Freelancing Gods 2014

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16 Jun 2013

Pat's Guide to Running Events

I’m lucky enough to attend quite a few conferences (mostly IT-focused), plus I’ve organised a handful as well (Trampoline and the occasional Rails Camp)… so it could be argued that I know a few things in this area. More accurately, it means I can get quite opinionated on the matter, which was quite clear this evening with a few ranting tweets.

Some friends (rightly) encouraged me to write something down in a longer form, so here we have my recommendations for running events generally, but with a focus on conferences.

Before I get stuck into my thoughts, I want to be clear: organising events is a tonne of hard work, is often thankless, and almost never financially rewarding. I have many friends who run events of all sizes, and this post is by no means an attack on them or other organisers of events I’ve attended. It requires no small amount of bravery and risk to put something together.

Single Track

I’m a big fan of single-track conferences – keep everyone together and focused on the same talks. This does reduce the number of speakers (and thus, ideas being shared on the big stage), but generally it leads to a better set of talks, as you’re selecting the absolute best available.

That said, this is not a deal-breaker – multi-track conferences can certainly work well, especially when the tracks have clear themes.

A tangent for those who are keen to give great talks, technical or otherwise: watch Ben Orenstein’s excellent RailsConf talk – and then watch it again when you’re starting to prepare for your next talk.

30 Minutes or Less

I’m pretty sure no talk needs more than 30 minutes. Keynotes are perhaps the one exception – but hey, if you’ve gone with a single track, there’s no keynotes – and I like the idea of all speakers being equal. And to keep the sessions focused, perhaps have a no-questions rule. Encourage attendees to chat to the speakers one-on-one instead.

Emphasise the Socialising

Don’t forget to add plenty of socialising time in-between talks. I know plenty of people attend events not for the talks but to meet people, to connect with their peers – so do what you can to encourage these opportunities. The excellent Nordic Ruby has a rule that there must be at least 30 minutes break between each session.

Curate Lightning Talks

Lightning talks can be a mixed bag – sometimes they’re great: I remember the final lightning talk at the third Trampoline Melbourne, where a high school business teacher taught us all how to beatbox Billy Jean; sometimes they’re awful: product pitches and advertising bullshit that can mar an otherwise excellent event.

These days I probably err towards having no lightning talks, but I’ve seen it done well and curated carefully, and perhaps that’s the best way to approach it. Anyone can put their hand up, but have someone whose job it is to pick a handful that stand out. The RubyConf Australia lightning talks were top notch, and I largely attribute this to the curation.

No Sponsor Talks

Whatever you do, don’t give away speaker slots to sponsors – every speaker should earn their spot on their own merits. Perhaps you can allow sponsors to recommend some speakers (if you handpick some of your talks), and then they can fork out extra to cover that person’s travel expenses, provided you think they should be part of your lineup.

Be Mindful and Seek Equality

It’s well documented that the technology industry is dominated by men, and that there are plenty of situations where women have been treated terribly. Having a clear anti-harrassment policy is a wise idea, as is making the extra effort to seek out women speakers and attendees (something the JSConf EU team do a stellar job at).

We certainly keep an eye on the male-to-female speaker ratio at Trampoline, and have encouraged women in particular to put their hand up to speak – though we also encourage plenty of men too. The later events have certainly been more balanced than earlier ones.

Parties

Most conference parties suck.

I wish it wasn’t the case, but so often, they’ll be held in some crowded bar with loud music. Whether the music’s good or not is beside the point – I don’t go to conferences for the music, I go to socialise. If I need to yell to have a conversation, the odds of me going home rise dramatically. There’s many in the technology industry who aren’t super adept at being social, and these kinds of environments just make it even harder to connect with other people.

The wise Ashe Dryden raised this point recently, and many chimed in with clear support for parties where there’s more of a focus on conversations.

