High Rises, High Season and Handicrafts (More Notes from Cambodia Trip)

Some missing stuff from the previous post.

  • The government doesn’t allow construction of anything higher than Angkor Wat in the nearby areas. So Siem Reap is pleasantly free of high rises. Even if it is some coercion on the part of the government, the outcome is not bad.
  • Online research led me to believe that as far as the tourism season is concerned, October is the border month, and the high season starts from November. But going by what local people in the business said, November is more of a border month and December is when the high season starts. So, pretty much by accident, we landed at a good time. It rained a little and sometimes relieved us from the heat. But not so much as to disrupt the plans. Tourist places were not shut down, but the crowd was not at its peak. And so on…
  • A curious difference between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. They call out to women as “Lady” in Siem Reap, but as “Madame” in Phnom Penh.
  • Cambodian food is rather bland. As if to compensate for it, a Thai restaurant we went to had overdone the chilies even for Indian taste-buds.
  • They don’t seem to believe in using salt in food. It was practically missing, not just from the Cambodian cuisine, but also from things like Pizzas we tried.
  • Most restaurants, quite annoyingly, do not serve water. So you end up buying packaged water.
  • In one strange case, we were not served water when we ordered the main course. But two glasses came when we ordered desserts later. I wonder if there was a minimum bill value constraint!
  • For some reason, I had a better time understanding people’s accent there than Abhaya and I was better at adapting my language and accent to theirs as well. By the end of it, I was pronouncing dollar as “dollaaaar”. In a proud moment, I even managed to negotiate the taxi prices down while talking in single words and short phrases on phone. The key was to ask “best price?” with suitable interrogative emphasis.
  • The middle-class penny-pincher in us was having a difficult time shopping there. Because handicrafts (or claimed handicraft) is what you can majorly shop for as souvenirs. And they looked so much like what you would find in India that we had a hard time shelling out dollars for them, even though prices might have been comparable to those in India.
  • Still, we did pick up some souvenirs and gifts including a couple of bottles of Sombai. Those who to our Christmas party can have a taste 😉

More/Zopnow Cash Fiasco

On a recent trip to More Hypermarket, I figured that they have an online shopping option too. I decided to give it a try and ordered some grocery. I paid online, as I usually do. Because scrambling for cash at the time of delivery is usually bad enough. And in these times of demonetisation, one doesn’t even want to think of it.

Now, as it turns out, More’s online delivery partner is Zopnow. When they came to deliver the product I was asked for pay Rs. 26/- in cash. I didn’t have anything other than a 2000 Rs. note on me. I had paid online precisely to avoid this. They won’t let me pay later, or pay online. If I didn’t pay the cash, the delivery will not be done.

I complained about it online and they sent me an explanation that the in-store price had changed. And I hadn’t been made to pay extra.

Sure, but I had something to tell them. And since the mail had come from an email id that didn’t accept the e-mails back, it has to go public. Here is the mail I sent them (which bounced).

When somebody has chosen to pay online in advance, not being ready to deliver the product because of your backend problems is outrageous. It isn’t about 26 Rs. so much, but consider this.

  • I didn’t know I had to pay cash (because in my mind I had paid online).
  • I didn’t have the cash on me (because in my mind I had paid online and hence did not need to pay for it).
  • When I asked to be allowed to pay online, I was told that was not possible. I must pay in cash. I can’t even pay later. They would take the product back if I didn’t pay.
  • Sure you would have refunded if you took the product back, but why I had ordered it online in the first place? Because I needed it by a certain time at a certain place. I didn’t want the money, I wanted the product.
  • So what did I have to do? I had to scramble around the office to get cash. And when I got 30 Rs. the delivery guy didn’t even have the change to return (Again, it isn’t about 4 Rs. but given the experience, I suppose you would excuse me if I wasn’t exactly in the mood to pay a ‘tip’)
  • So then I have scramble around the office again to get change.
I had paid you 886 Rs. in advance for the product. And you won’t trust me to pay 26 Rs. later. Especially when the entire fault lay with your system. I hadn’t asked to pay less, had I?
No need to send any further explanations to me. If you care, forward it to your management or tech teams if want to fix things.
I already avoid ordering on zopnow because of these cash collection issues especially while ordering vegetables. This time I had ordered on More, hadn’t even ordered vegetables and you spoiled that too.

