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.