Also: go easy with the alcohol. I attended one Ruby conference recently where there were trays of shots lined up at the official parties (yes, at loud bars) – a particular shame given the rest of the conference experience was excellent.

I know Rails Camp has garned a reputation in Australia of being quite a drunken affair. I think this is a little unfair – yes, sadly some people do get plastered, but the vast majority are pretty smart with their alcohol intake. Perhaps my issue’s more with the wider drinking culture than with the events/conferences scene.

Somewhat related: I love that Travis CI host meets at cafes instead of bars, running up a coffee tab (and I don’t even drink coffee!).

Start Later

I had the pleasure of hearing Alex Koppel speak at Railsberry earlier this year on the topic of sleep – something pretty critical for everyone, and yet often forgotten, especially when it comes to conference schedules.

There’s sessions all day, then dinners and parties all night – and then you get up bright and early the next day to do it all again. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want conference organisers to become strict parents, but if you have an official party going past midnight, and then talks starting around 9am in the morning, that might leave just enough time for the recommended 8 hours of sleep. And that’s provided you’re not far away from either the conference or party venues, and the conference is providing you a tasty breakfast.

I’d much rather kick things off in the late morning, let people enjoy their evenings, get a proper rest, take it easy in the mornings, and be awake and focused for all the sessions. Indeed, the next event I run (don’t ask me what it is, I don’t know yet) will begin with brunch, a meal that Melbourne excels at.

Seriously: Melbourne’s breakfasts are the best in the world.

Superb Food & Drink or Nothing

And when it comes to meals, do try to provide excellent food and drink at your event (for breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks). You’ve got a great opportunity to keep attendees and speakers all in the same place, all socialising and sharing ideas – but if the food’s bad, people will wander off searching for other options. Of course, this will happen to some extent anyway, but good food is noticed and welcomed.

Good coffee too – there’s always a big cheer for the baristas when conference organisers are closing events.

If you can’t afford these things, that’s okay and completely understandable – but instead of providing limited or average options, give people lists of excellent cafes and restaurants nearby. Or perhaps line up a sponsor whose funds will be directed towards food and drink – and be sure to mention this before meals as well.

We generally haven’t bothered with meals at Trampolines – but at the most recent Sydney event, Caroline and Steve organised simple yet excellent catering, and everyone stuck around, had a great meal and could continue conversations without being caught up in the logistics of finding their own food.

Superb Wifi or Nothing

Good conference internet is hard. I can count the events I’ve been to with close-to-faultless wifi on one hand. You need to decide whether it’s critical for your event, but again, don’t be half-arsed about it: put the effort in or drop it completely.

If you aren’t going to bother with internet (or even if you are), a lovely touch is to go out of your way to organise data-capable SIMs for foreign attendees – and make sure they can be used for tethering. I’ve seen some conferences provide 3G/4G dongles to speakers – which is great – but making that offer to all attendees (even if you charge for it) would be brilliant.

For those in Australia looking to have first class internet access available at their event, I recommend speaking to Donal (once of NodeCity) at Podomere, who knows his networking devices and IP traffic back to front. (I did help him out at a few events – but I was just the dumb labour putting access points in place, he’s got all the smarts).

Superb Schwag or Nothing

Your schwag is almost certainly shit. We don’t need more pens, stickers, flyers, magazines, canvas bags, key-rings and stress balls. They’ll almost always end up being thrown out and ignored – which means they’re a waste of time, money, and materials – all limited resources! Stupidity on so many levels!

I can think of only one conference I’ve been to that had schwag worth keeping – Paul & Eamo’s Funconf. Though to be fair, that event was special on so many levels, and calling what we were given ‘schwag’ is demeaning.

As for the rest – occasionally there’s useful things in the mix, but the goal should be no schwag at all. Sponsors may request it, but be polite yet firm and point out that they’ll get much better returns putting their money towards your food or coffee. You could also look at giving people the choice to donate money to worthy causes instead of creating mindless rubbish.

