A Travellerspoint blog

Bangladesh and Bhutan

Greetings after a 1st month in the subcontinent. I've been to a couple of very poor countries way down most peoples list of places to visit but through some innovative thinking have developed societies that were fascinating to see. I'm now back in India slowly beginning to drown myself in tea and it's just starting to get a little warm...

If you're still unsure about where you're gonna go on holiday this Summer and are looking for a bit of R & R then may I offer the recommendation to NOT pick Bangladesh. Having left Thailand which is the most touristy place I've ever been to, Bangladesh was the complete opposite. There are very few tourist attractions and unsurprisingly nearly zero tourists in what is one of the most hectic and chaotic places in the world. The country is so heavily populated (7th in the world at 150m people) because of the awesomely flat Ganges delta running through it, this makes the land extremely fertile and virtually everywhere is settled to some extent. Whilst at times it's really hard traveling there, watching how this riparian state works as it literally lives and dies on the river is definitely the enjoyment of being there.
Earlier on this trip I wrote about the population density in Taiwan but Bangladesh has even more at over 1,000 people per square km and there's really no getting away from them. The phrase "it's rude to stare" doesn't seem to have a Bengali translation and as there are virtually no tourists and most people are obviously too poor to travel abroad they REALLY take an interest in you. Within hours you have to get used to being watched by 50+ people (well, men and kids actually as it's a Muslim country) doing the simplest things like drinking tea or eating a meal. If you stop to try and buy something on a street stall or even stop to chat to someone within seconds you have to move on as such a big crowd around you forms, not even saying anything to each other just staring at you. I went to the 'longest beach in the world" (maybe) at a place called Cox's Bazaar and inadvertently managed to hold up the filming of an advert for 5 minutes as the locals required for a crowd scene all abandoned the camera to gawp at me for a bit. The glamorous actors found it funny but the director was amusingly getting quite hacked off before I started walking away.

Thanks to umpteeen geography lessons, in the UK Bangladesh is of course famous for the manifestations of the extreme poverty faced there. Foremost amongst these are the fast spreading diseases and difficulties of educating the population but it also shows up in other ways. I tried to visit the hill tracts towards the Burmese border but was turned back because of recent violence against new settlers in the area. The government has tried to relieve some pressure off the overburdened major cities by moving people to more remote parts of the country but this has led to real anger often resulting in riots and deaths against the newbies over the competition for resources.

But all the negative news and views about the Bangladeshis is a little bit out of date; Bangladesh went through huge population growth during the '50's and 60's but in the last 30 years has been very successful in lifting many of its poorest out of absolute poverty and interestingly this has mainly been achieved through its women. On a social level they set up mobile family planning clinics to head to the villages and made it compulsory for the women to attend classes about best managing their family's size and highlighting policies such as banning dowries and female infanticide etc. As a result the average family size has dwindled to under 3 children per family which has both allowed for much more effective forward planning for the country but also drastically reduced the number of dependents on the country's water and land resources, as a result now almost every year there is enough food to feed the people, which wasn't always so of course.
Mohammed Yunus recently won the Nobel prize for Economics for his invention of giving micro credit loans in Bangladesh through his Grameen Bank. This is a system whereby bank branches in virtually every village give the poorest members of society small loans in order to improve their lives on a micro scale. This could be buying crop seeds, basic machinery or even loans to help them pay for education. Virtually all of the money (97%) is loaned to the nations women and it's been phenomenally successful with a default rate of less than 2%. It's become a story which very poor countries around the world especially in conservative Africa would do well to follow. By handing the loans to women the idea is that not only is the money more closely tied to the family and community but it also provides a vital way of empowering them in what is still a fairly conservative Muslim country where normal employment for women is much harder to obtain. The number of people living on less than $2 a day has drastically come down and whilst it would be foolish to describe the country as anything other than extremely poor it is at least moving slowly in the right direction.

I found Bangladeshis to be a really likable people; besides their overwhelming curiosity in you they were unfailingly polite and I did enjoy answering their many questions. Beyond my nationality, name and 'Do you play for England?' ("Yes, I'm Michael Carberry"), interestingly one of the first questions you were guaranteed to be asked is "What is your qualification?".
There's a strong argument that Bangladeshis have been the single least successful ethnic minority to settle in Britain. They've never really been able to get beyond the lower skilled jobs and poorer neighbourhoods and consequently they still have the lowest household income and academic achievements rates out of any ethnic groups in the UK. Answering my qualification would lead to other questions about my education and it was definitely a time when I felt grateful for going to a university people have heard of; they'd quickly become very deferential and want to know my opinions on everything from American politics to Tamim Iqbal. They would also ask 'Why are you here?" and on receiving the reply of "why not?" they were genuinely grateful for you being there and would thank you and shake your hand. Whilst this self effacement I found a touch annoying about the cricket team- in the people it was really nice to be around.

Without doubt the biggest negative about Bangladesh were the roads; in Vietnam I wrote about crossing the road being 'exciting' but in Bangladesh it equals possible death. A driving license is still something you pay 2 quid for and with no road markings or any road safety education schemes the roads are truly terrifying. With no lessons or tests unsurprisingly Bangladeshis are appalling drivers and in the countryside no less than 32 people a day are killed on the roads! In the capital Dhaka however, you remember it more for the traffic. It's a city of 12million people but is 10 times more densely populated than London, there's no metro or Skytrain of course so you're forced to take rickshaws everywhere- either cycle or autos. The problem is that between roughly 7.30am and 11pm virtually the entire city is in gridlock, after spending maybe 2+ hrs a day every day for 8 days (before, during and after the cricket) and having to put up with taxi drivers who don't know where the equivalent of Old Trafford and the British Museum are - I've never been more pleased to leave a city.

So I cut about 15 degrees of the temp and went North up to the Himalayas where after spending a wk or so in India (which I'll cover in the next email) I headed into Bhutan.