 

Four Things Our PM Could Learn From Entrepreneurs

four-jason-blackeyeSince I’m tired of the articles that want entrepreneurs to learn X things from Y, here is one that goes the other way round. Four things our PM could learn from entrepreneurs.

  1. Ideas are cheap: It is the execution that matters. Every rookie entrepreneur zealously guarding his idea is told that by the community. Even if you have to go stealth, you do it for the execution’s sake, not at the cost of the execution.
  2. Don’t go at it alone: Have at least one partner, ideally with complementary skills, ideally someone who can challenge you. Don’t start with a bloated team, but take help of specialists for specific skills.
  3. Draw up a (business) plan: Even if you don’t want to raise money. It helps in clarifying your own thought and plan better for circumstances that are inherently risky.
  4. Know when to quit: Persistence is good, but so is knowing when to quit. Know when to gracefully exit instead of continuing to pour money and effort into an idea that is not going to work.

Decision-making

At Pothi.com we allow authors to publish their books in print. Among other things, they can choose from one of the many page sizes available for their book. The books are printed-on-demand; so we keep the PDFs in our system and print them as and when the orders come.

Now suppose one day I figure that there are too many page sizes on offer and I should discontinue one of the sizes. I pick up a size that is not very good for book production from cost as well as aesthetic point of view and decide that we should withdraw the size.

Shall I go ahead and withdraw it? No. I am more likely to look at some data and ask some questions. For example how many and what percentage of books do we receive in this size? How much money do books of this size make us? Can I expect to motivate authors using this size to use some other more suitable size? Can there be people preparing their books in this size right now and will they be disappointed when they come to upload it on my site later?

Then I will go ahead and talk to a developer in the company. They might tell me that if we want to withdraw the size it will disappear from all the books, including the existing ones. That would be problematic because the PDF files in our system are prepared for that size. I will ask them if it is possible to keep the existing books at the same size for the time being and disable the option only for new books. They might then say that it is definitely possible, but it will take some time to make the code changes. How much time, I will ask. Say, one month, they may reply. Mentally I will keep two months in hand for the task, although I will not tell them that they have two months to do it. Else they will take four months.

Then I may go to my author support person and ask their opinion. They might tell me that this size is the default on people’s word processors. Hence we get books in this size more often than we should. When I talk to them a little more, I might discover that people using this size may not be very savvy on technology and design front.

So I will talk to my designer to figure out if books of this size can be automatically scaled to some other nearest size without making them look weird.

I might also ask my author support person to talk to some of these authors and figure out what  it would take for them to voluntarily shift to a different, more suitable size.

Since I am planning to withdraw a size, and not introduce a new one, I don’t expect a problem from the production. But I will discuss it with them anyway. And I might find that they have some paper and packaging material purchased specifically to support this size. So if I withdraw it immediately, that inventory may go waste or may not be efficiently utilized.

After knowing all this, I can take a decision on whether to withdraw the size, and if so when, and how to prepare the affected authors for this.

I am talking about one decision about one small aspect of a rather small business.

What should be done if someone were planning to withdraw notes carrying 86% of total currency value from a country of 1.25 billion people?

Even if you were taking the decision alone and you didn’t know that ATMs need calibration for new notes, and you couldn’t think that housewives may have substantial savings from white money which they may not want to disclose, and you couldn’t divine that limited cash access will create problems in weddings and for farmers, you would ask at least one fundamental question. Do we have enough currency printed to replace the ones in circulation currently?

How on earth was that question not asked?

What was he smoking?

