Top 5: Parts of Asian culture that are really growing on me

The longer I stay in Asia, the more things that were initially strange now seem quite normal. Dogs and cats running around my local general store? Normal! A family of five on one motorbike? Normal! Ice in beer? Totally normal! Here are the main things that I’ve become particularly partial to while travelling and living in Asia:
1. Shoes off!
All over Asia it’s considered rude (and dirty) to leave your shoes on when entering a home. I’m so used to doing this now that I find it almost offensive when people don’t automatically lose their shoes upon entering our place! And on trips home, I find it really strange when people keep their ‘outside’ shoes on inside their own houses, especially ones with carpet. I used to do this myself but if and when I’m living back in Australia I’ll definitely be ditching mine at the door.
2. Avoiding the sun
This is another aspect of Asian culture which really gels with me. As someone with fair skin that burns and freckles quite easily, I’ve never been able to saunter around in the sun uncovered without some stinging, peeling consequences. People in Asia (particularly females) whip out wide-brimmed hats, umbrellas and even long gloves to preserve their skin from pigmentation and premature ageing the second the sun’s out. While some of this sunsmart behaviour is more about vanity than health (as they believe the whiter the skin the better) I’m following suit. Nothing to do with skin colour (I mean, a tan would be great!), but for health and preservation reasons. Now, I cringe when other westerners walk around hatless and in singlet tops in the middle of a blazing hot day, particularly if they already look sunburnt and don’t seem to care. And when at the beach, I TOTALLY get why the locals only swim in the very early morning and as the sun’s going down, leaving midday’s scorching sand to the lobster-red westerners! 
3. Keeping up appearances
In Asia, people are often taken at face value – how they present themselves relates to their wealth and social status and the amount of respect they are due. While in some ways I don’t totally agree with this (in Australia, billionaires will lounge around Bondi in their shorts and thongs and that’s kind of cool!), I do see that better grooming and presenting yourself well will open more doors for you, so to speak – more noticeably so here than in the west. 
4. Not losing face
Keeping your cool means not losing face, and this can pertain to any aspect of life, from altercations to bargaining in the market. Angry words don’t usually get you anywhere if a situation is a little tense, but it’s amazing what a smile can do. I need to practice this one more often.
5. An apple a day…
With the exception of dishes that are deep fried, contain animal fat or over-zealously doused in MSG, Asian cuisine is generally quite healthy. People often eat certain things because of their health properties and this is something I’m becoming more and more interested in. When an elderly local touts the benefits of a certain fruit, herb or vegetable as being “good for the heart” (or any other organ or ailment) I take note. It could be an old wives tale…or a pearl of ancient wisdom!

Excess baggage? Try a clothing swap…

Clothing swaps are a fun way of getting rid of old clothes and scoring something new in the process (whether travelling, living in expat-land, or back in the real world!). When living in Phnom Penh, I went to my first ever clothing swap and loved it. Three of us gathered at a friend’s apartment laden with clothes and accessories we no longer wanted, and with cool tunes playing and champagne flowing we displayed our wares and traded threads. We then gave all the leftover items (alot) to one of the girl’s Khmer boyfriend, who took the clothes to his home village in Prey Veng province to distribute. I can just picture a bunch of excited Khmer girls running around showing off their new outfits, and by all reports this is pretty much what happened! There are plenty of online resources on how to hold a clothing swap – such as this. I might have to have a Saigon swap soon!

Image courtesy fjom

Phnom Penh ponderings…

The sun sets in Phnom Penh

“Tourist, madame?” asks my Khmer masseuse mid-pummel. I have to think for a second. “Yes” I state with a slight pang of regret. “How many days you stay?” she asks. “Four” I reply. Just another barang visiting for a few days. Niceties quickly over, the massage resumes and it hits home that I no longer call Cambodia home.

