog or walk in the early morning and evenings. One interesting exercise along the health path in the park was for the foot massage. On the floor a path of cement is covered with small stones that the cement keep together, walking slowly on the stones seem to be a popular exercise that help to improve the fitness of other part of the body. Stones are grouped according to sizes to produce a certain effect and pressure a certain part of the feet. I tried as well and felt only pain.
The few days we spent in KL have been good and have also helped us to learn how to accommodate Olga’s wishes. She wakes up very early, needs a short nap in the morning and another in the afternoon and goes to bed at around 7:30 in the night. The first evening a bit inexperienced with the distance in the two we manage to get back to our hotel only at 9:30 but Olga did not complain too much and slept in the taxi that brought us back.
The next destination after KL has been the Camerons Highlands and the town of Tana Ratah at about 4:30 hours north by bus from KL. We really wanted to escape the heat of the dry season in Cambodia and wanted to see some hills if not mountains. We found what we were looking for. The rainy season had just started in the mountains so we enjoyed the nice mild temperature, and the noise of the monsoons showers on the trees. We did some short jungle walks that have been made easier by a nice rucksack to carry Olga. She has been amazed by having plants and trees all around her and above. She used to sit just watching above her, in the web of leaves of all kind of shape and size. The Highlands are famous areas of tea plantations so we did our very touristic tour to observe how tea is processed to be sold. Because of the tea plantations the Highlands are an area with very strong Indian influence and actually it seemed that the majority of the people were India. It seemed at some point to be somewhere else, in the tea growing area of northern India.
Olga seemed to enjoy the place, but we also learned that the place she liked to most has been the guesthouse room. There is were both of us are and were her toys are, so jungle walk are ok but they must not last too long. Going out to eat is also ok, especially if there is a high baby chair form where to drop systematically all kinds of food and paper towels, leaving to us to say we are sorry.
Next destination, direction West from the highlands, the island of Pangkor. We decided to go there to have also a chance to see how the seaside in Malaysia is. The best snorkeling and diving islands re on the east coast, nevertheless it has been good to be there. Olga definitely likes more the seas than the mountains. The island s was not busy as the monsoon season is starting and this year there are fewer tourists anyway. Good seafood, nice beach, white sand, easy to travel around with funny pink taxi-vans.
Back in KL we visited a Japanese friend, Yamico, working for UN. We met her in Cambodia before she moved here for the work and was good to see her and hear from here how is expat life in KL. Very different from Cambodia, she said. Malaysia is a developed country, in KL in full of shopping centers and you can find almost anything. She does not miss anything of the Japanese cuisine for example. Outside KL is of course different. There are villages and ever tribes that live in poverty, but the government tries to improve the situation. She finds that meeting people was easier in Phnom Penh. In KL many most of the foreigner work for companies, very few of them are involved in development work, therefore it is difficult to join and meet people in this field. In Phnom Penh everybody is involved in one way or another in development and therefore it is easier to get in contact with people.
In Italy we have a say: the grass of the neighbor is always greener. By that we mean that what we tend to consider more positive things that relate for example to another country. This is particularly true when traveling abroad and coming form a longer period in a country like Cambodia, I found myself looking at the bright side of Malaysia. But I am aware of that and I guess I also needed to feel a bit of comfort and not having to bargain for prices and fares. Though I know that Malaysia has much more resources than Cambodia, I needed maybe to see that development when there is commitment and will is possible and can succeed. I am sure that after a longer time over there also the problem will become more apparent: too much consumerism, too much logging, conflicts and tensions between the various ethnic groups. But for the meantime was nice to be surprised by the country.
We know we will be living at the end of the year and move back to Europe. Knowing that gives the impression of walking downhill. I feel less involved with the problems and try to avoid more discussion about the poverty, corruption, development. I feel this tiredness inside me. There to many problems in this country, at all level, involving everybody. Corruption and low education are to me the key elements. Corruption show they face as soon as one arrive at Phnom Penh airport in the area for the visa and passport control. Often there are queues because several planes land at the same time. In this areas there are more custom officer than needed and several of them just walk around seemingly spotting people, however by handing out a 5$ note, the passport can be discreetly taken by an officer, stamped, brought to the other side of the custom where one will be called jumping the whole queue.
This was our short trip to Malaysa. One more surprise at 00:09 of March 29th has been the tremor that woke us up and that linked us for a moment that seemed never ending with Western Sumatra and the second big earthquake that hit there.
Kampong Thom, 6.3.2005