Geographical ignorance is not something I forgive easily and I've been nigh on disgusted with the number of 'travelers' I've met on this trip that have not even heard of Bhutan. Whilst it is a very small country, it's unique culture and society mean that everyone should be aware of it. It's a small landlocked kingdom in the Himalayas and as you might expect from that description is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Almost all the country is above 2000m altitude and whilst journeys are slow and long, Thimphu the capital is one of the most picturesque in the world and there's an incredible mountain view literally wherever you are.
Due to the mountainous barrier, for centuries the kingdom has been near isolated and the culture that has developed bears little resemblance to any of it's neighbours. However, in recent years the development of road engineering, airports and other means of communication threatened to change this and so successive kings have brought in various measures to preserve their unique national identity. Phones weren't brought in until 1986 and TV didn't arrive til as late as 1999, they put strict limits on the number of tourists allowed to visit the Kingdom and enacted a law which meant that everyone has to wear the national dress (a sort of striped robe) at work rather than switch to Western clothes.
However, the thing Bhutan is most famous for is the development of the concept of Gross National Happiness or GNH. In the 1960's and 1970's the developed world really thought that poorer countries could be lifted out of poverty and therefore made more 'happy' by throwing money at them, developing their economies and raising their GDP. The Bhutanese king however, took a different view and in the early 1970s established the concept of GNH as the most important factor in measuring the peoples wellbeing. Using a complex system of assessments and measurements for areas such as spiritual wellbeing and family togetherness, the populations happiness is measured and given a $ value. Absolutely key to the nations happiness is the role of Buddhism in Bhutanese lives. As with most other countries in this part of the world much of their lives revolve around the religion and maintaining a happy spiritual balance. The people are incessantly trying to build up 'credits' to boost their birth position in the next life and as with most Buddhists on a practical level means they're incredibly easy going and friendly. Therefore government spending is aimed at increasing overall wellbeing so money is pushed towards different areas (such as religious and educational programmes) than would normally be seen as logical to improving standards of living in dollar terms. Overall this means that whilst Bhutan on paper is very poor and ranks about 125th on GDP, the last government survey showed only 3% of people described themselves as unhappy and despite its financial poverty it ranks 8th on the world happiness database. Unsurprisingly this unique method of measuring development is beloved by left leaning aid groups and gaining increasing credibility as a more progressive way to measure our social progress rather than in mere financial terms.

It was somewhere I expected to love and it really was a magical place. From the awesome Dzongs (huge monasteries) dotted on precarious mountain cliffs, to the fascinating culture and awe inspiring scenery it's one of the most memorable places I've been to. The unique culture and way the people try to live their lives with spiritual rather than financial goals means it's one of the most 'unspoilt' places in the world and I'm truly delighted we went.

Now I'm firmly back in India gorging myself on cricket and chapatis but with the thermostat already hitting 42 I'm preparing myself for one of the hottest months of my life as I head West to the Great Plains.

From Kolkata,
Barney

Posted by carlswall 13:14 Archived in Bhutan Comments (0)

Going Barmy in Bangladesh

Hello from India after having just finished seeing England win a cricket series abroad! No, honestly...
As you might expect I've been following quite a lot of sport since coming to Asia- but in truth it hasn't been all that great until recently.
It began with baseball loving Taiwan where the games were quite high scoring but that was mainly because the pitching and fielding was so poor. Then it was onto the Philippines where due to the American influence basketball is massively popular. The NBA is on TV all the time and I found myself watching a lot of it; however when I tried to watch a top level local game it was almost painful they were so bad. Despite a population of 90m and the games huge popularity they're not exactly the tallest nation in the world and seeing a collection of them and 5th rate American NBA dropouts struggle to hit scores beyond 70 (they just miss a lot) meant I was quite pleased when the football season restarted.

Whilst Richard Scudamore is somewhat loathed in England- trust me he's pretty good at his job. I didn't realise quite how much the Premiership is geared towards the Asian market since I came here but it's really quite astonishing. All the kick off times on Saturdays are decided based on which games can be shown at what times in Asia. The premiership has put so much effort into marketing itself here the other European leagues are way off the pace, in pretty much every country in the region the Premiership dominates Saturday and Sunday nights in bars and in quite a few places they put the games up in cinemas. The net effect is that you have advertising hoardings in Vietnamese at Prem games, Chang sponsoring Everton and why so many teams are sponsored by online gambling sites (of course the betting is much of the attraction here). Unfortunately unlike in Latin America they don't really seem to understand the game very well though; in 9 months I've yet to meet a single person who doesn't support one of the Big Four and of those 90% are Utd or Liverpool fans. I've lost count of the number of times when someone has started a convo about football with me only to quickly reveal they only know the names of a handful of the biggest players and just don't seem to take in any details. Watching the games in bars can be quite annoying as they cheer according to the position of the ball, so even if there are a few meaty tackles flying in or a neat passing interchange taking place- if its in the middle of the pitch they pay no interest but will then start whooping wildly as the action gets near the touchline, even if the ball just rolls tamely out for a goalkick. Oh and also the pundits on the telly are ex Singapore and Malaysian players who in commentating on the English Premiership make the likes of Shearer and Keegan seem like the most insightful football brains imaginable.

Again, despite having huge, footie obsessed populations the standard of football in Asia is laughably bad.
Whilst much can be put down to the weather stopping opportunities for playing sport (I tried to play football in Singapore and even at 9 in the morning just died after 10 minutes) it is bewildering how they have so many people here and yet between them have still to produce a single top class player. The local leagues are depressing to watch with 4th rate Africans and 12th rate Brazilians easily outclassing the locals in a predictably poor spectacle. Seeing Thai media describe Bryan Robson as the saviour of the Thai national team is perhaps a neat summary of the game here.

Therefore it was with immense anticipation that I came to Bangladesh to see some live top level sport for the first time in months.
It was the fulfilment of a boyhood dream seeing England on tour although in truth those dreams tended to involve the MCG or Kensington Oval rather than the ugly Zohur Ahmed Chowdhury Stadium in Chittagong. However, being the opposite of a ladies man, fairly well travelled and essentially unable to talk about anything other than football and cricket its fair to say I've never felt more at home than amongst the ranks of the Barmy Army. There were about 200 or so in Bangladesh and it really was a special experience watching the cricket here. Every day would follow a similar routine of biryani for breakfast, taking my shirt off in the sun within 2 minutes of entering the ground, a rousing rendition of Jerusalem (yes I know the lyrics are a joke) b4 continuously hurling racist abuse at anything that looked remotely Australian whilst watching the cricket for 7 hours. Being a Muslim country there's obviously no alcohol in the ground (or anywhere except a few hotel bars) but the atmosphere was great with the singing atmosphere from the England fans more than matched by the raucous but extremely welcoming locals.
Security was really tight I guess due to the Sri Lanka incident in Pakistan, we (the England fans) were given an armed guard around us and around both grounds there were a few hundred soldiers keeping an eye on things as well as amusing sets of stewards whose job it was to make sure the locals didn't molest us too much.

