A Travellerspoint blog

South Central India

Hello from Goa after another cracking few weeks in India.

The monsoon is due to start in about 10 days and whilst Ive been for the most part very lucky with the weather, as the sky turns blueygrey there's a 'closing down' feel to the place. Most hotels and restaurants close up for the season and there aren't that many tourists around. Although after having gone a full month without even speaking to a foreigner it still feels fairly busy to me. So with no-one to talk to about football or the British election I've been getting a bit closer to Indians- for good but sometimes bad. I've been up to plenty more great sightseeing; central India has definitely been a bit more interesting to look at than the Northern plains with a bit of relief in the landscape and various journeys to some isolated places have been really rewarding.

After avoiding radiation sickness in Bhopal I did a long journey to the former Afghan empire capital in Mandu. As its so far from anywhere its gets virtually 0 tourists but they left a brilliantly picturesque set of mosques and palaces which you can climb all over. They're much more Middle Eastern in architectural style with my favorite bits being the endless staircases which don't go anywhere making you feel like you're in an Escher piece. Another great landscape was provided in Hampi which whilst home to the biggest ancient Hindu kingdom it was more memorable for its truly unique landscape, imagine a very big hand picking up a handful of gravel and sprinkling it all over a 30km radius. The result is that you're surrounded by huge boulders in the most unusual places everywhere around you and cycling round the vicinity and climbing a few peaks for the views has def been a highlight of India so far. I also got to stay with a family that I'd met a few weeks earlier on holiday in the Sundarbans in the (admittedly very large) Mumbai satellite of Pune. It was really interesting being in an Indian household for a few days and as its not a remotely touristy city I was quite a novelty and they introduced me to loads of their friends and neighbours- to which I could never think of anything to say beyond 'Hi'. Aside from being a great place to watch Englands T20 World Cup triumph :-) they insisted on feeding me loads of cracking food and it was really interesting talking to them about certain aspects of Indian culture. Indian weddings are famous for their size in England but due to the size of any given castes community the guest list is likely to be limited to 'only' 600 or so. Here however they get to quite incredible proportions, the oldest daughters wedding was about 1400 but they said one of their cousins had a guest list of 4000! Rather than sending out invitations +1 like we tend to do in England, an invitation means an extended family so feeling compelled to invite an unloved work colleague or acquaintance takes on extra significance here. It is of course potentially ruinously expensive trying to feed and entertain so many people but with no alcohol served it does redress the balance sheet somewhat. The middle daughter was about 5yrs older than me and still wasn't married so her parents were getting quite worried, so she told me the near hilarious story of how they took active steps to get her paired off. In the last 2yrs she reckoned she'd been on between 80-100 dates, a lot under any circumstances but when she described an Indian date I couldn't help but feel quite sorry for her. The parents and potential groom get dressed up and go to the girls house on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. Then she described an excruciating few hours whereby the 2 sets of parents basically ask questions about the other childs career and life plans trying to work out their career, income prospects etc. If there's obvious agreement the parents will contact each other and go on to arrange another 'date' then eventually even a private one with just the potential husband and wife by themselves. Not very romantic. I did find it hard not to laugh as she told me the story though she more than got her own back on me when after asking a few questions about my 'career plans' she said in a grave voice "I don't think any Indian parent would ever agree to you".