T-shirts

Perhaps I’m wrong to treat t-shirts separately to the rest of the schwag… much of the same applies, though my rules are slightly different: if you can put together an excellent design and offer it in both mens and womens sizes, and perhaps make it optional (those who really want it can pay for it), then consider it.

But seriously: if it’s not a design that someone who doesn’t go to the event and has no interest in the focus of the event wouldn’t consider wearing, I’d opt for no t-shirt. Don’t bother with sponsor logos either.

Badges

Again, almost schwag, but not quite, as badges can be extremely useful for the duration of the event – as helpful reminders of peoples’ names, as a reference for conference schedules, and even as proof of entry for parties.

But almost always, they’ll be thrown out once the conference is over. Which wouldn’t be such a big deal, except they’re mostly plastic and cords, neither which ever get re-used.

Again, the talented Paul Campbell wins points here for providing simple badges on cardboard, with a ribbon to secure it around your neck. Another option is biodegradable plastic badge holders – but keeping things simple is likely the best option.

Over to you

If you disagree with any of this, there’s a comment box below, let me know – or hassle me on Twitter. There’s a decent chance I’ll amend this post over time as more ideas form in my head, but this should provide plenty to consider right now.

03 Aug 2010

Keeping Busy in Battambang

This is the fifth (and last) of my guides to Cambodia

Well, this post has been a long time coming… don’t take that as any reflection of quality, mind you. And again, this post is focused on Battambang, as it’s where I’ve spent the vast majority of my time when in Cambodia.

The Smoking Pot Cooking Class

As mentioned in my previous post, Smoking Pot has cooking classes – quite possibly the first of its kind in Cambodia. Usually operating in the morning, they provide a great introduction to a Khmer cooking. Make sure you book a day or two ahead!

Fish Amok

Vannak (who runs Smoking Pot) will take you down to the market and purchase all the ingredients for the meals you’ll be preparing – and the market is an experience in itself. He’ll then lead you through making three meals – which you then will eat, so don’t have much in the way of breakfast beforehand! Vannak’s very good with the classes, and quite happy to chat about Cambodia in general.

The Bamboo Train

Cambodia has a very basic and unreliable train system – in most places, there’s no longer proper trains running. However, in and around Battambang there is the Bamboo Train – platforms of bamboo wood, metal wheels on axels, and a motor to power the whole thing along – which can be hired to get from one village to another.

For the most part, these are used by locals to ferry goods around, but can also be taken by tourists. It’s not the most comfortable ride in the world, but you get along at a decent clip, and you get glimpses of the Cambodian countryside.

Moto Train

Also: as you can see in the photo above, it’s a single track – so if there’s another bamboo platform coming in the other direction, whoever has the lightest load has to take their platform off the tracks.

Perhaps it’s the adrenalin rush from such an unsafe adventure – seats, let alone seatbelts, don’t exist – but this is easily one of my favourite things to do in Battambang.

At some point, the train line is probably going to be torn up to make way for a shiny modern system (as part of China’s cross-Asia train line) – so if you’re in town, make this a priority, as you may not get another chance!

Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus

Another highlight of Battambang is the Circus at Phare Ponleu Selpak. These kids are extremely talented – I wouldn’t be surprised if plenty of them find themselves in Cirque du Soleil shows.

Stretch

The performances they put together are a lot of fun – even though it’s all in Khmer, you’ll easily pick up on what’s happening. There’s performances at least once a week – make sure you get along.

Phnom Sampeau

One of the hills close to Battambang is Phnom Sampeau. If you take the stairs up, you’ll find several temples, as well as the Killing Caves. These caves were where many Khmer were killed or maimed and then left to die. It’s not a happy place, but it does help with understanding what the people of Cambodia have been through – and are still recovering from.

Duck Mountain

On a lighter note, you get some great views from up on the top of the hill. Also, if you stick around until late afternoon, you’ll get to see millions of small bats streaming out from the many caves to find food for the night. I’ve only managed to see this once, but it’s really quite something to watch.

