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Buyer Beware; a cautionary Asian tale

Barely settled back into our simplified life in the developing world, Diane and I looked at the calendar and realized there’s only a few months left until our lease expires. Hoping to qualify for a reasonable visa to live in Thailand other than the infamous 90 day tourist visa, it seemed like early April might be a great time for a quick mini jaunt to Bali. Living in a “beach resort town” that features one of Southeast Asia’s dirtiest and grimiest beaches, we’re also longing for a nice place to soak up the sun, catch up on some books and remind ourselves that heat and humidity beats the frigid Canadian winters and minus twenty degrees anytime. Also thinking we’ll probably not venture south once we move further north, I did a quick search on flights and almost immediately changed my mind thanks once again to Penang’s horribly inconvenient, underutilized and ridiculously small airport. With no direct flights, everything runs through connections in one of KL’s two enormous shiny airports which literally means jacking up the price to over $425.

AirAsiaGo is NOT part of Air Asia

AirAsiaGo is NOT part of Air Asia

Always more patient than me, Diane decided to check AirAsiaGo.com, a website cleverly disguised as an Air Asia subsidiary that offers bundled packages including airfare, hotel, rental cars and various other services for one price. Normally, I always avoid package deals at all costs on this side of the world because unlike in North America, there’s no such thing as “all-inclusive resorts” like in Cancun or Cabo. Virtually every hotel room comes with free breakfast, free wifi and other amenities that they group together and call a “resort fee” in North America while tacking on $25 a night or more. Besides that, there’s a little thing called “consumer protection laws” that anyone raised in the USA or Canada takes for granted. Quickly learning that you get what you pay for in the developing world, things work quite differently here and if something looks too good to be true, it probably is. Initially pricing out five nights using Booking.com or a similar company, we found a highly rated hotel for less than $130 and I love the flexible payment options given to hotels in Asia like “pay later”, “pay at the hotel” or “pay now”. But adding in the airfare jolted the total cost over the top end of our travel budget and after an expensive trip to Canada, I probably should have just given up.

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Shopping spree

As 2017 progresses into its first full week and the temperature here in arctic Edmonton hovers around a seasonal minus twenty Celsius, my body says it’s desperately time to get outta Dodge and get back to the comforts of heat and humidity. Plagued with a three-week head cold, cracked dry skin, sore lips, caked up nose, tired bones and bundled up in double wool socks, vests on top of down coats, warm gloves and a hat, I’m longing for the comforts of shorts and t-shirts again. As much as I love Canada and will always call it my second home, there’s no denying that Canadian prairie winters really suck. Fortunately, when you sell a house in California an don’t need to buy another one, it’s relatively easy to become an overseas expat in a hot nation for about fifteen years.

23 kilogram limit: mostly food

23 kilogram limit: mostly food

Financially speaking, although we spent about six hundred bucks more than our thirty-day budget, we bought a cornucopia of quality brand name products at Boxing Day sale prices that end almost all our shopping needs for a year or two. Including about twelve Nike Dry fit t-shirts, two pairs of name brand hikers good for the jungle, new Ecco and Keens sandals, a new fanny pack and toiletry kit for travel and deodorant that actually works in the humidity, the shopping aspect is worth three flights, two layovers and almost 20 hours of flying time. Also horribly inconvenient for me since I’m legally blind in one eye, there’s only one brand of contact lenses that work well for me in any environment.

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The Great Non-White White North

Filed under the mostly boring topic of returning to North America for the first time, I apologize ahead of time for the cushy little post about what we did on our winter vacation. In keeping with my blog’s slightly edgy but realistic views, I’ll start by pointing out that Americans worried about immigration can chill out because apparently, every immigrant bound for North America has mysteriously landed in Western Canada. In only eighteen months, the whitest place I’ve ever lived in morphed into a multi cultural center of ethnic, religious and racial diversity. Strolling through the streets and malls, we’ve seen literally thousands of non white immigrants blending in just perfectly with Canadians. Mostly dark-skinned Africans, head dressed Muslims from every conceivable nation and Hindus from nations other than India, it seems the like first course of action for the Trudeau administration was to stick it to the Trumpsters by letting tens thousands of immigrants call Canada their home.

Canadian version of Malaysian wildlife

Canadian version of Malaysian wildlife

Being Canada, nobody cares, argues, stares, protests, tweets, spews hatred or otherwise argues. And much to the chagrin of angry white American voters, its obvious after one day visiting that not only are they all peaceful and appreciative to be here, they’re all employed and contributing to the local economy. Where there used to be teenage white kids staffing retail stores and old Indian men sweeping streets and filling custodial jobs, now there are Senegails, Gambians, Bangladeshis, middle easterners and oh, yeah, thousands of Syrians that the Canadian government welcomed with open arms. Demographically speaking, it makes sense because in every developed nation, someone has to do the service jobs and just like American teens, Canadian kids have grown out of mall jobs and now probably earn online income to support their insatiable smartphone habits.

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Climate Change; Literally

Well this sure ain’t Malaysia. Making a brief two-day stop in Hong Kong just because we wanted some real Chinese food, Diane and I hopped on the Air Canada flight to Vancouver a few days ago and braved the twelve-hour insanity known as flying into yesterday. Unfortunately, the rain in Penang stopped long enough for another stretch of bright sunshine just before we departed that left my dehydrated and over-exerted body with a slight cold. Sadly, flying makes dehydration even worse and it turned into laryngitis as we collected our bags in Hong Kong. Not exactly known for its blue skies and perfect climate, Hong Kong defied expectations with three incredible days of bright sunshine and 23 Celsius degree perfection. Accompanied by Diane’s sister-in-law who just happened to be visiting her parents, we embarked on a one day tour, ate some delicious seafood and hoped for the best with my cold as we waited patiently at the Air Canada gate. And that’s when we possibly broke the Guinness Record for the biggest climate drop in human history from between flights.

