A Travellerspoint blog

Southern Thailand and Cambodia

Festive greetings from the Cambodian city of Kampot and if you've managed to sit through my previous tedious analyses of the politics of countries you've no interest in out of some outdated sense of loyalty (e.g. you're related to me) then you might find this email a bit easier as it's largely about getting drunk on the beach in Thailand. After a few semi enforced months of abstemiousness in Muslim countries it really was an easy, almost epicurean couple of weeks where I did no sightseeing, got up at 12 every day and consistently went to bed around 4am. Thailand receives some 15 million tourists every year and I would have to rate it as the most touristy place I've ever been- but of course for good reason. From all the famous islands (Phuket, Samui, Phi Phi etc) that everyone knows to the incredible coastal rock formations on the mainland it surely ranks as one of the single most beautiful coastlines in the world. Both the Andaman and Gulf coasts boast huge numbers of basically perfect white beaches and whether you want awesome nightlife to quieter slices of paradise it really has it all. I was worried before I went that Thailand wouldn't be my sort of place but I should have known I'd fit in in any country where nearly everyone is tattooed and it's a crime to criticise the monarchy in any way. However, even if I bought a Thai bride there's no way I could live there simply because of the portion sizes. They don't so much eat like white men as eat like white mice and we constantly found ourselves having to order another meal as soon as we'd finished the first one. However, quite a few people are able to bridge the food gap and Thailand now has one of the biggest expat communities in the world (75,000 Brits alone). Life in Thailand is very, very easy for an expat; a great climate, good food and supremely friendly people mean that if you have the money it's one of the best places on earth to live (for an expat). For the British expats a pretty common story was making a fortune selling their house at the right time in the property boom then living abroad far more cheaply off the earnings Seeing most of them doing little more than going to the beach and drinking all day you do feel sorry for the locals surrounded by them. The average wage for a 'normal job' (eg working in a restaurant) is about $6 per day whereas a 'bar girl' can earn 7 times that in one evening. So of course aside from its beaches Thailand is also famous for sex tourism. The reason why sex tourism is biggest in Thailand and the Philippines is due to the recent history of the region, in the late 1950's and early 1960's America needed air bases in SE Asia in order to combat the domino effect and the only 2 friendly countries at the time were Thailand and the Philippines. Suddenly you had thousands of young men with plenty of money and free time arriving in countries that were still extremely poor agricultural societies and products like razor blades and toilet rolls were still luxuries. In Dominica I stayed with a guy who'd served in Thailand in the late 50's and he said they played a game of what's the cheapest you can get a girl for (and free didn't count), the base record was a single stick of Wrigley's and seeing some of the 'couples' matched up around you do see things that despite Thailands mid ranking economy things still haven't changed much. I once got a '1001 things to do before you die' style books for Christmas and many of Thailand's natural wonders were included; what weren't included however were listings of nights out in Thailand- 2 of which really were some of the most memorable I can remember. Some of the best nights out of my life have involved nothing more than drinking on the street and doing nothing in particular. A night out in Patong, Phukets 'nightclub' district definitely fit that bill as along with a couple of Danish lads I've been travelling with we did nothing specific all night except be very mischievous towards the thousands of prostitutes (and clients) that are wandering around. However, my favourite night out was definitely the famous full moon party on Ko Pha Nga; it's a huge dance party on the beach and really should be something ''you do before you die'. For the first (and let's face it probably only time in my life) I wore bright pink and coloured my hair and various parts of my body in the same colour and just had an epic night. You drink a mixture of Thai whiskey, coke and the local red bull equivalent (which is firmly banned in the EU) out of a bucket and head to the beach. Several buckets and hours later and I found myself passed out on a construction site. Magic. Unfortunately we then had to do a 30hr journey to get out of Thailand before our visas ran out and via pink stripes still in my hair I was happily a source of great amusement to the immigration officers as we entered Cambodia. Unsurprisingly, Cambodia was a rather different experience after the laziness of Thailand. We started off in perhaps the single biggest attraction of the entire region at the awesome temples of Angkor. They are an incredible site being the remains of a thousand yr old city of a million people, in contrast at the time London was just 50,000 strong. The setting was perhaps not as spectacular as I imagined, Cambodia really isn't the best looking country as 90% of it is pancake flat and rather than jungle surrounding the ruins (like in the cinematic masterpiece Tomb Raider) it's centuries old agricultural plains. However, this meant renting a bike for 3 days and easily ambling along visiting amazing temple after amazing temple was just fantastic and emphasized quite what an amazing spectacle they are, spread out over a huge area. From the temples we headed to the capital Phnom Penh and got a heavy dose of Cambodias more recent, much less glorious history. The Khmer Rouge state would have to rate as having one of the strangest political philosophies I've ever come across, the aim of the state was to turn the population into illiterate peasants who could do little more than bring in the rice crop in the hope that this would lead to a ''├žlassless society''. They abolished education, healthcare, transport, money and all kinds of other things which we'd normally regard as essential to make a country work. They famously killed anyone with any education and to be even suspected of being an intellectual (e.g. wearing glasses) was often enough for a a death sentence. Between 1-3 million people were killed in just 3 and a half years and their legacy has screwed the country up for decades afterwards. We first visited the notorious S-21 prison and as you may have seen on the news in the last few weeks, the camps commandant '├çomrade Duch' has been on trial for his role in the genocide. At the end of the trial he begged forgiveness and asked to be let free, he personally ordered the deaths of around 17,000 people and as you looked round the former school classrooms of photos of prisoners having their heads smashed in (they were ordered to save bullets for army use) it's not surprising that most Cambodians don't feel he should be released. By killing so many of Cambodias talented people, the Khmer Rouge left a nation with no skilled professionals or people who were remotely able to lead the country effectively and a dangerously skewed population ratio of 70:30 women to men. They turned the population into terrified slaves and the only reason the regime collapsed was due to Pol Pot's obsessional hatred with Vietnam, after declaring a futile war against it's far bigger neighbour Cambodia lost and the Khmer Rouge were forced to retreat to the countryside. It's to the West's shame that because it was Communist Vietnam (rather than say capitalist Thailand) that liberated the country, the West refused to acknowledge that the Khmer Rouge weren't the government and as late as 1990 they still held Cambodias seat at the UN. More importantly though it has meant that up until Duch no one has been brought to justice. The enigmatic Pol Pot died in his countryside hideout in 1998 and all of the other top leaders have died one way or another. Cambodia is now run (notoriously poorly) by ex-Khmer Rouge members and it still feels like a wild country that's almost lawless in places but there are plenty of grounds for optimism. Angkor Wat is very much the symbol of the country, appearing on the national flag and its very easy to view it as a metaphor for the country as a whole. Cambodia is far too poor to afford expensive renovation programmes on the temples but funding has come flooding in from abroad due to the sites importance. Similarly, due at least in part to romantic visions of Angkor Wat and of course sympathy for what the nation has gone through, Cambodia has been very successful at attracting aid and everywhere there is evidence of NGO support and overseas help. Through this and the tourism boom that has blessed the nations recent freedom and it's a nation that's looking forward. On a more negative note, I've also never been anywhere where children are more put upon than Cambodia. The country can afford for children to go to school for half the day, after which children are expected to work from as young as 4 or 5. In most places this involves helping out with their Mums market stall or selling drinks to tourists but nowhere in the world is paedophilia a greater problem. Whilst the likes of Arthur C. Clarke and Gary Glitter have obviously greatly raised public awareness it's still a massive problem, in a country with so many orphans it's not hard to see why it's such a problem here. Another major problem are the 3-6 million undiscovered landmines still claiming 10 victims a month and the amount of guns that are around. Another tourist activity you may have read about in Cambodia is the opportunity to shoot all kinds of weapons at live targets for a fee. So you can start off shooting a pistol at a chicken (about $20) and end up shooting a rocket launcher at a cow (about $200). Whilst in itself this is a pretty controversial way to make money, the fact that its often part of 'the killing fields' tours makes it just tragic. A couple of the most famous killing fields (basically mass graves) have been turned into 'genocide awareness museums' ala Auschwitz. After walking round the graves for a couple of hours it's quite surreal to hear the local touts trying to get you to then shoot at live animals. I asked a couple of them do you not think its wrong and the answer they gave were ''Yeah but I've gotta get paid''. Aside from being tragic it is also an indictment of quite how poor the country is too. The last couple of days have been much more relaxed renting a motorbike and ambling among French colonial towns on the south coast and the odd pepper plantation. Another of the key ideas of the Khmer Rouge was that cities were 'wrong' and urbanites were worthless inferior people. They marched everyone out to the countryside and left the cities as empty shells. Whilst most were repopulated gradually there are still quite a few ghost-towns around and spookily investigating abandoned hill stations was definitely a great way to end my time in this fantastic country. Tomorrow I leave for Vietnam as I follow the mighty Mekong down to the sea. It's also the last time I'll write before Christmas so I have the slightly bewildering prospect of Christmas in a Communist country. Hope you get snow and have a great time off work.
From Kampot,
Barney