Bat Trail

Phnom Sampeau is probably too far for a tuk-tuk journey – the roads aren’t sealed for most of the way, so taking a moto is a far better option. If you speak to your hotel, or ask at restaurants, you should be able to find tour guides and moto drivers without too much hassle.

Soksabike

One fantastic way of getting around Battambang and the surrounding areas is by bike – and there’s now bike tours, run by an organisation known as Soksabike.

This has only started up recently – a good friend of mine has helped get it going – but from what I’ve heard the guides are getting better and better, and it’s a great experience riding out through Battambang to the nearby villages.

Battambang – much like most of Cambodia – is extremely flat, so it’s really easy to get around by bike. Don’t feel you have to be super fit to give this a shot.

More Temples and Touring

There’s several other temples nearby – Wat Banan is perhaps the best known. Quite old, it’s like a small version of some of the temples you can find in the Angkor complex. The one catch is it’s on top of a hill, and the stairs are a killer.

Wat Banan

You can also check out some of the local industries – rice paper, fish paste, rice wine and more – as part of your tours, whether that be by moto, tuk-tuk, or with Soksabike.

In Closing

Well, these Cambodia posts have taken me a long time to write. Hopefully they’re useful for others in providing some perspective on Cambodia, Khmer people and Battambang. I’d love to hear from anyone who has made it to this corner of the world and what you thought of the experience.

22 Feb 2010

Dining in Battambang

This is the fourth of my guides to Cambodia.

I’ve let this series of posts lag so much that I’ve actually been back to Cambodia for a couple of weeks in the meantime. That’s refreshed my memory, so maybe it’s not such a bad thing.

Now, while Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are the major tourist centres of Cambodia, I’ve spent most of my time in Battambang, so it’s really the only place I can provide a decent number of recommendations for. Let’s get stuck into it!

Restaurants in General

A few points to bear in mind:

  • Khmer restaurants aren’t known for their speed, so it doesn’t hurt to bring a book.
  • Most places that cater for foreigners have both Western and Khmer dishes.
  • Unless menus mention both lime and lemon, assume that when it says lemon, you’ll actually get lime.

West of the River

Battambang has a few key streets – running north to south are roads One, Two and Three. One is along the river, and Three is the largest of the three.

Battambang, Cambodia

As you can see from the map, there’s also streets between these – they are usually referred to by expats as One-and-a-half, and Two-and-a-half, but I’ve no idea if the locals actually have names for them.

Fresh Eats

The food here isn’t particularly complex – but it’s tasty, and their shakes have no milk (a rarity), so they’re particularly refreshing. Perfect for breakfast or lunch. As an added bonus, has wifi.

And if you’ve visited Fresh Eats before, it’s worth noting that they have moved in the last twelve months from the far side of Road Three to Road Two-and-a-half, just south of Psah Nath (the main market).

Khmer Delight

A relative newcomer, Khmer Delight has only appeared in the last year. Good food, friendly staff, and intermittent wifi. It’s worth a visit for meals at any time of day.

You can find it on the road running east-west a block south of Psah Nath, between Roads Two and Two-and-a-half.

Smoking Pot

A stalwart of the Lonely Planet, Smoking Pot is best known for the cooking classes (which I’ll cover in a later post), but also has a good variety of dishes. They also serve a banana and lime milkshake, which became my regular drink (I know it sounds a little odd, but the combination works).

It is located on the corner of Street One-and-a-half, two blocks south of Psah Nath.

Snow White

This place always draws plenty of tourists, and so I rarely went, preferring to support businesses which were a bit quieter. The menu is long, so you don’t lack for choices, and the food ranges from okay to decent.

You can find Snow White on the corner of Street Two, two blocks south of Psah Nath (a very short walk from Smoking Pot).