The actual cricket itself was wonderful as both tests went 5 days and whilst I always thought England would win both there was still enough competition to keep it interesting.
I saw Bangladesh play several years ago at Fenners and whilst they were entertaining to watch bat they simply didn't look like they could take take 20 wickets at test level- and that's still a fairly neat summary of them in this series.
Bangladeshis are a tiny race and ICL bound Mortaza aside they've simply never produced a seamer who can regularly take wickets. The first day in Chittagong started ominously as despite winning the toss Bangladesh made the unfathomable decision to bowl first on a pitch Jonathan Agnew described as 'one of the most unresponsive England have ever played on'. England had picked an incredibly conservative team of 7 batsman, 3 bowlers who are very useful with the bat and in Steve Finn a 20 yr debutant seamer. Predictably England racked up a huge first innings score and it looked like there would be maybe 8 very one sided days of test cricket. But then with so few bowlers to call on we struggled to bowl Bangladesh out in the heat, had to bat again and the locals showed a degree of resistance that I've never seen before in the final innings. They really worked hard, especially the tiny wicket keeper Mushfiqur who only came up to Broad's elbow and at lunch on the fifth day we'd gone over 2 sessions without taking a wicket. Swanny managed to clean up the tail however and became the first England spinner since Laker to take 10 in a match.

The biggest grumble most England fans had about the first test was the quality of the Bangladeshi fielding. We'd been watching loads of IPL games in the evening and the fielding at the top level now is simply superb. Seeing the likes of AB de Villiers seemingly putting together a audition tape for the greatest fielder of all time it really was deflating to watch Bangladesh lose maybe 30 runs on the first day alone due to misfields. Another slight bugbear with Bangladesh is the defeatist attitude they still have in cricket. Despite being 150million strong they still see themselves as minnows of the game and many seemed simply pleased to be playing England rather than competing with them. Both the Captain and Coach seemed hopeful of only draws at best and the same useless phrase of 'getting better with every game' is still being trotted out despite them having test status for 8yrs now.

Twas a needlessly close match and it was nice to see Tredwell get a chance in the 2nd test but rather than Carberry most of the Barmy Army thought Trott should've been dropped with his average fielding, tedious batting of 1 run every 2 overs but mainly due to the fact he's actually a Saffer.
Due to the lack of quality seamers Bangladesh instead pack the team with 4 spinners most of whom can bat a bit, along with their extremely exciting opener Tamim Iqbal the wagging tail put on over 400 first innings in the much more impressive national stadium in the 2nd test in Dhaka. England then slowly put out a professional performance as we slowly overhauled the Bangladesh total and bowled them out 2nd innings to leave just enough time to knock 200 off in 50 overs to win the series 2-0.
Captain Cook was impressive with 2 centuries but without doubt KP is still the best batsman to watch, as soon as he gets to the crease the ball starts to reach unusual areas and even the locals were cheering some of his shots, though not as much as when he got bowled on 99 in the first test!
It really was a fantastic experience from watching cricket somewhere so random, to hanging out with the barmy army and chatting with the locals about the state of world cricket. My def highlight was on Day 4 of the first test when in a soporific final session we managed to sing the Barmy Army song for half an hour straight- much to the delight of the locals who tried to compete with us the whole time. Oh and 10 days cricket cost me a total of 2 pounds so value for money I think!

I'm now in India where I hope to check out some IPL games and see some more top level sport after such a long drought.
All the best
From Darjeeling,
Barney

Posted by carlswall 13:11 Archived in Bangladesh Comments (0)

Laos and Northern Thailand

Hello from my final day in SE Asia. I'm in the fairly bonkers city of Bangkok where amongst other things in the last few days I've seen a 6ft monitor lizard kill and gulp down a whole pigeon in 5 minutes flat, heard 2 middle aged Americans on the table next to me using a cost-benefit matrix of various female body parts to decide which girl they were going to take home and this is probably the only city in the world where a 6ft transvestite can perform a Buddhist prayer by a shrine in front of the Hilton hotel- and it not look out of place. It's pretty mad here.

Before traveling to Myanmar I went to Laos for a much less hectic time after Vietnam; the people devoutly practice Therevada Buddhism which takes a particularly laissez-faire view of life (even for Buddhists) and consequently Laos is one of the most peaceful countries I've been to. Instead of the constant attempts of Vietnamese hawkers to sell things to you Laotians generally leave you alone but are still very friendly, unsurprisingly just about everyone likes it.

After a hellish 2 day journey from Vietnam I arrived in SE Asia's least known and most low key nation of Laos. Laos has a slightly odd feel to it as like many countries in Africa (take a look at the shape of Zambia for example) it's very much the result of a country based on colonisers administration plans rather than any ethnic or cultural unity amongst the people. Landlocked, 85% forest and very sparsely populated (even now it's less than 6 million) over 1/3 of the population don't even speak Laotian and are thinly distributed amongst various different Hmong (hill people) tribes. As a result the French simply clumped them all together and national pride is noticeably weaker there (eg in the visibility of national flags) compared to their neighbors. It was always a loss maker for the French and they put up little resistance in losing the area after WW2, as recent Laos history very closely followed Vietnams. The US heavily bombed Laos as the Viet Cong hid across the border on the Ho Chi Minh trail and much of Laos is still off limits due to high levels of UXOs (unexploded ordnance).
Whilst they may have left a dubious political legacy in the region the French did at least leave Indochina with the food and architecture you might expect, the world heritage city of Luang Prabang is a gorgeously photogenic city of quiet Wats (Buddhist temples) and equally quiet orange robed monks wandering around. It's a very relaxing place to be but I think showed up the financial differences between the locals and the visitors that holiday there more than anywhere else I've been on this trip. Whilst traveling in the developing world you are of course acutely aware of this gap but at least in places like Malaysia, Thailand or Vietnam for example there is a visible middle class with spending power. However, in Luang Prabang it was noticeable that whilst there were many very good international restaurants at about $8 a head there would never be any locals anywhere near them other than to serve the many well dressed French tourists. Whilst $8 may not seem like very much money, when you consider that the highest denomination note in Laos is worth less than $6 and off the tourist track I met a guy about 20yrs old who'd never even seen one before it does make you feel a touch uncomfortable about spending money in these kind of places.