With my marriage prospects looking bleaker than Charles Clarke's Prime Ministerial ambitions I unfortunately started feeling really quite sick whilst I was there and for about 24 hours (30 motions, too weak to stand etc) I thought I might have to take an unwelcome trip to a hospital. I did however make an enjoyably quick recovery but in a round about way, the manner in which the family treated me I found quite hard to deal with. When I'm ill I just like to be left alone, unmedicated in a darkened room to sweat it out but despite hinting at that as strongly as I could they just couldn't get it. They insisted on opening the windows, curtains and door of the room, did all kinds of irritating tasks around my struggling corpse like body and incessantly tried to ply me with food and medicines which I really didn't want. This process of friendliness leading to over-attention and eventually irritation sums up one of the worst sides to traveling in India From taxi drivers in Kuala Lumpur and especially the low end tailors in Thailand my dealings with Indians in Asia haven't been great. In fact I would have to rate them as one of the most irritating nationality's I've encountered. In the touristy areas you get hassled incessantly, normally rickshaw drivers and handicrap sellers but it can be dodgier, aside from the creepy men offering massages I got offered drugs 43 times in 1 day in Varanasi. But in the non-touristy areas it's almost as bad in a different way; instead of talking about neutral subjects (weather, sports results etc.) with most strangers, conversations with Indians feel more like Q & A sessions. Regardless of what you're doing or where you are people come up to you and just ask the same 5 or 6 questions literally around 20-30 times a day. Some things like your nationality and name are understandable but you quickly realise they're just being a bit nosey trying to suss out your social/economic status (Job? Qualification? Fathers or even siblings jobs?). Whilst I've not met anyone I could remotely describe as malicious or even intentionally unpleasant no matter how patient you are your resolve to be friendly gets severely weakened here after a while. Normal tactics like putting you head in a book don't work (if anything people become even more curious) and I've developed a hatred for cameras on mobile phones, though I do always pose for them as its easier than answering questions. If I'm not in the mood to speak I've got to the stage where I normally just say I'm from Paraguay to stop any further questions.

Much of the problem is that expectations of behavior are really different here; Indians virtually live on top of each other and have a dramatically different sense of personal space to Europeans. Whilst we have instinctive bubbles around people according to how well we know them (e.g. strangers, friends, people you're intimate with etc.) they just don't really have that here and straight away they might do stuff like put an affectionate hand on your back or sit right next to you when there are plenty of other free seats. One of the questions you get asked most frequently not just in India but all over Asia is "You've come alone?" with a surprised tone to the question. Definitely one of the biggest cultural differences I've noticed in Asia has been how they 'do things' in groups in comparison to Europe where the individual operates a lot more independently. Asians are always found in often fairly large groups in pretty much everything they do, whether it be kids doing homework or doing fun stuff like the cinema or going to a restaurant. Even in the mornings in coffee shops in Vietnam or reading the papers at tea stalls here the blokes will generally be in groups or 3 or 4 and it's actually quite unusual to see someone by themselves. The idea of living by yourself is near unheard of and someone in my position traveling alone for several months just makes no sense to them. When Asians go on holiday it can be huge groups of 15 or 20 people which most Europeans would think completely unworkable and whilst it can be quite nice seeing them socialise together and seeing the strength of the family and friends unit you can also see that slightly more introverted characters have much more limited opportunities to make themselves heard in such large groups and perhaps find it harder to 'make their own way'. They also have a really different sense of privacy in India, questions I wouldn't ask my closest friends about their salary or sex life will often come up within minutes of a conversation starting. Whilst you quickly have to learn to just block out people staring at you whilst you're eating or similar, when you're in an internet cafe and are having to repeatedly ask people to stop reading the emails on your screen it feels just rude- to them it isn't but it's an aspect every foreigner struggles with Indians. Oh and after several months of the shy friendliness of the gorgeous kids in SE Asia they really need a 'stranger danger' programme here as the seemingly always dirty Indian kids invariably straight away ask for money or sweets which I'm finding difficult to deal with. So normally I just hit them and then I feel better ;-)