Balcony Bar

An evening-only option, the Balcony Bar is at the higher end of the scale in terms of prices – perhaps not quite so good value compared to other places. That said, the food’s pretty good (though the menu is almost all Western), and it’s a very chilled location, away from the town centre.

You won’t want to walk here, especially late at night, but all Tuk-tuk drivers (and many moto drivers) will know it – it’s a far distance along Road One, south of central Battambang.

Riverside Stalls

Every night, a couple of dozen stalls set up along the river (south of the bridge that’s at the bottom of the map). You could try your luck here for a noodle soup, but it’s really aimed at the locals: you won’t find any western options, and English won’t get you very far at all.

It’s also probably a bit rough on digestive systems that haven’t spent a few weeks in Cambodia. All in all, you have been warned.

East of the River

While the focus of Battambang is on the west side of the river, there’s still some options out east. You’ll mainly find these along one road, where the temple is by the river, leading to the big statue roundabout on Highway 5.

Cambodia - Google Maps

Bamboo Train Cafe

Formerly known as Apsara Garden, the Bamboo Train Cafe has tweaked its menu somewhat, and offers meals at all times of day. The breakfasts are very good (especially if you’re dying for Western-style toast), meals are generally delicious, and the staff are friendly. There’s also a pool table in very good condition – a rarity.

You can find it just east of Spring Park Hotel.

Green House

A small place beside the Golden Palace Hotel (east of Spring Park Hotel on the north side of the main road), this restaurant has some Western dishes, but the local fare is better. Simple and affordable (moreso than the usually cheap Cambodian standards), but nothing sparkling.

Cold Night

Part of the Golden Palace Hotel (east of Spring Park Hotel on the north side of the main road), you may want to try Cold Night if you’re nearby. Some dishes are quite good (my favourite is the Chicken Curry with Rice), but the staff are rarely friendly.

La Villa

You don’t get much classier than this in Cambodia, let alone Battambang. La Villa is a boutique hotel in (as the name suggests) an old French villa. The food here ranges from decent to very good. If you’re going to go a steak, get the imported New Zealand beef, not the local stuff – it’ll be more tender. The creme caramel is great.

This is not where you come to get a taste of Cambodian culture – but it is a nice break from the culture shock. It’s along the river, north of the main road on the map, but Tuk-tuk drivers will know where to go.

11 Jul 2009

Getting around in Cambodia

This is the third of my guides to Cambodia.

The focus for this post is how you can get yourself from one side of the country to the other.

Between Cities

Unless you have your own private tourist guide, you really only have two options to get between cities – buses and taxis.

By Bus

Buses are the cheap-but-slow option – you could be looking at 6 or more hours between Battambang and Phnom Penh, and a ticket is going to set you back maybe $7 USD. Phnom Penh to Siem Reap is a slightly longer journey, and Siem Reap to Battambang is shorter (around 4 or 5 hours).

Sometimes buses break down, and sometimes they’ll make a few more toilet break stops than really necessary. They are easy though – just buy a ticket, and hop on the right bus. Don’t expect air conditioning or a quiet trip – it’s likely you’ll have to put up with loud Khmer pop for the entire trip.

By Taxi

Taxis, on the other hand, can require a bit more patience to sort out. It’s not a formalised system like in developed countries – if someone with a car wants to be a taxi driver, then they just hang around the vague taxi point in a city, and try to lure passengers into their car. There’s plenty of competitiveness between drivers, so you could try and bargain for a seat. Don’t expect all drivers to speak English though.

Taxi drivers will try to fill up the car with as many passengers as possible. I’ve been in cars with four Khmer adults in the back seat of the Camry (almost all taxis are Camrys), two in each of the front seats (yes, the driver shares his seat), and in one case, one girl in the boot (kept open, thankfully).

If you’d like to have a little privacy, you pay more. For Battambang to Phnom Penh, $20 is a common rate for a Westerner to have the passenger seat to themselves. $10 will probably get you a seat in the back with two or three others. Westerners are generally given more space, because they have the money to pay for it.