We left Phnom Penh six months before this return trip, and ever since, the memories of anything negative I once associated with my old home slowly dissipated. In their place, the positive memories grew and grew until they took on an elevated status of the best time I ever had in the best place in the entire world! Time, distance (ok, just a little bit of distance) and a whole lot of selective memory had transformed Phnom Penh into a holy grail of happiness and sunshine, to the extent that I was certain to be setting myself up for dissapointment upon going back.
The trip started off with a rush of excitement upon spotting all the things I missed. The view of the Tonle Sap out the plane window as we landed, the frangipani trees in bloom, the smiley Khmer faces, the slow pace, the crumbling charm of certain buildings and orange-robed monks wandering the streets collecting alms. How could I have left here for big, bustling Saigon? I wondered.
We spent the next few days getting reacquainted with our favourite places. We ate, we drank, we shopped, we reunited with people we knew and answered many a question about our now big baby who was a tiny 3 month old when we left. 
From the time we arrived to the time we left, something inside me switched. While I’d built Phnom Penh up to be the epicentre of everything that is great, it came crashing down piece by piece during my stay. It’s hard to pin down exactly what caused my mindshift, but several things were like a slap in the face wake up call. Like filthy children sleeping on the pavement. The legless and armless being wheeled along the riverfront. The scruffy begging kids. The piles of rubbish on the unkempt streets. The groups of dodgy policemen looking for people to pull over for bribes (“We need money for beer!” they used to say to us). All these things I do not miss, and for some reason they looked more prevalent than ever. I’m still not sure if there were more beggars and homeless people than before, or if I’d become so used to them living in the Penh that I’d filtered them out. The city seemed a little more desperate; a little more dusty. There was a sense of emptiness, too, as it hit home that most of our close friends had now left. We passed one couple’s old apartment on the riverfront, a site of many a party and now dark, shut and with no sign of life. Our friends have moved on and time has too.
On this trip I experienced some kind of closure and a newfound appreciation of everything my new home offers that Phnom Penh doesn’t. I did have a fun time and will return again and again to Phnom Penh, and it will always hold a special place in my heart, but I think I needed this trip back to concentrate on the new chapter in my life and begin a new love affair – this time with Saigon.

Living in Asia: What’s it really like?

During the almost three years I’ve called Asia home, many friends, family members, acquaintances and well-meaning strangers have asked me lots and lots of questions about what life here is like. They range from the really general and sometimes hard to answer “so, what’s it like?” to the just-don’t-get-it “but what do you EAT there?!”. Then there are the skeptical questions like “you had a baby in Bangkok, what was THAT like?!” (with nose screwed up). I’ll do my best to clear up some of the myths and misconceptions about life in Asia (as an expat), though this is by no means an exhaustive list of the questions I get asked (or other expats) get asked:

Q:Are there many other expats there? (By the way, these qs pertain to life in both Phnom Penh and Saigon)