Posted by carlswall 12:48 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Singapore and Peninsula Malaysia

Greetings from the holiday island of Langkawi, it's the first one I'll be visiting in the next few weeks that you've probably heard of and it's the most cosmopolitan resort I can remember going to. Dutch backpackers sunbathe alongside Russian dollybirds haranguing their much less attractive (but nouveau riche) husbands but definitely the most amusing sight I've seen was of an Arab woman in a full burkha paragliding and getting really upset when she got a bit wet on landing!

It has been a very enjoyable couple of weeks spent firstly amongst the notoriously uptight Singaporeans then afterwards amidst the extremely friendly and laid back Malaysians, they have 18 bank holidays for pete sakes!
After 2 months of slumming it somewhat in Indonesia I must admit I really enjoyed spending time in the developed 'Lion city" that is Singapore. In the post World War 2 period perhaps no other country has grown its economy so successfully and whilst some people say it's draconian or even boring you can't help but admire all that has been achieved in the Singapore story.
It was kicked out of Malaysia in the early 1960's in theory because of political differences but in reality because Singapore's inclusion in Malaysia would mean that Malays would no longer be the majority race; and with no natural resources it's future prospects looked dim. However, Singapore had a leader in Lee Kuan Yew who, aside from apparently still holding the record mark in the Cambridge Law Tripos has become the model leader for developing countries. He instituted a strict 'one party democracy' where the government played a very big role in the planning of the economy for growth and allowed no anti social or subversive behavior. Few restrictions were placed on the market attracting overseas firms to invest and various social measures were instituted including high priority placed on education and a one child per family policy. Over time these planning methods have become ever more sophisticated to go beyond mere economic goals to improve the population's work/life balance. The government still plays a massive role in lots of aspects of the daily lives of the population and it's almost like a capitalist version of China.

It's successes are multitudinous and Singapore is arguably the best run city in the world. The Metro system is fantastic, intensive and long sighted land use planning means that seemingly everything works perfectly and is pleasant to look at; and of course it's the cleanest country in the world. The fines are incredible for anti-social behavior and when you hear anecdotes of 13yr olds being fined $350 merely for eating (not even littering) on the metro or the sporadic death sentences for drug smugglers there's a pretty strong argument that they've just gone too far. However, after having traveled most of the last few months in Indonesia and the Philippines where there's a very poor sense of civic pride it made a lot more sense to me. After constantly seeing people smoking 2ft from fellow diners in restaurants, spitting anywhere they liked and the incessant littering which ruins the looks of those countries it was a very pleasant change to be in the order of Singapore. The joke here is that if there's one thing the Chinese will respect it's damage to their wallets and if it needs financial penalties to stop the anti-social behaviour described above then I would take the Singapore method every time.
In it's incessant sale of itself to the international business community it likes to present a vision of 'urban perfection' but of course it's not quite like that.

The newspapers are heavily censored by the government and would have to rate as some of the worst I've read anywhere in the world, (e.g. worse even than The Guardian).
Due to government censorship the newspapers virtually never report anything which could be construed as negative about the country (i.e. no crime reports) and so the pages are filled with celebrity gossip and hilarious letters pages whereby readers are encouraged to write in and report fellow citizens of minor misdemeanors. Therefore you have letters saying things like 'This morning @ 7.25am I saw car registration XYZ123 doing an illegal u-turn at Springfield Junction"; which in a national newspaper in a country of 5million people is absolutely ridiculous, if inadvertently hilarious.
Their education system is also famously good and they regularly come top of various international tables but there are definite weaknesses in the system. A complete preoccupation with business and earning money means that for example 11yr olds are taught accounting as a separate subject but they can't do things like Sociology even at university. The system is also a bit of a 'teachers nightmare' as there's a preoccupation with by rote, spoon fed learning with little encouragement given to unorthodox creative thinking and the creation of a somewhat supine, overworked student population. This translates to most companies having to hire foreigners for the top jobs and for all their focus on maths and sciences Singapore has still to produce a Nobel prize winner.
There are various other complaints you could make about the country such as the limited health service and social welfare provisions but with one of the lowest tax rates and highest standard of living in the world, any criticisms that are made I think are really quite minor.