You can also hire out a whole car if you’ve got plenty of cash or a group of people – expect to pay around $50. For the other major routes, prices can be modified depending on the distance (I’d guess around $60-70 for Phnom Penh to Siem Reap).

While finding drivers is pretty easy (your hotel or hostel may even help you source a driver), there is a good chance you could be waiting around for the rest of the taxi to fill up. Khmers are early risers, so as the day wears on, there’s less potential travellers. In some cases, I’ve waited over an hour before leaving. Of course, if you offer more money, then the driver will be happier to make the journey with less passengers.

So, for all this hard work, what are the advantages? Air-conditioning (indeed, you might actually be too cold) is the big one. The journey is much faster, too (I once did the Battambang to Phnom Penh trip in under four hours, but four to five hours is the usual length of time). You should still expect to be blasted with Khmer music (although some drivers will graciously accommodate and turn the radio down or off).

Either way, the roads aren’t fancy – and sometimes not even sealed – so don’t hope for a super-smooth ride.

Transporter

The Boat

The one other major transport option is only for travelling between Battambang and Siem Reap, and even then, only during the wet season: the boat. There’s two different boats (I’m not sure if they’re run by separate companies), and one is apparently comfortable.

The Boat to Siem Reap

I say apparently, because I went on the other boat, which is a glorified gondola, holding about 20 people sitting on benches facing each other, with their backs to the water. The sides of this boat are low enough that you will get water flowing over the edge every now and then – nothing dangerous, but your bags may get a little wet.

The Boat to Siem Reap

Given my description thus far, it sounds like a horrible trip – and while it wasn’t super comfortable, and did take seven hours, you do get some great views of the Cambodian countryside. The boat skirts the western edge of the massive Tonlé Sap lake, and also motors through some floating villages. It’s certainly a unique experience, and I’m glad I’ve done it once.

In Cities

Unlike most cities, taxis (in their car form) aren’t used much at all in Cambodia for travelling within a city (although there is some normal taxis in Phnom Penh). What is used is a bit more old-school – tuk-tuks and motos. Motos are scaled down motorbikes – not quite as powerful, and not quite as large. Very similar to motorized scooters, if a little bit more motorbike-like. Tuktuks are motos with a little carriage on the back, which can fit four Westerners reasonably comfortably.

Motos

IMG_0732

If you need to get somewhere by yourself, I’d recommend jumping on the back of a moto – there’s usually plenty of moto-dops (moto-taxis) around tourist areas and major intersections. It can be a little scary at first, but the drivers know what they’re doing, and it’s much faster than a tuk-tuk. The more you travel this way, the more comfortable it gets.

Prices vary between cities – I could generally get from one end of Battambang to the other for fifty cents (two thousand riel). For the same distance, a dollar is probably the least you’ll get away with in Phnom Penh (and it’s also a much larger city). Sometimes the driver will request a price, sometimes you just offer what you think it is worth – and bargaining is fine, although you may not get far due to the language barrier.

IMG_0777

Much like the ride itself, estimating what to pay for a trip becomes comfortable over time.

Tuk-tuks

If there’s a group of you – and particularly if you have luggage – then a tuk-tuk is the better option. You’ve got a bit more space, and it’s definitely safer than a moto – but the caveat is that it’s more expensive, and it’s slower. I didn’t travel by tuk-tuk too much, so I’m not the best source for prices, but I’d expect to pay a dollar or two to get across Battambang, maybe a little more if there was a group of us.

Both moto and tuk-tuk drivers are often happy to wait for you for the return journey – if that’s what you want, don’t feel obliged to pay until you’re finished with their services. You should pay them a bit extra for waiting, though.