On leaving Pune as I was sick I couldn't reserve a sleeping berth on the 14hr night train to Hyderabad so I had to go 3rd class in one of the most memorable train journeys I've ever taken. Forming queues and being generally courteous to your fellow passengers is something Britain does better than almost anyone- Indians on the other hand would look up with awe and wonder to how we manage it. When a train or bus pulls up there is an almighty scrum with no preference given to the old or infirm and children are generally handed in through windows. Everybody starts arguing like crazy amidst the pulling and pushing and unsurprisingly this system doesn't work very well, I've already twice seen the frankly pathetic sight of 2 full grown adults getting into a physical fight simply over the boarding of a train. To say this train was overcrowded would fall well short of quite how stressful it was, I reckoned there were about 150 people in a space which on an English train would hold 40 seats plus maybe 20-30 standing. Whilst I looked at it and thought 'This just isn't worth it' I didn't really have any choice as the next train wasn't for another 7 hours, simply to get on 6ft inside the train took about 15mins in the scrum, everyone around me was pushing and pulling other people and I was being constantly slapped on the back of the head by an old woman behind me for not pushing hard enough. I had my 20kgs worth of luggage on me and still feeling pretty bad in the heat I got quite close to fainting as everyone else just laughed at me. I only got 'saved' by a guy lifting up my bag and then me onto a 6ft by 2ft wooden 'upper seat' above the actual seats which I shared with 4 other blokes (women and kids sit on the floor) for the journey. But then it turned out he was seemingly drunk or at least damned annoying, I ignored him and so he soon started on another bloke who did respond and they got into a fairly violent grappling match falling off the seat sending the kids on the floor scattering like pins. Eventually it calmed down and got sorted before I got my first sight of an Indian gay. In most countries where the closet door isn't opening men just stay inside or turn tricks or whatever and live on the fringes of society. In India an estimated 2million have taken the unlikely step of becoming, well, basically transvestite 'gangsters'. The way they make money is by coming onto trains fully bejeweled and in beautiful saris etc trying to extort money from the male passengers. They do this in a variety of ways, some simply try and embarrass them e.g. dance provocatively or often they'll annoy them into handing money over e.g. shaking a tambourine or clapping right in their faces. The first one came in was extremely camp and seeing I was a foreigner gave me a lot of attention which I just didn't respond to...until he tried (but failed) to grope me at which point I launched into the most abusefully aggressive 20 second rant I'll probably ever produce as the locals held me back and it ran out of the carriage to the shocked looks of the locals (they're used to it you see). A couple of hours later however, a couple of much bigger, more physically intimidating ones (even dressed in pink and purple saris) came in and started just slapping and hitting people who didn't pay up. I thought 'Oh dear, there could be trouble ahead but when they got to my compartment all the women around me started obviously imploring them to carry on and leave me alone and thankfully they did, so the earlier outburst worked! It's a huge racket with groups of them going up and down the trains all day and night, the police don't do anything about it (they get a cut of course) provided they don't go into the upper class carriages: this is India after all. It's pretty disgraceful they're allowed to make a living this way as it's set up like a proper mafia with different ranks of bosses in different areas etc.

Whilst I resolved never to travel without my own berth I've not been able to get one tonight on the train (rather than the plane) to Mangalore and right now I'm starting to feel a bit queasy at the prospect of the night ahead. I can remember few journeys I'd been happier to finish but thankfully Hyderabad was a nice place to finish it in. One of the biggest 'Muslim' areas of the country it has an extremely rich history with the Nizam of Hyderabad famed as the richest and most senior Indian Prince, he had such power that even the British left him to rule an area the size of Greece independently. As it was majority Muslim the Nizam came very close to joining Pakistan at partition (South Pakistan?) but the Indians didn't really fancy that so sent in the army to take charge. Whilst the Nizams left a legacy of palaces and Islamic monuments (along with Pune) its the first place where I've seen the so called New India. It's a bit of a vague concept but seems to involve the country becoming richer and more Westernised and this is predominantly through IT/ call centers etc (Hyderabad has earned the nickname of Cyberabad) . Whilst I'll write more about it in Mumbai the most pleasing aspect of it was being able walk around in a lot more comfort because much of the city has pavements. It's perhaps not something you think of in regards to improving urban quality of life but I do think it's something which really sets developed (especially European) cities aside from the developing world. The price of vehicles especially motorbikes has really come down in recent years and has given most Asians a real mobility boost. Only the very poorest have no access to personal transport and subsequently all over the continent people look down on walking. Women especially seem to prefer to take a taxi to go distances I wouldn't even blink at e.g. <500m and I remember visiting a national park near Bangkok where out of the roughly 4,000 Thais staying in the park I saw less than a dozen actually doing any walking -they just sat around drinking and eating BBQs instead! In India walking around cities is really hard work as because there's no pavements you're both walking in the rubbish filled dust on the side of the road and having to constantly watch for the scary traffic. Subsequently your ability to absorb and enjoy cities is vastly reduced and seeing pavements as signs of more comfortable wealth was a pretty welcome sight.