Therefore my best memories in Laos tended to be of the outdoor variety, I took a maiden elephant voyage and received abundant proof as to why elephants are one of the world's best loved animals. Unlike their towering African counterparts Asian elephants can be tamed and are often used as workers in areas like the logging industry. You can also easily arrange to go for rides but my favorite part was definitely bathing with my rather beautiful beast. They really like swimming and can hold their breath for ages (3 or 4 minutes without even trying) which is a little bit scary as they don't move much but as you cuddle them you can really see how their trainers become so attached to them.
Laos doesn't really have any big tourist attractions and it's most famous activity is the 'invented' attraction of tubing down a river near a fairly beautiful area called Vang Vieng. Of course the twist is that the 4KM route is lined with bars and most people don't actually make it more than a km or 2 as they simply get too drunk. There are loads of other diversions en route too (slides, swings etc.) and whilst I can proudly say I made it to the end of the course- it did take me 6 hrs and was getting dangerously dark but it was definitely worth it...
My last stop was in the capital of Vientiane which has to rank as one of the sleepiest capital cities you could hope to visit. In a lot of ways it summed up Laos quite nicely, very relaxed and pleasant but unlikely to change your life too much.

...Then I went to Myanmar for a month and on my return got the biggest culture shock I've had on this trip so far. After a month of being in a very conservative culture with the potholes, dust, electricity shortages and bedtimes of 10 or 11 that followed, being back in Thailand was 'different'.
As a country for sightseeing it was just a bit too much for me at this time of year (high season), rather than fight through the crowds of stout Americans and grim faced Russian tour groups I actually just ducked out of doing any touristy stuff and despite spending 5 weeks in the country I spent only 3 or 4 days actually doing any sightseeing.

But that's not to say I was at all bored, I first headed North to the city of Chiang Mai which due to its climate and mountainous scenery is a wicked place to hang out for a while. The main activity in the region is trekking to the various hill tribe villages but on my 2nd morning in a hungover state I managed to misjudge a step and slightly sprained my ankle. Whilst it blew up it was fine in a few days though of course no trekking, but it did mean I had an excuse for a (very painful) Thai massage. I then headed to the town of Kanchanaburi which is where the infamous Bridge on the River Kwai on the 'Death Railway' was built. We went to the other end of the line in Myanmar and whilst that town and cemetery was beautifully peaceful and received less than 300 tourists a year the Allied cemetery in Thailand looks out over a strip of go-go bars and tattoo parlours (which every Thai town needs a few of) and is constantly rammed with people looking at the graves. Covered with ludicrous (especially Australian) memorials e.g. "If it wasn't for him we'd now be speaking German" - Really?
It's fair to say it's not as atmospheric as a cemetery should be.

Being back in the well ordered Thai streets and parks was a nice visible reminder of how economically Thailand is well on the way to being a developed country. Many other developing countries could look at the Thais with a slight sense of jealousy bordering on anger. Along with Mexico and Brazil, Thailand took out huge loans from the World Bank and IMF in the '70's and '80's which it spent and used to build up its infrastructure and develop it's current mid level economy only to later default on the debts. The likes of Niger and Chad in comparison would simply never be given the loans in the first place.
Thailand today is booming, regularly posting 6%+ annual economic growth and is the envy of its neighbours. Culturally and politically it's at something of a crossroads however, the religion is still fiercely important here but with the strong influences that come from 15million tourists and God knows how many expats the West crashes into the East pretty hard here. Whilst at times it's quite funny seeing Buddhist monks buying $3 lottery tickets and teenagers chatting on their mobiles while pretending to pray some of the negative imported influences are not too nice to look at. From the abundance of 7-11 stores everywhere, to the reality TV shows and crappy gossip magazines which do nothing but point out the physical imperfections of female celebrities, I almost felt like saying 'Why do you want this in your lives?' to the locals. There are positive aspects of Western influence particularly in caring for the environment not littering etc but as the country gets richer the population is also noticeably fatter than in the surrounding nations, certainly seeing TV adverts for US style dietary pills should be a bit of a wake up call for the country's future direction.

Following on from this far and away the story which has dominated the news to beyond saturation point here is the legal battle over Thaksin Shinawatra's billions which has split the country dangerously down the middle. Whilst in England he's best known for being a 'fit and proper person' (former Chairman of Man City) the Berlusconi-esque former prime minister is deeply controversial here. A media billionaire who successfully ran the country under his motto of 'A country is a company' as a route to development he also allegedly arranged (or grafted) over a billion dollars worth of contracts and business onto his own and various other members of his family companies and so he became even wealthier. He was therefore overthrown in a military backed coup by the more middle class opposition a couple of years ago but the problem is that his popularity is very much based amongst the poor who resent the elite taking power away from their champion. Last week the supreme court voted to strip half his wealth off him (even though he lives in exile in Dubai) and there were various clashes between his supporters and security forces which had the whole country on edge. It feels somewhat like Malaysia in that even though the country is well on the way to being wealthy too few people still have far too much power and it does need to remove these slightly backward looking political practices if it wants to cement its position as the regional leader.

And so I finished off my time in SE Asia in Bangkok. The other City of Angels- Bangkok strongly sees itself as the regional capital, but aside from also being the scene of an almost unbelievably bad Nicholas Cage film the other major similarity it shares with LA is its traffic problem. As with many developing cities Bangkok has grown too big too fast and getting around this monstrous city is an absolute nightmare, even relatively short straightforward journeys can take ages (e.g. a 5km journey bus journey took over 2 hours this afternoon) and whilst they've finally built a couple of short Metro lines they're currently completely inadequate (imagine London with just the Victoria and Bakerloo lines). What Bangkok does provide though is a thriving pulse to this electric nation, I really wasn't sure I'd like it here but surrounded by the ever lovable locals I found it was just an awesome place to hang around not doing much. The Thais were the only nation for a long way in any direction not to be colonized, unsurprisingly they do have a slight superiority complex over their neighbours which means they're not too popular but as a tourist you just don't see any of that. If anything Cambodia and particularly Laos should be somewhat grateful as Thailands enduring popularity has meant a big spillover effect to the tourist industries in those countries and its booming economy has meant roads and infrastructure funding has come about that they wouldn't be able to afford by themselves.

The 'banana pancake' route as it's termed is probably the most heavily traveled area in the world and at times it can be too much for a visitor. From the vast numbers of none too interesting Anglophonic travelers in the near uniform of Havaianas, Billabong shorts and 1 of about 20 t-shirts you see everywhere at times it's impossible to feel you're really mixing with the local culture. And of course there are some things I'll be happy to leave behind, the lack of animal welfare, the disgusting ladyboys and dealing with the constant dishonesty of taxi drivers will be happily forgotten.