Hammocks, History and Horrors: Notes from Cambodia Trip

A quick list before I forget some important observations 🙂

  • For a long time to come, in a word association game, when someone says Cambodia, I won’t respond with Angkor Wat, but with hammock. Hammocks are everywhere. In front of their houses, at the back of their shops, on the tree next to a street vendor’s stall, on the specially placed hooks of their tuk-tuks and perhaps a bunch of other places I failed to notice.
  • Indians could learn something from Cambodians in the matter of traffic. That it is possible to have total disregard for all traffic rules and etiquettes, and yet not honk! Yes – they do everything we do, overtake precariously, jump signals, drive on the wrong side to save a “U” turn, but they don’t honk. In that matter they are completely western. Honking is reserved for dire circumstances, and the definition of dire far surpasses what the westerners or even us Indians would consider so. A lot of near-accident situations are let go of without honking or fighting.
  • Sometime in the course of history, they seem to have replaced horses with two-wheelers. Tuk-tuk, the most common form of transport for the tourists, is essentially a buggy hooked to a two-wheeler instead of a horse. But it doesn’t stop at that. They hook load-carrying carts, sometimes pretty long, street side stalls and even entire shops to the two-wheelers.
  • Small cars are rarely seen. Sedans and SUVs dominate
  • The tourist places are kept spectacularly clean and convenient. No equivalent of kurkure packets strewn around. Do the locals not visit, or do they have better civic sense than Indians is something I don’t know. Tourists just fall in line seeing that everything is clean and there are enough dustbins available. There are special, well-maintained toilets near most temples in Angkor that tourists with a valid pass can use for free. Toilets are fairly usable, with access to toilet paper, in other tourist places too.
  • Everything is cheap for westerners, but Indian tourists are not too badly placed either. If you are used to Bangalore restaurant prices, food is budget-friendly, although the prices near Angkor temples are almost double of that available in Siem Reap markets. Portions, especially of local food, are big and the desis should consider sharing.
  • Transport cost, however, hurts. Every time we stepped into a tuk-tuk it cost at least 2 USD, even for a very short ride. That’s 140 Rs. approximately.
  • Desi bargaining and haggling habits can help a lot.
  • Tips are not necessary or expected but are welcomed. Most workers, even in the tourism industry with its dollar prices, do not seem to make much money.
  • Angkor Wat and other places are amazing. After a long-long time seeing a historical place gave me a feeling of awe. The scale of everything is just unparalleled.
  • Despite all the other convenient arrangements, the onsite information is severely lacking on all Angkor sites. So, you better go with a detailed guidebook (if you have time to explore) or a guide so that you understand what you see around you. Other sites like Landmine museum, killing fields, genocide museum, and national museum in Phnom Penh have functional and well-produced audio tours, which are helpful for those with time to spare.
  • An Indian visitor’s (or those who are well-travelled in India) experience would be markedly different from a typical westerner’s experience. Cambodian religious beliefs are a strange syncretism or mishmash (depending on how you choose to see it) of Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism including Vajrayana, Theravada Buddhism, and the ancient local religions. Sometimes when I found the guides or locals pronouncing Sanskrit names in strange accents, it felt like their tongues are working so hard at that. I felt like telling them that it’s okay. They don’t need to work so hard. I will pronounce it for them. I know that they mean “shayan” or “abhaya mudra”, when they are uttering some weirdly difficult words.
  • The same mishmash is visible in the temples, bas-reliefs, and most historical artifacts. At times, it can get funny. They have Hanuman and Ravana leading devas and asuras respectively in samudra-manthan!
  • They have some deep affinity for serpents going by their overuse in the temples, statues, and bas-reliefs. Perhaps the Khmer royalty was supposed to be associated with the Nagas in some way.
  • It feels like Indian religion and spirituality got exported in the same mish-mashed form to Cambodia a thousand years ago as it is getting exported to the West now. The spiritual tourists today happily hop from a Buddhist meditation center in Dharamshala to an ashrama in Rishikesh, feeling spiritually fulfilled, experiencing no dissonance that would arise from the awareness of the fundamental philosophical differences. Then they carry an overall idea of Indian spirituality with them back home which accommodates everything together the way it can’t be done in the land of origin of these religions. Intellectually it might be baffling, but people are emotionally happy with many Gods and paths to nirvana and fail to see any contradictions or inconsistency.