Finally I came to Goa which aside from the Taj Mahal is probably India's biggest tourist attraction- and for good reason. Portugal are Britain's oldest ally and despite the Brits running the subcontinent for so long they let Goa (and another spot called Diu further up the coast) stay in Portuguese hands. The Portuguese did their usual colonial schtick of absolutely refusing to leave (they had to be kicked out by the Indian army as late as 1961) and leaving a strong Catholic heritage which the Indians have transformed into a wonderfully colorful version of the church. Whilst the people looked at me blankly when I tried out some Portuguese on them aside from the religion and Portugues names there are plenty of stunning old churches of the colonial era as well as cities filled with pastel coloured villas dotted around so it's been a relaxing change from the clogging crowds elsewhere in the country. Aside from the unique culture and beautiful beaches its also unfortunately developed a slightly seedy reputation (mainly through the drugs trade) and acts as a bit of a magnet for ne'er do wells from all over India but also some from further afield. Various cases including Nigerian rapists, Israeli super drug dealers and illegal immigration into the state have filled the papers and its success means it has a fair sized task to keep its idyllic within an 'Indian' context. As it was close to the end of the season ie near empty the restaurant and hotel owners had plenty of time and were only to happy to sit and talk about the behavior of certain groups of visitors. I did sit there partly thinking said visitors pay your wages but they understandably seemed to relish laying into certain tourists. Whilst they agreed the always friendly European hippies were generally OK the ever loathsome Israelis got plenty of criticism, mainly for their 'post army service' antics turning certain beaches into open air drug dens. But definitely the most criticized group were the waves of Russian package tourists which have started arriving in the last few years. They had a long rap sheet of cultural insensitivities but definitely top amongst these was the irrational insistence of the women to sunbathe topless. To be fair I didn't see it but apparently during high season it's a very common sight for Russian women to strip off then soon afterwards Indian male holidaymakers (not the locals- they're used to it) will take a pew on the sand as little as 10 or even 8ft away..and simply stare. Consequently many pf them get quite hacked off and end up hating Goa and whilst you can easily criticize the Indians for the lack of respect etc it's quite easy to see why it happens. Indian women wear their normal saris even in the water and in over 2 months I've yet to see any Indian woman in the flesh flashing any skin at all.