Singapore is also often criticised for being a bit of a cultural vacuum with there being little more of interest past the 2 national obsessions of eating and shopping but I didn't find this to be the case. Whilst I was happy to eat 4-5 meals a day but less interested in going into Louis Vuittion stores that limit numbers of visitors and have a dress code to ensure its exclusivity there was a lot more to Singapore. It's got a very multi-cultural population with many expats and different areas of the city reflect that with the architecture and sights being enjoyably varied. The government has also worked hard to bring in culture to this very small island and so there's plenty of events like the F1 Grand Prix and concerts going on alongside more permanent attractions like theatres and galleries.
After not having been to a big city I've liked since starting my trip in Taipei it was a very enjoyable wk wondering amongst the skyscrapers. I also got to visit and stay with some friends whilst I was there and really enjoyed the decadence the city can offer. Rather than find it boring I just found myself in awe of everything that's been achieved there and can easily see why it's the model for the developing world to copy.

From Singapore I took the sleeper train into Malaysia and once again got confirmation of what a great place it is. Of other places I've been to it reminds me of Panama or Ecuador in that you just have a fantastic variety of things to do in such a small area. From the perfect white beaches of the coasts and islands, to unspoilt jungle and tea plantations in the interior, a couple of cracking World Heritage coastal cities and the vibrant capital of Kuala Lumpur it's got nearly anything you'd want. As nowhere is ever more than a night bus away traveling around is really easy but what makes it such a perfect holiday destination is the value for money here. The accommodation, transport and other infrastructure are seriously good and in a country composed of Malays, Chinese and Indians the food is absolutely out of this world; but I'm only spending about $15 a day. Decades of export led growth have kept the currency value enjoyable low and it's just an awesome place to travel in.

I've found it culturally a really fascinating place too with it's multifaceted population and somewhat unusual geographical set up (2 very different parts that are not all that close).
For 20 years Malaysia was led by Mahathir who despite being something of an iconoclast in his anti western sentiments proved to be an inspirational leader who dragged Malaysia forward from a fairly poor agricultural society at independence into it's successful 'Asian Tiger' position today. Mahathir set a long-term goal of being a developed nation by 2020 and they've made excellent progress in many ways. Malaysia is blessed with many natural resources including the timber of the Bornean forests and the vast offshore oil deposits as can be seen in what's now the national symbol of the Petronas (the national oil company) Towers. The money generated has been harnessed to greatly improve the nations infrastructure and (most of) the populations basic standards of living but as with most of its neighbors, Malaysia has a terrible corruption problem.
As in the Philippines I've found reading the newspapers to be really quite a dull activity as most of the news consists of the opposition making accusations of corruption against the government, and then the governments strident denials of any wrongdoing. Before I came to this part of the world I had no idea corruption was quite so bad and it's been quite a depressing feature of traveling here. Whilst I've been to a couple places like Kenya and Paraguay which are rated as some of the most corrupt in the world the amounts grafted at the top level here are far more than any other area I've been to. It seems the difference here is the resources that countries like Indonesia and Malaysia possess in comparison with the countries mentioned above. I suppose the logic is that if you have $100 to spend and $15 is creamed off you still have $85 to spend, but if you only have $50 to spend and $10 is creamed off then you only have $40 left. As in the Philippines and Indonesia (both of whose presidents are now in serious hot water in corruption cases) the corruption has created a very visible rich poor gap here.

Whilst in KL and other parts of the West coast peninsula there are plenty of signs of wealth verging on conspicuous consumption, elsewhere it's a very different picture. In the more remote East coast, economic development has been much more limited in the Malay villages and despite generating vast amounts of wealth through it's oil and timber reserves a mere 5% of earnings are reinvested into Borneo. The indigenous population have seen virtually none of the earnings made from their land and the quality of life gap between the high rises of KL and the stilt houses in the poorer communities is probably the single biggest issue Malaysia needs to address if it wants to reach the 'developed nation' by 2020 goal.

Malaysia also likes to pride itself on being a racially harmonious nation but on the ground I found that to be a somewhat specious claim.
There were big riots against the Chinese community in the late '60's and since then there seems to be an unwritten agreement that the Chinese would stay out of politics, provided they could run their businesses undisturbed. There's now a somewhat odd situation where the Chinese are visibly the wealthiest group (and there's little intermarriage) but despite making up nearly a third of the population occupy none of the top political posts or even any jobs in the civil service. On top of this the Chinese have traditionally been far more successful in education but the government give virtually all university scholarships to Malay students citing positive discrimination- but I don't think the different communities agree on that phrase as virtually any conversation with a chinese person here has shown.

Perhaps the one thing which stops Malaysia being a really great tourist destination is the lack of a party scene and that's due wholly to the price of alcohol. A couple of years ago the government increased the taxes on it to such an extent that a pint costs 50% more than accommodation does- and that's from a supermarket. In London it would be the equivalent of 30quid a pint and so it's safe to say I haven't gone beyond a couple of quiet ones with dinner many times in the month I've been here. The Malays are Muslim so in theory it shouldn't affect them and is widely seen as a none too subtle 'extra tax' on the Chinese community but I think it also reflects the slight identity crisis the country seems to be facing. The government has worked hard trying to attract foreign investment over the years and KL is now after Singapore the secondary business hub of the region; but at the same time the Islamic parties have been gaining influence and this has led to a couple of embarrassing cultural clashes in recent years which don't portray the country in a good light. Sharia law has been brought in (but only to apply to Muslims) and in August a Malay woman was given the sentence of a public caning for being caught drinking a beer. After a worldwide uproar they had to let her go amidst fierce public debate here but the other major case has still not been decided. For the second time the charismatic leader of the opposition Anwar Ibrahim has been arrested for sodomy and his trial is going on at the moment. Aside from the obvious accusation that the government simply trumped up the charges, the idea of someone so senior being on trial for such an offence doesn't look good for Malaysia and underlines the desire to grow on the world stage being perhaps held back by its more traditional beliefs.