However, as my ramblings missives on East Timor and Myanmar in particular have probably shown I have developed a lot of fondness for the people in SE Asia and it has been great traveling around here for the last few months; the change in cultural scenery has been fantastic to see and experience and on a more practical level it's been extremely cheap! Another great thing Bangkok doesn't have in comparison to LA is a visible underclass and this has been one of the nicest things about traveling in the region. Unlike in most of the rest of the world there are few people unemployed and due to the family and community structures crime and general anti social behavior is much lower than almost anywhere else. Put it this way a 14yr old kid is more likely to offer you a bashful hello than insult you and I think it's that aspect of the traveling more than anything else which ensures the regions enduring popularity.

I am gonna be away for a bit longer though as whilst I'm putting away my SE Asia guidebook and taking off my 'Long Live the King' bracelet tomorrow afternoon I fly to Bangladesh for a few weeks, after that things are a bit more uncertain but I will hopefully be heading into India.

From Bangkok,
Barney

Posted by carlswall 13:06 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Myanmar

Greetings from the ancient Thai capital of Ayuthya where I'm struggling to get back to working internet and 24hour electricity after a simply wonderful month in the bonkers, tragic but also brilliant country of Myanmar.
Before leaving Vietnam (and my stay in Laos which I'll cover in the next email) I asked everyone not to write anything too controversial in emails as Myanmar is of course run by a military junta who aren't exactly keen on criticism of their governing techniques. My favorite George Orwell novel is Burmese Days but the joke of course is that Myanmar society now better resembles that of 1984 rather than the quiet colonial images of the earlier novel. In truth though, the expected incessant propaganda didn't really materialize; whilst there are a couple of government papers that nobody reads there aren't posters up everywhere saying what a great job the government is doing (like there is Vietnam) or people being compelled to stand for the national anthem twice a day (as in Thailand). For the majority of the population the real crime the military junta has been simply being one of the worst governments in the world over the last 47 years. During the beginning of the Iraq war when the arguments about invading because of WMD started to falter, both Bush and Blair started using the justification that regime change was necessary as Saddam Hussein was such a bad leader. Then surely they should also have invaded Myanmar. I honestly think if I got a group of friends together as a cabinet and had weekly meetings down my local on a Thursday night we could probably have done a better job than the Junta has managed.
The evidence of this came straight away; the first few hours in Myanmar are really quite unpleasant as they don't have a functioning exchangeable currency. Due to international sanctions there are no international ATMs in the country and you can forget about using travelers cheques or credit cards, therefore you have no option but to get hold of lots of US dollars and change them up once you arrive. In a first demonstration of their complete lack of a basic understanding of economics the Junta keep the local kyat pegged at around 6 to the US dollar. However, 6 kyats would buy you literally nothing as the smallest denomination is a 10 kyat note which is worth about $0.01 on the black market that predictably has sprung up. As in other countries where the only way to get hold of money is via a black market, you end up dealing with little more than organized criminals and it's more a question of how much you'll be scammed out of rather than if you'll be scammed. I lost a few dollars but we met a Polish girl who lost $100 and it's a horrible introduction to the country.

Thankfully it doesn't last as Yangon is just a fantastic city to be in; as its position on the map suggests it really feels like a bridge between SE Asia and the subcontinent as a diverse mix of peoples and cultures congregate in the city. It has just about every religion covered and the sights of the different cultures and the smells of the fantastic street food stalls make it a marvelous place to walk around. With the faded grandeur of the English colonial architecture that's been untouched for 60 years, a liberal sprinkling of palm trees and the sight of old women sitting out in the evenings smoking the fantastic local cigars (which I'm still enjoying) it's impossible not to draw comparisons of the city with Havana and it would have to rate as one of my favorite cities in Asia.
The evening were a bit quiet however as Yangon like the rest of Myanmar has very patchy electricity supplies, even right in downtown whole districts can be without power for entire days at a time; which was why on the bus North arriving in Nay Pyi Taw was quite a shock. In 2006 the government moved the capital away from Yangon to a field 4 hours North in the middle of nowhere, whilst this has been done many times around the world for political reasons (e.g. Ivory Coast, Brazil have done so and Iran is planning it) the Junta spent $250 million doing so and the country really cannot afford it. Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in Asia and the effects of this shockingly unnecessary waste of money can be seen all over the country. Ostensibly the move was done to protect ministries etc from possible cyclones but in reality the reasoning behind it was to remove government (and the ability to protest) away from the people. After the blackouts and poverty of Yangon arriving in Nay Pyi Taw was utterly surreal as brightly lit 6 lane highways lead up to the huge mansions the generals live in whilst a tiny population of just 20,000 people service their lavish, utterly corrupt lifestyles.

So we headed North to our next major stop at the amazing temples of Bagan on the central plains; rivalilng the temples of Angkor as the most amazing sight in SE Asia the sheer scale of them is quite incredible. Whilst at Angkor the individual temples were the attraction, Bagan is a series of around 2500 temples built by a Buddhist fanatic King onto a plain by the Ayrewaddy, on some of the biggest you can climb up some 70m and view them out over the plains below. You have to get around by horse-cart and with virtually 0 tourists (you're a bit more off the beaten track here) it's a truly incredible sight looking at them all spread out below.

Burmese roads are notoriously bad and just like the Robbie Williams song the road to Mandalay was utterly turgid; in this very dry season travelling on the dirt roads was slow, dusty and painful and so we were pleased to finally make it to the nations 2nd city. However, if Yangon showed off the country's past then Mandalay was more of a view of the country's present. One of the most tragic things about Myanmars recent history is that it should be one of the wealthiest countries in Asia; blessed wth abundant oil, gas, gold, timber and precious jewel supplies when the British left it had a lot going for it, a good railway system, civil service and even the most bounteous rice crop in Asia.
But through a series of terrible decisions the junta have ruined things, allowing the railways to fall into disrepair and as in Cambodia forcing the people to overfarm the soil has had a dreadful impact on the country's food production.
Ultimately it's the natural wealth of the country that keeps the junta in power; in the West many protestors against the Junta argue that the presence of China and Russia on the UN security council is pointless as they will accept any political regime provided they have resources to trade and Myanmar is a perfect example of this. Mandalay is on the main road to the Chinese border and is now an ugly collection of functional buildings that take away any ideas of distinct neighbourhoods or individual districts in a fairly monotonous city. There are signs of the Chinese investments everywhere mainly in timber and other commodities but most major countries have some form of investment here. The UK has around $350 million invested in oil projects but seeing Nicolas Sarkozy give a typically robust lashing of the junta recently sounded particularly hollow as Total also have a huge project in the Ayrewaddy delta region.