Although that's definitely not what you see on TV; different forms of media show Bollywood starlets in differing degrees of undress with adverts in particular seemingly filmed in a parallel India where beautiful women wander round in strapless tops, heels and short skirts and no-one bats an eyelid. But interestingly this seems to be having a positive effect on womens quality of life generally. The effects of TV on society have revealed some very interesting sociological studies around the world and in India the spread of cable TV seems to be having a surprisingly positive effect. In almost all countries TV is very much aspirational, most programmes feature unrealistically good looking people living fairly easy lives in pleasant surroundings. In the USA during 1950-65 and in most of Latin America between 1975-1995 the effect of the roll out of TV to poorer areas is seen to have led to a surge in migration from the poorer rural areas to the cities but also had a terrible effect on crime rates. The theory is that as poorer people saw these images on TV it triggered jealous feelings and a desire to improve their lives fast. India is no exception to having aspirational TV, in fact the images presented here are probably more divorced from reality than 90% of places (everyone is rich and seems to live in airconditioned condos) , cable TV has slowly been rolled out in the countryside during the last 10yrs and so its effects have been relatively easy to track. The most noticeably positive effect has been on young women; the quality of life for young wives in India is often terrible especially in poorer communities. Aside from being given heavy workloads they're often heavily physically and mentally abused not just by their husbands but also members of his family (who she's moved into). It's one of the biggest (but least discussed) social problems in India and the suicide rate amongst young Indian women is shockingly high here; but the spread of TV seems to be reversing the problem somewhat. However unrealistic the images in soaps and dramas may be, the theory is that as women are seeing other women dressing and acting more independently and working to earn their own money its having a motivational effect on more marginalised women in the countryside. Scholarship applications to go and study in the cities have shot up and there's been a noticeable dip in the birth rate once television has arrived in an area. The classic power struggle in any Indian household (as is repeatedly shown in the plot of all the soaps here) between the wife and the mother in law for the running of the household seems to be turning too and whilst suicide rates are going down the number of convictions for abuse cases is going up (rather than being left to suffer in silence). It could well just be that everyone else in the family is also watching telly but either way it's another Inidan hypocrisy that's been quite strange to observe for a visitor as the 'fantasy' images of TV and films seem to be having a subtly positive effect on the reality for many people.

From here I head South and with the world cup just about to start it only remains for me to wish Roque and the boys the best of luck. You can do it lads.

From Margao,
Barney

Posted by carlswall 13:25 Archived in India Comments (0)

North Central India

Hello from a very hot India, I'm writing this from a place called Khajuraho which aside from being 5 hours from anywhere is home to the 'Karma Sutra' temples- they're educating. Rereading my journal last night I've seen and done some great stuff this month including some very important religious spots, some amazing architecture and seeing why Britain deserved its prefix once upon a time. Oh and if you're a bit squeamish I advise skipping the last paragraph.

But before all that my Mum made the incomprehensible decision to leave our gorgeous dog for a couple of weeks and come out to visit her other, rather less attractive male dependent. Before Bhutan we met up in the lovely hill station of Darjeeling, which is part Victorian holiday resort part tea growing centre straddling a ridge 2200m up in the Himalayas. It's an amazing journey up from the plains below, the thing that most hits you about the Himalayas is just how steep they are, the altitude goes from just 100m to 8500m in little more than 30km as the crow flies. Unsurprisingly Darjeelings greatest attraction is its stupendous mountain vistas with Kanchenjunga the third highest mountain in the world dominating the horizon. Unfortunately we were never to see it as permanent cloud cover persistently blocked our view, however the cloud did add a beautiful and at times eerie quality to the scenery and isolated monasteries we visited. Up in the Himalayas it feels incredibly peaceful but it's actually quite a volatile area, there are loads of asylum seekers from Tibet and Myanmar who've been here so long they have their own recognised communities but the indigenous Gorkha people also want their own state within India so there are police everywhere. Residents of this area, mainly Nepali speaking Gorkhas have long sought a separate state for themselves to improve their socioeconomic conditions and seemingly every building is draped in 'self-autonomy' graffiti. They also have weekly demonstrations and my Mum inadvertently found herself in the middle of a demonstration through the town before somewhat surreally being featured in the first item on the news one evening.

After two nights in Darjeeling we crossed into Sikkim and headed to Pelling. Sikkim is a tiny, beautiful state lying to the south of Tibet and sandwiched between Nepal to the West and Bhutan to the East. It was, until the early 1960s an isolated, independent Buddhist kingdom but annexed by India it is now a predominately Hindu, fully fledged Indian state. Utterly serene in atmosphere this part of India felt an absolute world away from the chaos of the plains below and despite a couple of fairly tiring weeks at altitude answering incessant questions about Leyton Orient and the state of Peter Andre's career Mum was happy to have finished her holiday in this environment, oh and pleased to see the back of me for a while.