Ah, real coffee again

Ah, real coffee again

Having left Penang on a 30 degree morning (86 Farhenheit) only a few days earlier, we arrived at Vancouver International Airport too late to make our connection to Calgary thanks to delays on both ends of the Air Canada flight. Well slept but still tired, we cleared the new and improved kiosk based customs, collected our bags, and headed upstairs to an endless line with about one-third of the frustrated 350 passengers that also needed re-ticketing. Usually opting for Cathay Pacific when flying a transcontinental route, some greedy CEOs decided to change economy ticket pricing to a three-tier system like Air Asia and other discount airlines. Charging upwards of $500 to “upgrade” your fare class to one that allows seat selection, choosing the reasonably priced cheapest fare means sitting twelve hours on whatever shitty middle seat in the back of the plane they assign you and not bringing any checked luggage without paying a fee. Yeah, that makes sense on a 6,000 mile trip. So we chose Air Canada despite their strange departure time from both sides of the Pacific because you can pick your seat and connect to Calgary on the same itinerary. But even one minor delay of an hour leaves them struggling so badly on the other side that it’s worth making sure there’s several flights after the one you’ve chosen in case of lengthy delays. They sent those traveling further east than Alberta to hotels for the night with a whopping ten-dollar food stipend that might buy a donut and coffee and they re-booked us on a later flight to Calgary.

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Rescue Me

Having wrapped up five really great days in Siem Reap, Diane and I headed out to Phnom Penn to explore one of Southeast Asia’s newest up and coming capital cities. Way out in front of Yangon in terms of development, we saw large-scale residential projects as the bus approached from a northwestern direction. Slated for future construction of suburban communities like Chiang Mai, I’d give it there to five years before the expat community swarms to another developing nation’s capital city and changes its look for better or worse. Becoming relatively popular, a moderate expat community is taking shape and you’ll find lots of trendy restaurants, shops and modest condos stretched in five or six-mile area stretching from the central tourist area near the national museum to the embassies lying fifteen to twenty minutes away by tuk tuk. And of course, the children of Cambodia are the shining stars of the nations’ future.

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Starkly contrasting the modern looking trendy streets, a large block of the city limits is made up of sprawling working class neighborhoods that are every bit as “developing” looking as you’d expect from Southeast Asia. Clearly visible on a trip to The Killing Fields, much of the city remains mired in poverty despite major infrastructure improvements and a surging tourism industry previously limited to archaeological wonders and off-road adventures in the jungle. Without a doubt, the main attraction in the area is one of the saddest experiences you’ll encounter anywhere in Southeast Asia.

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Parental Guidance Suggested

There’s nothing better than a little historical religious debate between scholars to liven up a cultural day trip and Kbal Spean is an archaeological site not far from Siem Reap that fits the bill. Looking at the featured image above this paragraph, you might have noticed the little sculpture and thought it looks like a phallic symbol. And you’d be correct. Kind of. Known as a Lingam, the object is an aniconic representation of the Hindu deity Shiva which means it’s symbolic or suggestive and not literally representative. In Sanskrit, lingam is loosely defined as phallus and more specifically, “the genital organ of Shiva worshipped in the form of a Phallus”. Often found at the center of Shaivite Hindu Temples (one of the major branches of Hinduism that reveres Shiva as the Supreme Being), it acts as a symbol of generative power.

At Kbal Spean

At Kbal Spean

So what’s up with Hindus revering male genitalia and why is it so misunderstood? Unlike “locker room talk”, there’s symbolism and not sexual innuendo involved and we learned that the lingams seen in temples are usually also associated with a Yoni, a Sanskrit word meaning the female counterpart of the phallic symbol that represents the creative power of nature. Collectively, the symbol represents the creation of life. There’s an interpretation associated with every story, character and symbol in Hinduism because it’s a religion that’s inherently non-literal. Immensely complicated, researching  who started the sexual part of the story is dicey but it seems that scholars began trying to debunk the British notion that the lingam represented a human organ that aroused erotic sensations in the early 1800’s.

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Watch your step, please

One of the saddest realizations of becoming an overseas expats is learning how little Americans know about the rest of the globe. In defense of my countrymen (and women), it’s not entirely our fault since we’re controlled by a mainstream media that’s a “for-profit” élite industry caring only about reporting profits at the next shareholder meeting. With greats like Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite long gone, the memories and knowledge of some of history’s greatest tragedies disappeared and with social media replacing networks as the main source of “news” for most Americans, the November election results aren’t really any great surprise. Thankfully, eight million or more Americans live outside the homeland and those of us lucky enough to retire abroad are among the citizens that benefit from the plethora of great educational tools available from little known historical sites to amazing archeological monuments.

imageFinding small and relatively unknown museums that teach me something ranks high on my list of priorities while living overseas and The Cambodian Landmine Museum fits the bill perfectly. Included on a day trip from Siem Reap along with one of the area’s most fascinating temples (Banteay Srei), we spent two hours or so at this gem of an attraction and came away with a wealth of information barely mentioned in any American history book. Innocently shielding our schoolkids from some of the worst unspeakable acts the nation’s ever participated in, few people even know that America engaged in a relentless five-year bombing campaign that literally destroyed the Cambodian people. Dropping tons of landmines all over the nation, the stated goal of the mission was to destroy the supply chain between the North Vietnamese Communists and Thailand. Victimized by one of America’s most deplorable foreign policy decisions in its history. the result is a nation literally littered with landmines designed exclusively to maim and not kill. Thanks to the efforts of some brave Cambodians, the nation is finally almost free from landmines. Too bad it’s taken almost 45 years to make thinks right.

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