A simple example: If I was visiting the Russian Markets in Phnom Penh, and then heading back to my hotel, I’d probably pay three or four dollars all up for a moto-dop. For a similar visit to the markets in Battambang, two dollars should suffice. Of course, prices may have gone up since my last visit, and I can speak a little Khmer, so I’m more comfortable with bargaining. Don’t be surprised if you’re asked for double those amounts, or more.

Directions

When you’re stuck with the language barrier, it can be a bit hard to describe where you want to go (particularly in a city you’ve never been to before). Regular moto-dops and tuk-tuk drivers will know all the common tourist places, so generally you’re going to be fine.

If the driver doesn’t know where to go – and sometimes they pretend they do know – they’ll usually ask other Khmer for help. However, often the drivers hanging around tourist areas are experienced enough (particularly in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap) that you won’t have problems.

Touts

You definitely won’t struggle to find moto-dops or tuk-tuks – there’s always a few outside each hotel, and they’re quick to offer their services (read: hassle you incessantly). Sometimes, that’s fine, because you do need transport. Other times, it’s easier to just say ‘no’ (A’tay) or ‘I don’t need’ (A’trega).

You’ll also find some drivers ask if you want to visit tourist places, and offer to take you there (and if you’re busy, give you their number or ask when you’re free the following day). This can be handy – it’s nice to have a familiar driver taking you around – but if you don’t want to commit to any plans, make that clear, don’t just say yes to avoid confrontation.

Hiring Bikes

If you’d like to get around without a driver, it’s not hard to find places that hire out motos and bicycles (and perhaps dirt bikes for the out-of-town trips). Cambodia is quite flat for the most part, so it’s not hard to peddle your way through cities, but Phnom Penh’s traffic (much more so than Battambang or Siem Reap) heightens the challenge. You’ll also need to worry about locking the bikes up, so it may not be worth the hassle.

Border Crossing

Finally, if you’re planning on crossing the border overland from Bangkok, via Aranyaprathet (on the Thai side of the border) and Poipet (the Cambodian equivalent), it’s a bit of an adventure. I’ve done it a couple of times – the easiest way is by taking a bus that goes all the way to Siem Reap or Battambang (well, it’s actually two buses, since they don’t cross the border, but guides will look after you somewhat).

An alternative is to take a non-tourist-focused bus from Bangkok to the border, and then find a taxi once you cross over to Cambodia. This is more challenging – there’s some scam buses and taxis that charge a lot more in Poipet, so I’d recommend the bus.

If you’re going in the other direction though, taking a taxi to Poipet is easy enough, and then you can get a tuk-tuk to the bus stop in Aranyaprathet. No matter which direction you’re going in, Tales of Asia’s guide is essential reading.

That’s it for my generic Cambodian posts – the last two of this series will focus on dining and activities in the town of Battambang (as that’s where I spent the vast majority of my time).

Thanks to James Healy for the moto photos above.

18 Feb 2009

Khmer Culture

This is the first of my guides to Cambodia.

Let’s start with some general pointers about Cambodia.

One of the differences between Cambodia and Australia that I’ve been reminded of now that I’m back home is how friendly the Khmer people are. (In case you weren’t sure, residents of Cambodia refer to themselves as Khmer, not Cambodian. The same goes for the language they speak.) While often they may look at you seriously, if you smile, they will smile back nine times out of ten. You try that in Melbourne, and people may think you’re a little too friendly.

When travelling in the regions where tourists aren’t so common, you’ll often have Khmer children call out ‘Hello’ as you pass – occasionally the adults will do the same. If they speak any English, you’ll be asked what your name is, how old you are, and often whether you’re married or not.

Fun Times

Status

The age question has some importance to Khmer – because the older you are, the higher status you have. You refer to people older than you as Bong, and those younger as Ohn – and if you’re not sure whether they’re older or not, err on the side of caution and go with Bong.

Other factors to status include gender – males ranking higher, unsurprisingly – and race. If you’re a white-skinned Berang (Westerner), that’s instant kudos, which means white women get much more respect than local Khmer women.