A: Yes – thousands and thousands, from all over the world! So many no-one ever seems to know the exact number (and of course, it’s ever-changing). Phnom Penh has many, many foreigners working for NGO’s (from outrageously high paid staff at the UN etc. through to volunteers at grassroots organisations). Then there are embassy workers, English teachers, bar owners, and a growing corporate/business community involved in all sorts of industries from hospitality and tourism to banking. In Saigon there’s a hugely diverse mix too, though the expat community seems to be more business oriented than Phnom Penh’s. So basically, no, I’m not a lone western female eliciting curious stares and I’m not considered special or unique – there are many of us!
Q: So, what do you EAT there?! (one of my favourite questions – hilarious don’t you think?)
A: Um, what don’t I eat?! It’s Asia – not another planet! For starters, I still cook at home alot and make similar things I used to make at home (but take advantage of the great local produce so lots of things using coriander, lime, lemongrass, mint etc.). In both PP and Saigon there are restaurants of every (well, almost) cuisine under the sun, plus an abundance of local eateries from cheap street eats through to classy, high-end restaurants showcasing the best of Khmer or Vietnamese cuisine. There are western-style cafes, French restaurants, pizzerias, kebab shops – you name it! And no, it’s not all food poisoning and tummy troubles (the once or twice we’ve ever been sick living in Asia was from western restaurants, not local! And never from street food!). Which brings me to my next point…
Q: You can’t drink the water there, can you?
A: Well, I don’t drink the tap water but I’ve heard of a few brave souls who insist the water in PP and Saigon is absolutely fine to drink and don’t seem to be any worse for wear for it! Most people (myself included) have a water cooler at home – the kind you find in offices – and get refills delivered. Others just boil and cool the tap water and this is fine too. You just get used to it and when you go to a western country it actually feels strange pouring a glass of water out of the tap! Oh and as for the ice question – that you should be wary of ice in restaurants is rubbish – ice is made in factories in Asia from purified water, it’s totally fine! Trust me!
Q:What about going to the doctor? Is it safe?
A: It depends where you go. There are western standard (and trained) doctors in Phnom Penh and Saigon and it’s just like going to the doctor at home. Then there are some dodgy local clinics that are rife with misdiagnosis and shoddy hygiene etc. but only the stingiest of expats would put their health at risk by going somewhere unreliable for health matters.
Q: You had a baby in Bangkok – what was THAT like?!
A: Yes, I did and it was great! Well the childbirth part was no picnic but the medical facilities, great staff and level of care were amazing! I had my baby in Samitivej Hospital, Bangkok, which not only has hotel room-like recovery suites but shops and cafes in the lobby – you can even ring and order Starbucks and dim sum (and more) and have it delivered to your room. If it wasn’t for the having a baby part, it would have been like a holiday. Oh and the other question relating to this I get asked is, “So is your baby Thai now?” No – while it’d be cool if she got dual citizenship she was only eligible for Australian citizenship (the rules!).
Q:So what’s it like there? (the ultimate question!)
A: How to sum up?! It’s fun, it’s interesting, it’s enjoyable, it’s sometimes frustrating and challenging, it’s sometimes cheap, it’s sometimes expensive, it’s chaotic, it’s peaceful, it’s close to lots of other great places to travel, it’s an adventure some of the time and it’s mundane and ‘normal’ at others. It’s also what you make of it and often about the people you meet and spend time with (one of the absolute best parts). It can be addictive, and it’s something I’m really glad I’m doing – I totally recommend it to anyone considering a move to this diverse, crazy, amazing continent called Asia!
Do you (as an expat or long-term traveller) have any questions about your life you’re always answering? And for non-Asia dwellers, is there something you’ve always wondered about what life in Asia is really like?

Year of the Ox – Saigon style

A must-see during Saigon’s Tet (New Year) celebrations is the centrally located street of Nguyen Hue, decked out to represent a tranquil countryside scene – particularly fun for lovers of kitsch!

Lush gardens and colourful flowers have been planted in abundance. There are bird sounds blaring out of loudspeakers and there’s even a replica bamboo bridge to cross (which everyone jostles to pose on for the all-important Tet family photo!).

The many depictions of 2009’s hardworking Ox showcase alot of creativity and innovation – there are oxen constructed of straw, gold and silver leaf coated metal, welded drums and my favourite – those made entirely of pink, yellow, orange and white flower buds!

Back in Saigon and goals for 2009

Bring on the Year of the Ox

After a month (yes, month!) in sunny Sydney celebrating Christmas, catching up with family and friends, and gorging on Lebanese sweets, yum cha, macarons and more, I’m now back in Saigon, just in time for Tet. Tet is Vietnam’s New Year, and the city is gearing up for the big event with decorations adorning every tree, shop, building, and street. It’s really quite festive and a nice time to be back!