Whilst the city itself is not particularly memorable the area round Mandalay is utterly fascinating composed of no less than 3 ancient capitals and many, many Buddhist sights in the area. The people are everything the government is not, relaxed and humble everywhere we went people were spectacularly friendly, this was particularly so of the women although in truth that was mainly because I spent the month with a Dutch Tom Cruise lookalike and they all wanted to have their photo taken with him. We rented a motorbike and really got into the lovely countryside which was just great as we got to mix with the people away from the main touristy areas. They're really happy to see you and are surprisingly open about how much they hate the government, several times telling us how to avoid the entrance fees for tourist attractions (because the money goes to the government) using side doors and the like.

Whilst I mentioned earlier that for the majority of the population the major crime of the Junta has been their shocking lack of governing ability by no means is that true for everyone in the country. Often military governments start wars with other countries to justify their continued hold on power but in Myanmar they went for option b) and started clamping down on ethnic minorities. One of the worst things the British did in the area was to set Burma up as an administrative region with no respect to the many different tribes that live there. Perhaps one of the few good things the junta has done was to change the nations name from the English designation Burma which only reflected the Burmese majority to the Union of Myanmar which in theory reflects all the different tribes which make up the nation. However, many of the tribes want at least more autonomy if not full independence and see the name change as being little more than reflective of the Burmese juntas desire to continue to control the whole region. From Mandalay we went North into the Shan region and then down to the beautiful Inle Lake where we started to see the effects of the the restrictions placed on minorities lifestyles. The junta say they've been constantly fighting rebel insurgents for decades but it's quite easy to view these conflicts as little more than a way to justify there role in government. From the vast numbers of refugees that have been forced across the borders into Bangladesh or Thailand or tribesmen desperately forced to take up arms against the marauding Burmese army as usual the results have been nothing but expensive for everyone and predictably hit the poorest hardest.

Perhaps the most memorable example of this was the sad plight of the Paduang women forced to act as tourist attractions on Inle Lake, they're the ones with the neck coils who have zero quality of life from the age of about 9 onwards. Originally done to stop the women being carried off by neighbouring tribes there now a nasty millstone round their necks. The coils can weigh up to a stone and seeing some of the older women with severe hunchbacks barely able to move is not a pleasant sight. They're now forced to pose for photos for tourists for a small fee (which they get very little or nothing of back) and are a sad indication of how unpleasant the junta can be.

The lake itself is in a gorgeous setting flanked by two mountain ranges and at an altitude of about 900m. The way of life here is still very traditional with the fisherman using a unique one legged paddle to get around and the aquatic reeds supporting massive floating gardens of fruit and vegetables. Myanmar has few 'big' companies and we spent a lot of time going to local factories (eg noodles, sugar and my favourite cigars) seeing how people got by. Even here though the effects of the governments terrible decision making can be seen, by granting huge timber concessions to China and India the local price of teak which the people make their boats out of has doubled in the last 5 years and virtually none of the money raised from the timber sales goes back to the people.
Aside from building unnecessary new cities the government has heavily invested in tourism viewing Thailands success across the border and trying to get a piece of that market. Whilst other countries in the region (China, Vietnam etc.) are also guilty of over-development of the tourist industry, in Myanmar it feels the most tragic as the money has been almost entirely wasted. Over the '80s and '90s the government built many 4 and 5 star hotels that stand near empty with little prospect of a upsurge in visitors due to the ongoing political situation. Every year they make bold predictions of how many visitors will come and every year they have to come up with lame excuses as to why the visitors didn't show seemingly not having the intelligence to see the link between few tourists and their leadership. Which in some ways is a real shame as culturally Myanmar is just a fascinating place with the Buddhism practiced here being one of the main attractions.

One of my Mums biggest regrets in me is that despite living a virtually identical lifestyle I never actually became a monk- she should have sent me to Myanmar. Aside from the incredibly friendly locals the other overwhelming memory I'll take from the country was the incongruous sight of the huge number of monks and the huge number of soldiers. Myanmar is one of the most religious countries in the world with an incredible 1% of the population wearing monks robes, almost every village has a monastery and at times you are surrounded by the men in robes. We stayed overnight in one and even attended a meditation session for 300 of them set in one position for 3hours which was an strange experience. We also went to quite a few of the famous pilgrimage sights including climbing a mountain up to the beautiful Golden rock shrine which is one of the most important one in the country. Seeing all this religion in action made me think that it's a lot of the problem with the continued power of the junta- the people are just too relaxed and not militant enough...

Whilst the vast majority of the people are completely against the junta government historically the Tatmadaw (as the armed forces are called) are very important in the countrys history. Aung Sun Suu Kyi's dad was the General in charge when independence was secured from Britain, he still retains saint like status and 50 years of propaganda has meant the Tatmadaw still plays a key role in the psyche of the nation. However, if you look closely you can see that the government has done little more than buy loyalty from the army. Despite having no external enemies the country spends a shocking 40-45% of the GDP supporting an army of nearly 500,000. Heavily armed soldiers are seen everywhere not doing very much but whilst the people don't like the army leadership they do provide strong financial stability. A local guy told us that after 7 years of studying and paying for their education a doctor earns around $80 per month whereas a private in the army earns $120 per month once they've completed basic training. When you thrown in food and accommodation and it's easy to see why for so many people it's the easiest and best way out of poverty for them and their families.
By simply buying the loyalty of the army at great expense to the rest of the country it's a tragic situation but somewhat controversially I think the people themselves must take some of the blame for it. Whilst 'the lady' (as Aung Sun Suu Kyi is deferentially referred to as) has remained under house arrest (albeit in a beautiful villa with lake views) the pro democracy movement has been led painfully unsuccessfully in her absence. Whilst espousal of non violent resistance may get you friends in Hollywood and even a Nobel Peace prize it patently hasn't brought any results in decades and the country has continued to get poorer under the junta. What was frustrating about Myanmar is that it doesn't feel like the Chinese in Tibet or the Zionists in Palestine where much wealthier and better armed enemies crush the locals from without. It's an internal dictatorship and as the 2007 riots (the failed saffron revolution) led by the monks showed at least parts of the army can be persuaded to revolt. If slightly more militant methods were used then I did feel things might change and the political and economic freedom the people deserve can be achieved.