On coming back from Bhutan I went on a water safari to the Sundarbans- one of the tigers last main refuges. The Sundarbans are a huge area of mangrove swamp forest straddling the Bangladesh/India border and are home to some 500 Royal Bengal tigers. The only way to access them properly is via boat and it was an extremely peaceful few days watching the birds etc, whilst I was never likely to spot a tiger plenty of people living nearby do. Due to the swampy nature of the land there's little man can do with it and so the tigers appear to be relatively safe there, in fact the one major industry that can take place is the high quality honey collecting from the bees that live there. If management consultancy or similar feels a bit 'flat' as a job then I recommend becoming a honey collector in the Sundarbans. It really is a spectacularly dangerous job, on the Bangladesh side alone about 120 people a year are taken by tigers (or one every three days) and indeed our guide told the stories of how 2 of his uncles copped it from the super cats in this way.

On going back to Kolkata I was plunged into a city of colonial splendour mixed with abject poverty. It was the capital city in colonial times and regardless of your views on the empire etc you can't help but be amazed at what Britain achieved in India. The city was very much the administrative and economic centre although it has quite an odd visual feel to it. After many Communist governments there are loads of nationalist symbols and plenty of memorials to Chandra Bose, a sort of pro violence anti Ghandian figure in the independence movement, but also lots of decaying mansions. The British left an incredible architectural legacy of handsome 4 storey buildings for homes and administrative offices, thankfully the offices have been kept in use and maintained so really wouldn't look out of place in South Kensington. For the residential building though the Communists brought in rent control policies so that rents could not be legally increased dating back to the '70's and so you have the crazy situation of people paying as little as 5 cents a month to live in a gorgeous crumbling mansion as the landlords understandably refuse to repair or maintain the properties. Topped by the magnificent Victoria Monument it's the sort of place which shows why Britain was once so economically powerful; elsewhere I've seen loads evidence of Britain's former military might and how it maintained control of such a vast, sprawling area. The almighty but beautiful 12km fort perched 100m above the town at Gwalior was incredibly photogenic though my favourite military sight was in Lucknow. Ranking only behind Rourkes Drift in 1879 and Cardiff in June 2009 in the finest defensive actions against upstarts within the empire, the Residency there held out for an insane 5 months under constant shelling during the Indian uprising of 1857 before being eventually relieved and defeating the local rebels. Whilst it's somewhat delusionally called the First War of Independence here, the uprising has a fascinating history and the stories of what Britain held onto despite being vastly outnumbered and often out gunned have been awesome to hear and see.
On any trip to Asia religion will always be a key part of what's going on around you and Jerusalem excepted perhaps nowhere is more important in world religion than India. Home to 2 of the 'big 4' (Hinduism and Buddhism) it's also home to Sikhism, Parsis and Jainism plus plenty of Muslims and thanks to the British even has a fair few Christians. Whilst I've known for many years that my one true faith is based in the E10 postcode (the latest miracle took place on 13/4/2010) you can't help but enjoy learning how other people live and seeing how important their faith is in the most spiritual continent.
In Kolkata I saw the extremely moving Mother Teresa Mission and then spent a week in the very poor, untouristy state of Bihar seeing the most important Buddhist sites in the world. Whilst Lord Buddha was born across the border in Nepal I visited the other 3 major pilgrimage sites where he became enlightened, preached his first sermon and the very sad reclining statue marking where he died in Kushinagar. Each of the small villages around these sites have monasteries from around the world and aside from getting to stay in them for next t nothing I received the proud mental confirmation that after several months in Buddhist countries I can tell the nationality of a Buddhist temple at 50 paces just by its design. Impressive eh?

