A Travellerspoint blog

March 2010

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,

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,

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