Whilst I've as usual banged on about the politics a bit too much Myanmar really is an incredible place and both me and my Dutch companion rated it as one of the most interesting places we've ever been to, I won't forget it anytime soon.
I'm now back in Thailand where I'll spend my final couple of weeks in SE Asia.
From Ayuthya,
Barney

Posted by carlswall 12:59 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

Vietnam

Happy New Year from Indochina!

I've spent the last month in Vietnam and it's been a wonderful place to travel in for many reasons; its a linear shape with the 2 big cities located conveniently at either end of the country meaning its easy to get in and out and whilst this also means its very popular with middle class, middle aged European tour groups who think they're going somewhere slightly edgy (its really not) its easy to look past that. Geographically its beautifully diverse and the culture and history of the country means there are plenty of ancient palaces and modern battlefields to see.

I started my time here in the Mekong Delta and its an enjoyably pedestrian place to start; the delta is split into loads of different islands so most people still get around by row boats and live much of their lives on the water (houses, markets, schools, hospitals etc). It was a bit of a calm before the storm of Saigon however, and the multipaced nature of life would be a very common feeling of my time here.
Vietnam is famous for it's roads and I would have to agree that crossing the road here is the most 'exciting' place I've ever done it, imagine crossing the road in Southern Italy then multiplying it by 10. If you've ever seen that episode of The Simpsons where Homer says to a piece of cake "I'm gonna start biting the air and if you get eaten it's your own fault", well that's the kind of attitude most Vietnamese drivers have. There is an absolute order on the roads according to your size of vehicle so cars will always make way for lorries, bikes for cars and so on. And they simply will not deviate from their chosen course, if you're a pedestrian it's your responsibility to just get out the way. In the major cities it's an amazing experience as hundreds of bikes file past you, you have to cross piecemeal v slowly and I would compare it to the pleasant experience of walking through a swarm of butterflies or the less pleasant experience of going past a colony of bats flying out of a cave. Because they've all grown up with it they're actually very good drivers but of course at some point their sonar will go wrong and several times I've seen minor accidents...which has led to seeing a similar number of confrontations between people.
Normally over nothing more than a broken winged mirror or tail light there's no insurance coverage here so someone has to pay for the damage, and as in the rest of the world it's always the other drivers fault. So the 2 drivers will start arguing and this leads to threats and then eventually a bit of shoving but rarely does it go much beyond that and that's due to the Asian concept of 'saving face'. This is the concept that in public at least you should always respect others (particularly those more senior than you and in your own circle) and similarly not accept the loss of your own respect. As in other Vietnamese communities around the world they simply don't trust the police as you have to pay them to do anything and so you hardly ever see them, therefore unless solutions are agreed to problems between people then things can get ugly quite quickly. In short this means you can really never get into a fight in this part of the world, even if they are only 5'6 and weigh 7 stone as the concept of 'you and your mates' is a bit different here. It would be more like 'you and your entire community' and minor incidents can quickly escalate into huge mass brawls and possibly onto more. The Philippines takes this idea to the extreme and it has the highest murder rate in the world for journalists and one of the highest for politicians (indeed, someone on this list's father in-law was a murdered Filipino city mayor) - basically as soon as a politician is publicly criticised or even associated with something negative in the papers then the journalist probably has it coming for them. In Vietnam it's not quite that bad but after hearing a couple of horror stories from fellow travelers involved in minor accidents or getting robbed then getting zero help from anyone, I'm delighted nothing has gone too wrong for me here.

After leaving Saigon I headed up into the central coastal area which is the oldest part of Vietnam and hosts much of the nations pre-colonial history. Many of my best memories of here involved renting an old fashioned 'sit up and beg' bicycle and pottering around the countryside looking at various palaces and tombs of the last Vietnamese Royalty. In a couple of towns they banned traffic and modern architecture from the city centre and amongst the pre-colonial buildings you almost feel like you've stepped back 150 years in time. I spent Christmas in the town of Hoi An and whilst Vietnam has around a 5% Catholic population thinly scattered, you really wouldn't know it was Xmas as everyone else just doesn't celebrate it. Much worse though was New Year in Hanoi; I decided to eschew various foreigners bars to be 'amongst the people' at midnight but this was a terrible mistake. Lots of people were gathered around a lake in the centre of town and whilst nobody was drinking I assumed this would be where the countdown/fireworks would happen. Not at all. Absolutely nothing happened whatsoever as the clock struck 12 and whilst Lunar New Year in a few weeks is the big one for Buddhists I thought there'd be at least some reaction to 2010 starting but no, nothing. So I wouldn't advise Hanoi for New Year or indeed any other time of year actually.

About 3am that night I got woken and had to break up an argument between a Swedish guy who'd got in late and the Vietnamese owner who simply couldn't understand the interest in New Year. He just kept asking for more money because the guy had come in late and it's an issue you have to face far too much in Vietnam.
Before coming here I'd been heavily warned by fellow travelers (and whilst here even by a few locals) about 'dealing' with the Vietnamese and unfortunately it's definitely been the worst thing about traveling in the country for me. As in most other countries in the region you have to haggle over the price of everything but unlike in Indonesia say where the locals are fairly easy going, the Vietnamese are notoriously upfront and even aggressive about it. I was shortchanged several times (accidentally of course, but always in their favour) and there were plenty of other times when people were just outright dishonest trying to scam you. From meeting a couple of English lads who had a machete pulled on them over a fare disagreement with a taxi driver and meeting a German bird who left after 4 days she found the people so hard to deal with, visitors/locals relations are some of the worst I can remember seeing anywhere. These issues couldn't be put down to 'cultural differences' or even lingering animosity over the war but always came back to (as one fellow backpacker put it) being in "the greediest society in the world". Money is the be all and end all here and at times it really gets you down having to deal with it all day every day.
Amongst many incidents I could pick that happened to me the most memorable was in Saigon when I went to pay for my hotel room as I was checking out. A very common way they try to rip you off is by quoting you a price in US Dollars then giving an exchange rate heavily weighted in their favor when you go to pay in the local dong. So as I went to pay the receptionist gave me the bill in dong, I already knew what the price should have been and so pointed out the correct exchange rate. She disagreed so I actually brought up the correct rate on XE.com showing her that I was right. Now in this situation most people would accept they'd been rumbled and silently accept the correct money but instead she decided to start aggressively screaming at me and start threatening not to give back my passport etc. Bearing in mind this was in front of about 10 fairly stunned people it was a bizarre move and despite being quite shocked I refused to give in. The situation only got resolved when a local guy staying at the hotel got involved and after I explained the situation to him he gave 'both barrels' to the receptionist and she sulkily had to accept the correct money. That's not to say I disliked the people full stop, meeting them on buses etc was great but virtually everyone I met involved in the tourist industry or who was 'economically interested in you could be fairly described as grasping which obviously isn't a memory you want to take away from somewhere.