After having weaved an incredibly lucky path on my traveling so far, avoiding flooding in Taiwan and the Philippines and 4 earthquakes in Indonesia I'll finish with a cautionary tale.
Today I went to a waterfall and got in to start swimming leaving my stuff in a bag by the side, after a couple of minutes a monkey came along took my bag and ran away. In the bag was my passport, money, camera- basically everything. Still in the water I was fairly petrified about what might happened and scrambled out after him. He ran into some undergrowth and after finding some abandoned trainers I had to crawl about 10m in but thankfully managed to retrieve everything as they'd slowly fallen out of the bag.
I've learned to really hate monkeys. As pets they just stink and do nothing but masturbate all day (you can make your own 'men' jokes) and in the wild they're just thieving, bigger, smarter more aggressive versions of rats. So yeah I was very very relieved, but I still really, really hate monkeys.

Now realizing that I've mentioned lions, tigers and monkeys I take the boat to the land of the elephants that is Thailand tomorrow. Heading to all the famous beaches I know I should write "at this time of year you should be jealous" etc but if it's any consolation, despite now being the dry season it flooded here earlier this week and has been overcast ever since.

From Langkawi,
Barney

Posted by carlswall 12:42 Archived in Singapore Tagged singapore malaysia Comments (0)

East Timor, Sulawesi and Sumatra

Hello from the lovely (and superbly named) mountain town of Bukittinggi, I've just received confirmation that after several months traveling in archipelago based nations I will be happy to leave planes and boats behind for far easier overland travel. After booking 2 separate flights to Singapore both routes were subsequently discontinued and I'm now facing 30hrs of complicated travel to get to Singapore rather than a 2hr flight...

After paying $60 and finally escaping flag copying Indonesia (from Monaco, much to the Grimaldis chagrin) I arrived in the much better flagged East Timor. The world's 3rd youngest country, starting with it's appalling name (Timor means East in the local language) it has arguably the most tragic history of any country in the world.
Run as a Portuguese colony for over 300yrs, as with their other colonies around the world the Portuguese did absolutely nothing for it beyond Catholicism and when the Caetano regime collapsed in 1974 they pulled out virtually overnight leaving no economic infrastructure and less than 20km of paved roads. The East Timorese briefly declared independence but Indonesia effectively annexed it soon after and by handing over generous oil and mining rights received tacit support from the USA and Australia to do so. For 25yrs the notoriously brutal Indonesian army maintained an almost perfect human rights abuse record; not only did they ban the local language and clamped down on the culture, they imported thousands of Indonesians who took over all government posts and any businesses that were local owned, reducing the local population to little more than slaves with the women receiving much of the worst treatment. The East Timorese did however fight an ongoing guerrilla campaign and in 1999 the Indonesians finally pulled out due to the Asian currency collapse and mounting international pressure. When the Indonesians departed they had something of a 'blitzkrieg policy' where unofficially the line was if 'we can't run it then we'll leave a country not worth having' and destroyed anything they could as well as taking a terrible revenge on the human population. After 25 yrs of occupation an almost unbelievable 40% of the population had been killed.

...Therefore being in a country which had fought so hard and had lost so much was pretty humbling but to my surprise the sense of freedom I found quite invigorating too; I just loved it. One of the first things that struck me was just how different it was from Indonesia; instead of Islam it was Catholic and instead of the Asiatic features of Western Indonesians the population was made up of immigrants from all over the Portuguese empire. If anything it felt more like Brazil than Indonesia with Portuguese spoken, women having a more 'relaxed' dress code and a hill above the capital Dili even has a Christ the Redeemer statue beautifully staring sentinel like down on the bay ala Rio de Janeiro.
The capital felt very different from the rest of the country mainly due to the massive UN presence (country building/security programmes), UN vehicles probably comprise 1 in every 2 vehicles on the streets and I found myself somewhat surreally eating in restaurants with Bangladeshi engineers and having a beer with Croatian soldiers.
But outside the capital East Timors poverty (the poorest country in Asia, most families have a GDP of less than $1000) becomes quite obvious; trade is normally by barter and most people live in a hand to mouth subsistence lifestyle. Mimicking the use of agent Orange in Vietnam over 25yrs the hillsides were stripped bare by the Indonesian army to bring the guerrillas out into the open and so soil fertility is very low in this already parched island. The people are really happy to see you and whilst getting around is tortuously slow at times it was also great to be in the mythical mountain areas which are held so dear to the people due to them being the base of the independence struggle and the perfect empty beaches right across the North coast.
The reason so many UN staff are there is that East Timor has vast problems, centuries of non rather than underinvestment has left a legacy of terrible literacy rates, a family size of 7.4 children and the huge security presence is largely a deterrent against a repeat of the riots of 2006 where young people violently protested against the 45% unemployment rate.
The main story in the news for sometime now has been on how far East Timor should take trying to get justice for the war crimes, some feel they should let the past go but the extent of the destruction and indeed seeing the war criminals remaining in high ranking posts is hard to take for many. It's an indication of quite how corrupt Indonesia is that at the moment I'm seeing the smiling photo of General Wiranto who was in charge of the 'pullout' of East Timor in '99 as for the 2nd time he was on a presidential campaign ticket.
Moving forward economically is so hard as it also ranks as one of the most isolated countries in the world (flights to just 3 other cities in the world). Unsurprisingly the Indonesians have 'shut the door' on trade leaving Australia as its one viable trading option. The only problem is that their role in its recent history has been pretty appalling and so the Timorese don't like or trust them. After idly standing by for 25 yrs watching a genocide take place as long as it had its oil, after independence the Howard government tried it's damnedest to get hold of 100% of new oil and gas rights in return for security and infrastructure assistance. East Timor had to negotiate hard and eventually 30% was agreed to be granted to the Australians but as with other agreements in their sphere of influence in Nauru and the Solomon Islands, the Australians just haven't really delivered meaning the country is still really struggling.
As you can see by the amount I've written I really quite liked it there and as they move forward under a leader who resembles Che Guevara in many ways, it was somewhere I took to heart and found very satisfying to travel in.