During my break I decided to set some goals for 2009 (or the Year of the Ox) – ranging from really small things (like getting the 1920s style posters I bought last year in Shanghai finally framed) to bigger things – like career goals and travel plans. The main ones are:
To take a trip to somewhere in the Middle East, a region I’ve yet to visit but am fascinated with. At the moment the plan is Syria, which sounds amazing. If this doesn’t eventuate for whatever reason, Japan is another frontrunner for the major trip of the year. Lots of small trips and long weekend ideas are also in the works for this year including a trip to Phu Quoc Island in Southern Vietnam, a long weekend or two in Bangkok (for the gazillionth time but we love the place), a trip back to our old home – Phnom Penh, plus lots of other trips around Vietnam.
The main goal – to keep writing! I need to branch out and try and get some articles published in regional magazines (as well as some more local ones), which is my main aim for this year. I also need to update everything I’ve let go over the past few months – namely, my online portfolio. I also need to make an updated resume, new business cards with my Saigon number, and a more interesting looking invoice template. Oh, and of course, I aim to keep blogging, say 3 times a week (at least!).
Home & Health:
With Tan Dinh Market a short walk away, I’ve got no excuse not to stock up on the freshest produce rather than schlep to far flung supermarkets in search of imported goods all the time. I also want to explore more of our neighbourhood eateries, including the street food stalls. And to cook some new and interesting dishes and to make cakes and other sweet treats in our Asian style portable oven. I need to read more – and not just magazines! Having a baby really puts book reading on the backburner, but now Z is sleeping better I should have more time to read – great! I also want to start doing yoga again – I was doing yoga every week when pregnant but have sadly stopped. I want to try and do a half hour session 3 times a week (built up to slowly…of course!).

Expat life in Saigon vs Phnom Penh

After recently moving to Saigon after 2+ years in Phnom Penh, I’m now being asked what the differences are between life in the two cities. This got me thinking – what are the pros and cons to living in each? And which is the better place to live? Having only been in Saigon a couple of months I don’t have a full understanding of how this city ticks, so my observations may change after living here a little longer. But for now, these are the main differences I’ve encountered:
Phnom Penh is like a big country town and Saigon, an Asian NYC! In Phnom Penh (let’s just call it PP) everything is close, there’s no ‘commute’ as such, and five minutes after leaving home you’re at your bar/restaurant/shop/market/friend’s house of choice. Assuming you don’t live in Toul Kork or over the Japanese Bridge, that is! Meanwhile in Saigon, the crazy traffic and vast distances mean you can sit in a taxi forever just trying to get from A to B. Which brings me to my next point…
After grappling with motos and tuk-tuks in PP (and having to bargain each and every time – it gets so old), Saigon has a refreshing alternative – metered taxis! Not only is an air-conditioned taxi much more comfortable than a breezy, bumpy tuk-tuk (the fun factor dries up after the first few rides) but I no longer have to deal with the bargaining issue. And unlike Thailand, you don’t have drivers who try and get out of turning the meter on.
There are marked differences between Cambodian and Vietnamese people, but not wishing to offend I’m not going to go there. Instead, let’s talk expats. In PP it seems easier to meet people. Just go to a first Friday party at Elsewhere or prop up the bar at Rubies and you’re bound to form some fast and firm friendships after not too long. In Saigon, though, the sheer number of bars and expat hangouts means the scene seems more disjointed than PP’s. Where to even begin?! There are also a lot more NGO workers, creative souls and wandering hippy types in PP, while Saigon seems to attract a more professional, business -minded breed of expat. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it also changes the vibe of the cafes and bars. Saigon’s don’t have as casual a feel as PP’s.
Food & Drink
Both cities are excellent ‘food’ places. Vietnam’s sheer number of options are overwhelming and there’s much better street food here in Saigon, but PP has some truly excellent cafes and restaurants (that I miss!). More Saigon sampling is required before I can really compare the two!
Both cities are over-priced (in my opinion) – rents can be similar (or more) to those in Sydney, which doesn’t really make sense. In both places it can be hard to find a place that’s not badly designed or ridiculously tacky (think ugly patterned tiles, even uglier chandeliers, kitchens with no windows…). In Saigon there are lots of tall skinny houses that sound great in theory (5 bedrooms! 5 bathrooms!) but may also have 5 levels of steep stairs to contend with and again, no windows in the kitchens or bathrooms. I’ve come to a compromise with the bathrooms (both ours are windowless) but now have a kitchen with lots of bright natural light flooding in via a room length window – yay!
I could go on and on…but basically, Saigon wins in terms of transport (but I wish there was also a subway) and street food, while it’s a tie for other food and housing. And PP wins for people (for now!) and size – although I usually love large cities so perhaps Saigon’s size will grow on me. I think I’ve been spoilt (or become really lazy) living in a smaller place where things are easier to find and get to. At least the two cities are close enough that I can visit PP when I get too homesick for all my old favourite haunts!