  • All the dancing female figures on the temple walls and artifacts are clubbed under a single name ‘apsara’, pronounced with typical Khmer laboriousness as ‘apsaaraa’. But we did manage to locate an obvious darpan-sundari in Angkor Wat.
  • Very strangely, the female dwarpalas are called ‘devata’. And perhaps so are the male figures which are not identified as any specific God or mythological figure. Perhaps there is an explanation, but I can’t figure it out.
  • Even though it felt like everybody around me has already visited Cambodia, the number of Indian tourists there seem minimal. Their tourism scene is dominated by the Chinese and the Korean tourists, followed by the Japanese, Australians, Europeans and Americans. More Indians should visit Cambodia. There is a shared cultural heritage which could be eye-opening to look at. And there is much to be understood about the modern political situation too.
  • Angkor-era temples in Cambodia are like Hoyasala temples in Karnataka. You can go on seeing one after the other and it will never end. But we were fairly happy with our four full days of stay in Siem Reap in which we covered areas near Angkor Wat as well as made a day trip to Prasat Preah Vihar near Thai border. We also had another half a day in which we just strolled through the Old Market, Pub Street and oriented ourselves to the place and its prices apart from seeing the McDermott Photo Gallery.
  • Cambodian history had to be pieced together in a way very similar to that of Indian history. From the archaeological evidence, inscriptions and Chinese travelers’ accounts. (Bless the ancient Chinese travelers!)
  • It is curious that the country first imported Mahayana Buddhism and then shifted to Theravada. I wonder how that happened. Perhaps some reading of history is in order.
  • It is also a weird coincidence of history that they brought back monarchy (even if strictly nominal) in 1990s to hold the country together.
  • But people are quite playful about the status, especially poverty, of their king. “Cambodian king must be the poorest king on the earth today,” joked one of our guides. “Thai king is the richest,” he informed us in the same breath, “I checked on Internet. And the richest business man is this guy called…. Yes… Bill Gates, right?” Another guide laughed when I expressed wonder at the amount of gold and silver housed in the Silver Pagoda. “The king who built it must be rich,” I said. “That was then,” she replied, “Now the government pays salary to our king.” Even in the rich days back “then”, the king was really a stooge of the French.
  • The landmine museum near Siem Reap (on the way to the exquisitely beautiful Bantey Sree), the killing fields near Phnom Penh and the genocide museum bring alive the horrors of 20th-century history.
  • At first, I wondered what could inspire one to make a tourist spot out of their miseries. Perhaps desperation to get those tourist dollars for a poor economy. Perhaps a noble sense of responsibility towards the rest of the world, warning them about the evils of violence even at the cost of disturbing your own peace of mind. But as I listened to the extremely well-produced audio tours of the killing fields and the genocide museum, another stark and sad reality hit me. For the current regime, keeping the horrors of Khmer Rouge alive is a propaganda tool. It is like warning their people and the rest of the world: Do you want to go back to that? If not, let us be in power. Irrespective of how disappointing we are in many other areas.
  • With that realization, the horrors of killing fields depressed me even more. It’s like people are being victimized again and again.
  • The current regime – despite a pretense of democracy – is still authoritarian. People aren’t allowed to protest. The new generation is not happy with corruption, lack of opportunities, poverty. But older people are content just to have no war. This is the summary of the current situation from one of our guides, and might be simplified to sound attractive to Western tourists. But from what I read and heard, it is not necessarily too far off the mark.
  • I am supposed to say that I return with happy memories from the vacation. But I return with a strange mixture of awe and fear and questions. I am happy I did this trip. I came to bear witness, my Cambodian brethren. Difficult as it feels to hope so, may all our futures be more peaceful than the past.
  • We ended our trip on a sweet note with some Cambodian desserts from Teuk Skor in Phnom Penh. I was disappointed with the lack of local desserts in the menus of most restaurants and was happy that I found them.

Read more in High Rises, High Season and Handicrafts (More Notes from Cambodia Trip).