To both get to and leave Timor I had to take a couple of long distance ferries which would have to rate as some of the more memorable journeys I've ever taken. Indonesian ferries are famous for never being full in economy class- one of the boats I took was 3 times over its official capacity of 900. No way will you get a seat of any sort, you just have to fight for a spot on the floor and watch as people step, smoke or whatever else over you. But even that seemed manageable, various Indonesians have told me stories particularly after Ramadan where they've had to stand up tube carriage style for 48 hrs- which I'd struggle to deal with. Since it's economy class they don't get too many foreign passengers and for the locals your presence is a bit of a novelty. I was travelling with a German couple and for 2 days we had a constant group of between 5-15 blokes just standing there watching us. They don't do anything other than smoke or maybe play with their phones and after 2 days I was pretty pleased to get to Sulawesi.

After stopping for a couple of days in the pleasant island capital of Makassar I went to the amazing area of Tana Toraja. Sulawesi is one of the few islands in Indonesia where there's no one dominant religion and in recent years amidst economic uncertainties the unfortunate consequence has been ethnic rioting and various grizzly murders. Tana Toraja however is bordered on all 4 sides by mountains and has developed a traditional culture very much untainted by more modern religions. It mainly revolves around death and buffaloes and leads to some amazing visual manifestations. When a person dies they're kept fully clothed in the family house for people to visit and 'chat with' until the family has earned enough money to hold the huge elaborate funerals involving feasts and buffalo slaughtering that will take place. They're then buried in either caves or hollows carved out of rocks high above you where wooden models of the deceased hang outside to greet you. These tombs are found everywhere but aside from being visually stunning are quite creepy with rotting coffins to step over and various bits of skeletons randomly lying around.
Unfortunately price inflation is kicking on for buffaloes (especially the prized albino specimens) and if you're a fairly well respected member of society you have to slaughter up to 24 of the beasts, which means people told me stories of families having to share rooms with dead grandparents for up to 2 years before they could afford the funeral. Nice.
Whilst I was there I did an amazing hike which was meant to last 3 days, I made quite good progress on the first day and ended up sleeping in a local family garden under a huge pair of ceremonial buffalo horns that each family has. In the night though I started feeling quite sick but being absolutely miles from anything resembling a road had to haul myself 35km along a walking path before I could get back to a road. About 3/4 of the way I practically passed out in a local village and when I opened my eyes found 71 kids (I counted) looking down on me as they'd just let school out. Someone gave me some water and I managed to continue but it took me some a couple of days to recover before I flew to wild Sumatra.

Sumatra is home to arguably the 2 biggest disasters in history, firstly the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa which aside from being the loudest noise ever made (heard in Australia) killed some 120,000 people and caused global temperatures to drop by over a degree for a year. However, my first stop was in Banda Aceh which of course was the 'epicentre' of the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004. Not having any stories involving supermodels or offspring of knighted film directors it didn't generate any of the headlines or coverage that Thailand did but the damage here was far deeper. A quite staggering number of 220,000 people died and virtually the entire city centre was swept away. Well, with the exception of the beautiful central mosque which is being trumpeted by some as a 'miracle' but when so many people died I thought it slightly dubious logic. As I looked at the horrific 'corpse photos' of the aftermath in the museum it makes you realize that whilst most 'natural disasters' eg the flooding in Jakarta I wrote of in the previous email or even hurricane Katrina are actually largely due to human error, sometimes there's nothing quite like nature.
One side effect of the disaster has been the cessation of fighting between the Achenese separatist rebels and the Indonesian military. The history of Indonesia post independence is a fascinating one, after fighting for and gaining independence from their dutch colonial masters the army has always been heavily involved in the running of the country and are still incredibly visible today, despite Indonesia having no external enemies. General Suharto took over the leadership in a coup in 1966 and was the dictator here for 32 years. Unsurprisingly he's the biggest single figure in Indonesia's history and he did many positive things, from establishing successful population and infrastructure planning schemes to the growth in the economy which led Indonesia from a backward agrarian society to the more 'middleweight' status it has to day. But it was all achieved at great cost; East Timor was effectively allowed to become independent because it was already the poorest province in Indonesia and was just costing too much to control. Independence is a luxury that will never be granted to the Acehnese or the other big breakaway area of Papua. Papua contains the Freeport mine which is the largest gold mine in the world and Aceh contains the oil supplies which have led to the economic growth mentioned above. Indonesia is now the 4th biggest ol producer in the world and with a huge Exxon Mobil contract the USA and others have been happy to look the other way at the terrible human rights abuses by the army that have occurred all over Indonesia. In Aceh the damage from the tsunami was so widespread that any politics have had to stop in the relief effort but a couple of recent small scale attacks have shown the issue has not been forgotten.

Another of Suharto's legacies is that Indonesia has become one of the single most corrupt countries in the world; he died a multibillionaire and his extended family were granted monopolies on huge areas of the economy, from Indonesia's flour (his wife) to cigarettes (his son Tommy) and even airlines (his grandson). Buoyed by the nations resource wealth the amounts grafted or stolen in Indonesia were higher than anywhere else in the world and whilst the popular current president has just been re-elected on an anti-corruption ticket, corruption still runs very deep in the society. As a superb, extreme example that's been heavily in the news recently Tommy Suharto has been running for the leadership of the Golkar party (Indonesias biggest), despite the fact he's a convicted killer. When I was in Guatemala several years ago the president Alfonso Portillo was also a convicted killer but that was in a bar room brawl 20 years before, however Tommy Suharto ordered the killing of the judge who sentenced him after being found guilty on corruption charges in 2002. Despite being given a 15yr sentence he only served 4 and was allowed to run his multibillion dollar businesses from prison. He's now out and to see him being interviewed and saying that he couldn't see why there was a problem with him being possibly the next president shows just how much Indonesia needs to change to become more respected on the world stage, even the head of the anti-corruption commission was arrested on murder charges earlier this year.

As I've moved south down through Sumatra it's been a glorious last couple of weeks in this beautiful country. From staying on huge crater lakes you can swim in, to awesome wildlife Sumatra is just a fantastic destination. The city of Padang is home to the best food in Indonesia but it was also hit by a 7.9 earthquake a month ago and the area it is now in ruins. In the city itself they're still searching for survivors and 'tent cities' have emerged for the refugees. In other places there have been terrible landslides that have swept away whole villages and seeing the destruction makes you appreciate living in a country which never has to deal with anything like this.
I've also predictably climbed a few more volcanoes and a couple of days ago had 2 of the most terrifying moments of my life when descending the nations highest volcano Mt Kerinci. After getting to the summit visibility plummeted to only 10-20m and I slightly lost my way on the rocks going down. After taking a disastrous wrong turn I found myself in a gully with no other option but to first climb down 10m on a virtually sheer wall then after falling twice having to scramble 15m out of said gully on a surface which really didnt want to take my weight. When I got back to the nearest village the owner of my home-stay told me the details of the 8 people who've died since 2002 in virtually identical circumstances to how I got lost. I felt both very foolish and very relived to be hearing that rather than sitting with 2 broken ankles slowly dying in a remote gully!