A much more pleasant memory was the wondrous Halong Bay in the North East of the country. You've probably seen photos of it or seen it in Tomorrow Never Dies as its where thousands of jungle covered rock islands emerge out of the sea. Easy to get lost in, kayaking in the various lagoons and cave tunnels was my favourite activity there and visiting the floating villages in this incredible landscape will not be forgotten by me soon.
Neither of course will the sights from the Vietnam war- or just as accurately the American War as it's known here. From the incredible 16,000km of tunnels built by the VC and the vast DMZ (now just one vast rice paddy) to seeing Uncle Ho's embalmed corpse in Hanoi you're never far from the countries recent history. Unlike many of the post- colonial and Communist revolutions the Vietnam version is a genuinely heroic story. After being half destroyed by the French, under the inspirational Ho Chi Minh the Communists organised the resistance and of course the French quickly surrendered.
So the Americans stepped in to try to counter the 'Domino effect' in South East Asia. Whilst there are many examples to pick from (Grenada in '83 is my fave) Vietnam is of course the 'jewel in the crown' of American Cold War policy failures. Despite being heavily out resourced and outgunned for near 20 years, the northern based VC slowly won over the people and overthrew the US backed puppet government in the south to reunite the country in 1975.
Whilst the museums and propaganda here are obviously heavily biased about it the legacy of the war really has been terrible. There are some 50,000 disabled and deformed people due to the impacts of Agent Orange and its even nastier offspring 'Super Orange' and the various photo exhibitions, orphanages and disabled peoples homes you can visit really are very sad. Although with a brilliant degree of irony, the effects of Agent Orange did kill John Wayne and virtually the entire production team of The Green Berets. The US bombing raids designed to strip the vast forests of the whole country (as well as parts of Cambodia and especially Laos) trying to flush out the VC led the UN to invent the phrase 'ecocide' and has led the Mekong Delta to be one of the most at risk areas in the world from rising sea levels. Materially the war cost $165billion but it's affect on the spending power of Americans was rated as at least twice that and it's now agreed by economists that this was at least a contributory factor in the world economic slowdown that took place in the 10 years following the end of the war.
Beyond the above though, seeing all the battlegrounds and museums about it I couldn't stop thinking Why? Was it really worth all the bloodshed and other costs merely over the method of how a very poor country was going to try and improve the quality of life for its citizens. Obviously I'm writing this with the benefit of 35 years hindsight in a post-historical period but it seemed inconceivable how so much could be lost by so many over so little- there were no territory or resources being fought over, merely ideas and for that reason it's tragic legacies feel particularly pointless.

..And the Vietnamese appear to be doing pretty well in peacetime too. Whilst hundreds of books and thousands of articles have been written about the growth of its northern neighbour China, under the radar Vietnam has been absolutely booming in recent years. In 1987 the decision was made to open the economy up ala China and since then annual economic growth has regularly hit 8%+ and the people are beginning to have real spending power. Everywhere there are big construction projects and the country really is moving up, put it this way $10 no longer 'gets you everyting' (sic). Downtown Saigon for example is full of Louis Vuitton boutiques etc and feels more like Singapore than the images presented in Hollywood 'Nam movies would make you think possible. One of the major reasons for this is the incredible work ethic here. As someone who's never had a proper job let alone had to work hard for more than a couple of weeks at a stretch, all over Asia I've felt pretty ashamed at seeing quite how strong the work ethic is here. It's not unusual for people to work 15hr days, 7 days a week and the concept of unemployment simply doesn't exist- if you don't have a regular organised job then you make your own work up as the state won't cover you like it does elsewhere. It seems the only 2 things the people stop for are food and a dose of one of the 2 national lubricants, either the superb coffe drunk either iced or hot according to the location or the awesome local home brews which sell for a dangerous 10p on the street. Needless to say both became a joyously integral part of my daily routine almost from my first day. But then they go straight back to work and seeing countries like here or Thailand where they don't have that many resources but are effectively working themselves out of poverty (and in Singapore's case to developed world status) is really quite humbling and I can't help but simply admire this hardest working part of the world that I've seen. As Vietnam's domestic economy started to grow gradually the rest of the world started opening up trade with them and it's perhaps a sign of US foreign policy cynicism that as recently as this Summer the Obama administration said it will still not lift sanctions on Cuba (which has a population of 11M with little spending power) until it has free elections. However, in 2006 seeing how much trade China et al were doing they had to finally admit 'defeat' on Vietnam and opened up free trade agreements with Vietnam which with a population of 90m (with spending power) is the 13th biggest country in the world, and they have nothing like democracy here either.

What they do have is a strong sense of national identity and a culture which for the most part has been preserved from the worst excesses of Western influences. Having recently been in The Philippines where 50 yrs of American colonization left them with little more than chain restaurants, sex tourism and shopping malls, Vietnam in contrast shows an enjoyable lack of those and you can't help but feel winning the war also helped preserve their identity too. My final few days highlighted this quite nicely as I spent them in the town of Sapa which is home to many indigenous hill tribes. So there are plenty of tiny women wearing odd, brightly coloured outfits and the men look even better dressing in velvet tunics with lace cuffs and collars and silver chains. Each tribe wear slightly different designs and have fantastic names like the Red Baos and the Black Tzus, so its been a great place to end my time here. I also climbed Indochinas highest mountain and from the top I could see all the way to China to the North. However, I'll next be heading West down the snout of this dragon shaped country into Laos for a bit before flying to Myanmar so I probably won't write for a while. Can I just request that no matter your views on the situation in Myanmar or even me going there please don't write anything controversial as the internet is apparently monitored and with Eric Blair no longer being a policeman there I don't really fancy a chat in a Burmese cop shop. Hope you're enjoying the snow days...

From Sapa,
Barney

Posted by carlswall 12:53 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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