What I wish I knew when I moved to Phnom Penh

As promised, here are some things I wish I knew when I first moved to Phnom Penh – those little bits of information that might help save you the time and effort involved in finding things for yourself (and if you’ve already suffered disastrous haircuts, painful pedicures and fruitless searches for obscure groceries you may find this useful!).

  • For hair and nail primping head straight to Lucky Salon, above Lucky supermarket on Sihanouk Boulevard. They offer the best manicures and pedicures in town and the most hygienic – how often do you see PP parlours putting their nail equipment in a steriliser? Not often enough, say my friends with the foot fungal infections! And they use OPI brand nailpolish with a huge selection of colours. The haircuts are also excellent – and male friends attest to this as well. I recommend bypassing the local $1-2 haircut joints – while they seem so fun and cheap and cheerful at first, you soon discover they’re just cheap.
  • For obscure grocery items look no further than Thai Huot on Monivong Boulevard. It’s here I’ve found filo pastry, harissa paste, arborio rice, chicken stock and lots of great dairy produce – if you need thickened cream or sour cream (and these can be hard to come by in PP) head to the Huot. Added bonus – the alcohol selection is great and slightly cheaper than the selections at Pencil and Lucky. Oh, and there’s lots of chocolate goodness as well.
  • Fabric street near O’Russei Market has the largest selection of cotton fabrics for getting shirts, skirts, dresses and more tailor made. It runs the southern length of the market (on the street outside that is) and there’s another street that runs off this with more, which is particularly good for men’s shirt fabrics. Bargaining is essential (but easy) and you can usually get good quality cotton for around US$1.50-2 per metre. There’s lots of crazy, glitzy, slinky, shiny (read: crazy) stuff among the finds, but it’s fun to look at! The 2nd floor of Olympic Market has lots of good fabric too, and it’s undercover and a little more orderly.
  • Boom Boom Room on Street 278 is a great way to buy music. While this will sound obvious to PP residents it took me a while to stop buying CDs at Russian Market and instead get with the times and purchase MP3 files at BBR – much cheaper, and they can fit around 9 albums onto one CD which you can then copy onto itunes. Or you can get them to put the music straight onto your ipod. The music selection is updated frequently too.
  • And a few favourite food places: The Deli Bakery for bread, The Shop for lunch and dessert (especially dessert – OMG!), Le Duo for pizza (bar the decor!), Pop Cafe for lasagna, Romdeng for Khmer, Boat Noodle for cheap and cheerful Khmer or Thai, Sam Doo for dim sum, Mekong Village for duck pancakes, Sher-e-Punjab for Indian (go for the tandoor offerings), Cafe Fresco for coffee (illy), Garden Center 108 for burgers, shakes and great service, and finally, one of my favourite ‘secret’ places is a little find called ‘Khmer Thai’ – the food is great, the setting is chic, the prices are cheap and for some reason it’s off the expat radar. To find it – head along Mao Tse Tung (inland that is) and turn left just before the wat near Russian Market. Head upstairs to sit on Thai cushions and feast!
If I think of more will do a Part 2 post but this should be enough PP inspiration for now! Ok, back to Saigon….

Leaving Phnom Penh

After a whirlwind week of farewells, packing, baby minding, working and entertaining visitors all at the same time we’ve bid farewell to Phnom Penh. We created many memories during our time there, made some amazing friends, had some great travel experiences and developed our careers, though it helps that some of our best friends have left or are about to leave, and that there are exciting prospects and adventures ahead in Saigon!