As you can see by the amount I've written (sorry!) I've absolutely adored Indonesia. It' a truly fascinating country which I've feel I've been doing the proverbial in the ocean trying to describe in my short time here. Worldwide, perhaps only India can boast a greater cultural richness but it's this diversity which is arguably it's greatest weakness. It boasts more languages than any other country in the world, has a variety of different religions and ethnically the population varies from Chinese looking all the way to the almost black looking Papuans (Papua literally means land of the fuzzy hair). Indonesian politicians like to describe the nation as like the European Union but I think a better description is of a Javanese empire. The country wastes billions of dollars every year on maintaining a huge army which does little more than maintain control over people who don't consider themselves Indonesian, and virtually all resources, power and influence are centred in Jakarta and Java generally. In a country of 250million people and spanning some 17,000 islands over a huge area I don't think this model works for enough people, it's currently doing very well economically and there's talk it may even become an extra 'I' in the BRIC group of countries. However, about 10 years ago at the height of the Asian currency crisis the country was close to collapse and the splintering of the various islands into different countries. I think if a similar crisis occurs in the future I think the nation will struggle to maintain it's gargantuan structure.

So it's time to leave chain smoking Indonesia where the children ride motorbikes from the age of 7 and water buffaloes rule the roads. I'm gonna miss it greatly.
After going to the 'business Disneyland' (Singapore) for a few days I plan to head on up into peninsular Malaysia hopefully not being stuck in random ferry ports anymore!

From Bukittinggi,
Barney

Posted by carlswall 12:36 Archived in East Timor Tagged mountains people Comments (0)

Java, Bali and Nusa Tenggara

Hello from a place called Ende tho frankly it feels like they should drop the 2nd 'e'. I really wish I wasn't here...

This month began in 'The Big Durian' that is Jakarta. Durians are the very smelly fruit that are also very delicious but that's definitely not a fair description of the city. During Dutch colonial times the city had a population of half a million and the Dutch were very worried that if it grew much more serious problems could arise as its built on a floodplain. They devised a flood management plan based on dykes etc that would hopefully be an end to the problem but unfortunately they then got kicked out and the plans were never built. The population of Jakarta is now a whopping 14million and large parts of it gets flooded almost every single yr. When you add its location on a tectonic fault (as seen by the earthquake a few weeks ago) it's not exactly the best place to live, but it is very much the place where this vast nation comes together. The business and political centre of the country much to my surprise it's also got one of the best clubbing scenes in the world (no, really!). I've always found that Muslims can be quite hypocritical when talking about the evils of alcohol, simply because in most parts of the world they simply substitute it for another stimulant. In North Africa they smoke hashish, in East Africa and the Gulf they chew qat but in Indonesia very much the drug of choice is ecstasy (far and away the worlds biggest producer and consumer). Regardless of your views on it, it does mean the clubs are just awesome with very good DJs playng to huge crowds. One club I went to called Stadium is normally open from Thursday night to Monday morning but unfortunately they shut at 4 when I was there, it was Ramadan so they had to close early to make sure everyone ate before the sun came up (I'm not making this up!). It had a capacity of 5,000 and that many people on the drug mentioned = a pretty memorable night.

But Jakarta really isn't somewhere you want to stay too long and so I left to climb a volcano. There are few things I enjoy more than getting to the top of mountains and with more active volcanoes than anywhere else in the world (over 130) I've been pretty happy in Indonesia as you get the view 'in' as well as 'out'. I've been fighting an ongoing battle with the Indonesian park service which stands at 10 nil to me over the enforced guiding they make you take for many of them. In the more isolated areas you can generally just rock up and do them yourself but in the more touristy areas they try and make you pay upwards of $50 just for someone to walk a path with you so have had some early mornings trying to slip past the guards. They're generally really easy as they're all under 4,000m and below the snow line and they've varied quite nicely from the very active Rinjani which recently erupted (so you could see lava) to the kinda scary Inerie (no path so quite dangerous). One of the strangest sights was at Bromo where Indonesian tourists would throw things like vegetables or money into the crater which is belching out sulfur and some of the locals would risk their lives having to try and scramble down the ridiculously dangerous and steep crater walls and nab them before they vanished. God knows what their life expectancy is but it looked like one of the worst ways to make a living I've ever seen. Just crazy.

One of my overriding memories of Java will be the night buses, not only the red eyed chain smoking with the locals of the awesome local fruit scented tabs (like smoking a Wrigley's juicy fruit gum) but the fantastic buskers that would serenade you 24hrs a day. On the tube in London the Gypsy accordion players are so bad that half the time they get menacing stares all the way up to racial abuse from their fellow passengers, but here they're great. Indonesia has a surprisingly strong Indie/grunge scene and there's just hundreds of these buskers groups (normally 2 or 3 young guys) who can play the guitar and sing and who get on board to entertain you 10 minutes. Definitely improves the journey, although maybe less so at 5am.