Greetings

Status also determines how people will greet you. If you’re much senior, you’ll often get polite bows with hands pressed together as if praying – the more friendly restaurant staff will often greet and farewell you with this.

If you want to be a bit more informal, handshakes are recommended – and some Khmer men will press for one anyway, especially if you’re white-skinned and male, seeking to get chummy with you.

Apsara Dancers

History

Now, I’ve not read too much about the history of Cambodia, so don’t expect much detail here. I can provide a very brief overview though.

The Kingdom of Cambodia – or a Khmer nation in some form and name – has been in existance for around 1200 years. At one stage in the middle of the last millenium, it was the largest nation in South East Asia, covering at least parts of Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Much more recently, it was ‘colonised’ by the French, as part of French Indochina from 1863 up until 1953, when it became a constitutional monarchy. After the Vietnam War, the combination of bombing by the USA and the rebel communist Khmer Rouge drove the country into civil war, with the Khmer Rouge taking power in 1975. Vietnam invaded in 1978 to put a halt to the genocide (somewhere between one and three million were killed – including a high percentage of the more educated Khmer, such as teachers and doctors), but warring continued until the late 1990’s.

In the last decade or so, the country has returned to being a constitutional monarchy. The Cambodian People’s Party has held power ever since the first elections, and holds a massive majority. While the locals rarely discuss politics, it’s quite well established that there’s plenty of corruption within the government. If you’re friends or family of those in power, your living conditions are leagues ahead of the vast majority of the population.

These days, you really don’t need to be worried about violence – well, not in the heavily populated areas. Apparently things get a bit hairy in the jungles with fighting between police, poachers and rangers, and there is the on-again-off-again border dispute with Thailand in the Preah Vihear province, but outside of those regions, things are quite safe.

Currency

Onto something a bit more utilitarian: money. The Cambodian currency is called the Riel, and it’s worth roughly one fortieth of a US cent. An easier way to think of it is 4000 riel is 1 US dollar. While the Australian dollar is the currency I normally deal with, I’m sticking with USD references here because that’s the secondary currency in Cambodia – you’ll be able to work with that 4000-to-1 conversion rate in restaurants, hotels and such.

The official conversion rate is something closer to 4120 riel to the dollar, but you’ll only find people using that when you’re changing money, or if you happen to be buying phone credit (since that’s a pretty close parallel to currency in Cambodia anyway).

Because of how cheap (compared to Western countries) most things are, you can’t expect most places to handle $20 and $50 dollar notes, unless you’re paying them large amounts of money anyway. Close to markets you’ll find money changers, and you should get the official rate – which means you’ll score some extra riel.

One thing you almost certainly won’t see in Cambodia is coins. Apparently there’s a 50 riel coin, but I’ve only seen notes with values of 100, 500, 1,000, 2,000, 5,000 and 10,000 – and a 20,000 riel note once. Anything larger and you’ll be dealing in US dollars. And trust me, once you’ve gotten used to not having coins in your wallet, it’s tough going back.

Language

If you’re only going to the tourist-centric cities – Phnom Penh and Siem Reap – then you won’t need to worry about learning Khmer. A growing number of the population can speak at least some English, and for the rest, you’ll get by easily with sign language. That said, if you know a few local phrases – beyond Socksabye (How are you?) and Oarkun (Thank you) – you’ll often get a good friendly laugh in response, as the vast majority of visitors just don’t make an effort.

I’ll be covering a lot more of the language in the next post, so stay tuned.

18 Feb 2009

Pat's Guide to Cambodia

Bayon Temple

I’ve recently returned to Melbourne after spending four months based in Cambodia. I’ve learnt a stack about the country and culture, and I figure it might come in handy for others travelling through, so I’ve got a few blog posts lined up with various tidbits of information.

Some will be pretty generic – useful for Cambodia in general – while some parts will be focused on the city of Battambang (aka The Bong), which is where I was living.

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