From Java I left for Bali and with lush volcano lined scenery, beautiful beaches and people it's not hard to see why it's been regarded as a paradise island for so long; however, perhaps it's biggest asset is it's unique culture. Bali is famously Hindu in this mainly Muslim country but in the Indonesian constitution you can only worship a monotheistic religion (mainly to try and stop animism from surviving in remote parts) so the Hinduism practiced here is a bit different from that in India. Instead of many Gods they tenuously claim that Shiva, Brahma et al are just one God in different forms, either way the people are fiercely passionate and all over the island you see the beautiful bright oranges and purples from their offerings, seemingly a temple on every corner and of course all the men wearing skirts (sarongs).
It really is a beautiful place and I have many happy memories of it from cycling down through crater lakes into the coffee plantations to seeing the huge religious ceremonies it packs an awful lot to do for a place it's size. Probably my best memory however was when I went to climb the highest volcano there called Agung, I slept in the temple on the slopes of the mountain and my journal entry for the day ends: "I had no food but the nightwatchman gave me some rice and so I ended up in my sleeping bag in the courtyard of the highest Hindu temple in Bali watching the stars above me. Magic"- which sums it up quite nicely.
Unfortunately too much tourism has meant it's not quite as perfect as the brochures make out however; the touristy areas in and around Bali is one of the worst places I've ever been for people trying to rip you off. Most people have an image of haggling as something done quite good naturedly over souvenirs in North Africa or Turkey but when you have to do it several times a day literally down to the price of an orange it becomes both tedious and actually mentally draining. Indonesians are actually quite 'bad' at it in the sense that they don't start at 'twice the price' which you expect but 4, 5 or even 10 times the price of something, at which point as one Irishman I met put it quite nicely "you don't want to negotiate, you just want to tell them to p*ss off".
Bali also has a seedy underbelly which has given me a slightly new perspective on the bombings that took place there earlier this decade. I'd been warned by fellow travelers that parts of it resemble an 'Australian Magaluf' (ie lots of drunken debauchery) and its also become a popular meeting point for gay Asians to hook up with western men. Whilst Bali has a long tradition of being a very tolerant place it is literally a small island surrounded by a much more conservative culture; to see the very public drunken excesses of the Aussies on holiday and the visually disgusting sight of older western men with gunsels of very indeterminate ages definitely makes you think who's in the wrong exactly. At the time of the bombings all the headlines were of the 'Is Indonesia a hotbed of fundamentalism?' or 'A new front on the war on terror!' brand of sensationalism but if Western tourists are gonna do these kind of things which aren't so much alien but actively wrong in Islamic culture then we can't really be too surprised when some people get quite upset and being quite pessimistic I can see it happening again.

All the volcanoes in Java and Bali have made the land very fertile and covered in people but as you start moving East to the islands known as Nusa Tenggara the landscape becomes much drier and far emptier.
By the time you get to Komodo national park it's hard to picture a more unforgiving environment, scorching hot with hardly any vegetation not much can survive but I did fulfill an ambition of mine by getting to see the dragons in the wild. The biggest lizards in the world, they can reach up to 3m in length and survive on the few deer and water buffalo that can survive on the island. Not really dangerous to humans you can go as close as you like but as one Jap famously found out 2 yrs ago- too close and you lose an arm (their saliva is acidic and causes your flesh to slowly rot). I also did a bit of snorkeling there and from swimming with turtles, climbing a few more volcanoes and taking umpteen motorcycle hitches in beautiful Flores I thought things were going very well until I got here.

My visa runs out today (and you can't renew it) but have been stuck here since the 22nd with no prospect of leaving Indonesia til at least the 27th. Despite being the 4th biggest country in the world and generally reasonably developed in most ways the transport infrastructure here is truly appalling. It's airlines are banned from virtually everywhere and it's impossible to get information on ferry schedules as none of the websites work. You can also only buy airline tickets from the place you depart from and when I arrived I was told all the flights are full for another week. There are no boats leaving til the 26th so am effectively stuck here before I can get to East Timor, you can get up to 5 yrs in prison for overstaying your visa and whilst I don't think that will happen I think the projected fine of $60 is one I won't really take kindly to as there's literally nothing I can do about the situation.
Hopefully I'll get to East Timor and then it will be back to Indonesia for another month.
Keep well,
From Ende,
Barney

Posted by carlswall 12:33 Archived in Indonesia Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises mountains parties animals night Comments (0)

Borneo

Greetings from the lovely city of Kuching in the Malaysian province of Sarawak, in the town centre there is a fort, a palace, a parliament, 2 mosques, a Hindu temple, 2 Buddhist temples, an Anglican and Catholic cathedral and even a Gurdwara. One street starts off as Chinatown before becoming little Lebanon and finishes as Little India and the areas are connected by two 'harmony arches'; so I think it's fair to say it's a slightly more interesting and pleasanter place than Angeles where I wrote the previous email. It's Ramadan at the moment so every night they have 'eating parties' just after sunset and so have found myself eating around 4 plates of roti a night for about $1, so yeah I like it here!
Which is perhaps a nice summary of Borneo, it's been a cracking few weeks and after some of the difficulties of traveling in The Philippines it's been great being somewhere so relaxed yet with so much to do.

The word Borneo conjures up images of distant plantations from a Somerset Maugham story and miles upon miles of untouched wilderness, but that image has now long since passed. The coastal part is in places heavily populated, there's simply too many resources in the interior to be left alone and it's also surprisingly touristy. But it is touristy for very good reasons, it's got a fantastic array of things to see and do and plenty of traditional culture left too.
Borneo is a somewhat unusual tourism destination in that it has both visitors on a budget but also upper mid range to top end too with the golf courses and spa resorts that come with it, even the Blairs were here on holiday much to the delight of the local tabs. Indeed it's been so successful at marketing itself that at this time of year it has arguably too many visitors. I noticed that in the cities and smaller attractions there were few people around but at the bigger attractions suddenly lots of air conditioned minivans would turn up and you'd be swarmed with middle aged Europeans and Australians on holiday. In conversations with some of them (somewhat amusingly) they often seemed to be quite hacked off as they were promised a 'untouched Borneo experience' with the images that conjures up. In reality they seemed to be paying often hundreds of dollars a day to find they were also seeing the orangutans with about 300 other people. But like somewhere like Venice you've got to look past the crowds and really appreciate quite how great a place it is.

The first major thing I did was to climb Mt Kinabalu which at 4100m is the highest mountain between Papua and the Himalayas. It's either a very easy 2 day climb or a pretty tough 1 day climb. Luckily I was fit enough to make it in 1 day but only 4 out of 8 people that tried made it when I was there, The huge influx of high end tourists (apparently it only really started about 10 yrs ago) has also unfortunately also led to terrible price inflation. the problem is that if you want to stay the night the mountain hut costs $100 for a dormitory bed! My guide said that it used to cost $10 and was very popular with Malaysians, when they realized how much money they could make they put the price up and now locals crazily simply can't afford to do it. Nonetheless it has a great summit shaped like a granite crown of thorns and you can see for miles and miles at the top. But expectations that it would be forest were wrong as it's now mainly palm oil plantations you can see. Borneo is one of the earths great lungs but along with the Mato Grosso in Brazil is perhaps the foremost area in the fight to conserve the world's forests. In Brazil it's been the razing of the forests for grazing land that's done the damage but here it's the hugely profitable palm plantations which are extremely impressive in their size (sometimes hundreds to thousands of acres) but are perhaps a bit dull to look at. The other major issue is deforestation for timber which is an acute problem. Borneo has some of the worlds best hardwoods and the money being generated is quite incredible, in the outskirts of cities like Miri and Sibu at the mouths of the regions rivers there are plenty of unbelievably opulent houses owned (costing $30-50m) by the timber barons and whilst much of it is legal and a vital source of income its going at an estimated 5 times above a sustainable rate so its fair to say the illegal sources are at least as numerous as the legal ones.

And then it was on to wonderful Brunei. I knew as soon as I got there that this tiny absolute monarchy would be my kind of place. Borneo used to be called Brunei and the entire island (as well as bits of The Philippines) used to be under the command of the sultan, over time the British (under the command of the adventurer Rajah James Brooke and his descendents) whittled its size down to less than 1% of Borneos land area that exists now. But in the '30's they discovered oil and it has since become one of the strangest societies in the world. There's no income or corporation tax, healthcare and education are completely free, newly married couples are given interest free loans to build a house and every once in a while the Sultan gives a gift to the nation in the form of something like a washing machine or dishwasher for every household. Who needs Harriet Harman and democracy eh?
Whilst he's lost his title as the worlds richest man in recent years his brother Jefri has managed to keep the family in the international media spotlight. The oil is due to run out in some 20-30yrs and so sensibly the Sultan decided to set up a ministry to look at ways of ensuring the high standard of living currently enjoyed for the future. Jefri 'The Playboy Prince' became the minister in charge and basically he wasn't very good at it. He managed to lose an estimated $30billion in ways which almost defy belief; entire books could be written on it but amongst my favorite anecdotes are: sending his private plane home from the UK to pick up his polo boots so he could play with Prince Charles the next day, losing $30million in one sitting at a casino in Macau and commissioning a megayacht called 'Tits' with the 2 support boats called 'Nipple 1' and 'Nipple 2'. Unsurprisingly when the sultan found out he wasn't too happy but after a long legal case mysteriously decided to drop all charges (probably because the money was irretrievable).
One of the ways he envisaged Brunei could make money in the future was by tourism and the most visible relic of this is the Empire Hotel. It's one of the most amazing hotels in the world and amongst other things has a cinema, a Jack Nicklaus designed golf course, 16 swimming pools and a beautiful white and gold interior. The problem was that he demanded that everything be made using 24 carat gold (even rugs and curtains) and the price tag eventually came to $1.1billion. Even at 90% full it would still take 65 yrs to break even and they've been reduced to offering rooms for around $100 a person as maybe a couple of hundred guests are outnumbered by staff in the huge complex. They let you walk around freely however and one of the things we did was to take afternoon tea there.
You may think this doesn't sound like me and you'd be right because Brunei is one of the few countries in the world to be completely 'dry'. When entering the country your bag gets searched for alcohol and it's not even available at the Western hotels like it is in other Muslim countries. There isn't even the hookah pipe and tea drinking culture that exists further West however, so by about 9pm the entire country shuts down and its catchily named capital Bandar Seri Begawan becomes a ghosttown. It does mean you hardly spend any money and along with the free museums and mosques it turned out to be a really surprisingly cheap place to visit. My best memory however of this brilliantly eccentric place is the water village which makes up half of the population of BSB. You can walk around it on these precarious walkways about 15ft above the water and at sunset all the kids come out and start flying their kites- it's not a bad spot to be.

After Brunei I flew to the awesome Gunung Mulu national park in Sarawak. It's situated in the middle of the jungle and is either a very long boat ride or a 30min flight above the unending canopy to one of the worlds most spectacular national parks. Ignoring the spectacular pinnacles rock formation, and incredible caves (2nd largest chamber, 10th longest and biggest system by air volume) my favourite bit was the bats. About 5pm every night between 2-3m leave in a constant flight for about 30 mins in a strange sort of corkscrew formation. I'd never seen anything quite like it and the sheer volume and noise of the bats flying above you was something I won't forget anytime soon.
The wildlife experiences have been fantastic, from snorkeling in reefs of perfect islands off the coast to seeing the bizarre bearded pigs in the wild there's been a lot to see. Far and away though the biggest attractions are the monkeys. You see the annoyingly naughty macaques a lot and in a couple of places the extremely ugly proboscis monkeys but everyones faves are the Orangutans or jungle men as they're known here. There are a couple of rehabilitation centres for ones that have been rescued from zoos or been kept as pets and they really do let you get surprisingly close. Thought to be amongst the 2 or 3 most intelligent animals they can also be very aggressive and you're given stern warnings about what to do if they attack before you can see them but after seeing them twice there were no Rue Morgue like incidents and I could only see them as kindred as with not having cut my hair or shaved for a while I am starting to look like them.

Malaysia is made up of an interesting mix of ethnicities, whilst the Peninsula is dominated by Malays Borneo is mainly made up of Chinese (who tend to control the resources) and also by its world famous indigenous tribes. They've cashed in on their fame and history as headhunters and masters of the jungle and have set up various tourist friendly longhouses to stay in but in reality they now drive cars, watch satellite TV and have converted to Christianity. I thought I'd try and find a modern community and after taking a boat 3hrs upriver and via some pretty patchy information from local people I walked/hitched to a longhouse community in the jungle that was off the beaten track somewhat. I got there at 9.30am and was pretty shocked to find all the men and any boys above about 14 absolutely smashed, as in falling over themselves drunk. Whenever they start to build a new longhouse (literally a long building with apartments for several families but with a shared common area along its length) they have a big party. They'd been drinking since 6 that morning and were (literally) falling over themselves to get me to down the horrid arak (local rice wine) with them. I couldn't really get all that much out of them but a couple of them were wearing Iron Maiden t-shirts and drunkenly started a singalong when I said I liked them too.
Perhaps not the stereotypical image the tourist board likes to promote but an enjoyably realistic one!

So it has been a great couple of weeks in this fantastic island, it has become so popular with tourists because of the variety of its attractions but that hasn't really diminished anything for me. And now I found myself in the lovely capital of Kuching from where tonight I'll take a fairly scary flight to Jakarta as I arrive at about 11pm for a month in Java and onwards.
From Kuching,
Barney

Posted by carlswall 12:28 Archived in Brunei Comments (0)

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