I also went to a few Jain holy sights; Jainism is an offshoot (sort of) of Hinduism and the Jain community draws a lot of praise from pretty much everyone else in India. Due to their perceived honest piety Jains have been extremely successful in business and constitute one of the wealthiest communities in India.They're also famed for living one of the most ascetic, pure lives of any religion and whilst in England they're most famous for wearing grilles over their mouths (so no bugs fly in) many of the worshipers here carry a brush and sweep b4 every single step they take so unsurprisingly they've never had any marathon runners. Whilst the temples were beautiful I found I couldn't really enjoy the insides much as the walls are festooned with pictures of ugly naked men (faithful monks in their 'purest form'). What I enjoyed a lot more was the free food they gave you just for visiting them :-)
It was during this period that the temperature was at its hottest, India tends to get its hottest weather before the monsoonal rains in the Summer and most days it was getting into the mid 40's by 9am, but of course being English I'd still spend all day outside doing stuff.
Whilst I'm lucky to have a body which seems to cope pretty well regardless of the weather the main way I got through it was by just chugging 8-10L of water every day. The heat does have quite an odd effect on your body though as I found despite all the water I was only going to the loo once a day in the morning and my torso was covered with blotches like a baby's milk spots caused by the heat. Sleeping could also be terrible as India has a surprisingly big problem with power outs and when the fan stopped working or I was staying somewhere which didn't even have a fan 4 or 5 cold showers a night had only a limited effect.
So I took a bath instead, of course 80%+ of the country are Hindus and I greatly enjoyed visiting a few of the holy cities on the banks of the Ganges. The Kumbh Mela takes place every 4 years and is the largest gathering of humanity anywhere in the world. An astonishing 100m people converge on the counter-intuitively named city of Allahabad to take communal baths and make offerings in the 'Holy Mother' (Ganges). I wasn't around for that unfortunately but saw plenty of others making their offerings and seeing them all definitely filled me with a sense of wonder at their strength of faith in a religion so old and yet so powerful in the collective consciousness of so many people.
Whilst I took a plunge in Allahabad I couldn't bring myself to do it in the holiest city of Varanasi. It's an incredible place where 3000 yr old alleys and cloisters lead towards a set of ghats (bathing steps) flanked by huge palaces on the river. To take a 'sin clearing' dip in the water is the most important pilgrimage site in Hinduism and it's where everyone dreams of dying. Around 70,000 people do it every early morning and evening and it's quite an incredible sight as the pilgrims make their various offerings but I couldn't bring myself to do it. And that was because the water was absolutely disgusting beyond belief. It's really easy to tell where the fish are because they're all gulping oxygen at the surface, this is due to the water being officially classed as 'septic' (no dissolved oxygen). There are 30 huge sewers running into the river and whilst most Hindus are ceremonially burnt before having their ashes scattered, there are quite a few exceptions to this (children, pregnant women, lepers etc.) and their bodies are weighted down and dumped in the river. All this means that the water has a harmful bacteria content of 1.5m per 100m litres of water, for water safe to bath in in the EU it must number less than 500. So both simultaneously 'purifying' and a fast track to cholera.
Neatly continuing the religious theme I've also seen plenty of the Islamic influence in this, the worlds most multifaceted country. India was ruled for several centuries by the Mughals from Iran and Afghanistan and aside from their economic and other cultural legacies they left behind some of the finest architecture in the world. From incredible palaces and famous forts built by the atrociously nicknamed Akbar the Great (Akbar means great in Arabic) to the awesome tombs which are dotted around I seem to have seen something amazing virtually every day in the last few weeks. Chief amongst these is of course the Taj Mahal; whilst best known as the name of seemingly half of the Indian restaurants in England it is actually a very important historical monument as the Taj provided the backdrop for the definitive image of the Charles and Diana divorce when she sat alone in front of it in 1992.
That was quite ironic as it's often been called 'the worlds most beautiful monument to love', built by Shah Jehan in the 17th century as a tribute to his dead wife I couldn't help but agree with that view. After his 2nd wife had just died during the labor of her 14th pregnancy it really must have been love as he could have built the Taj for any one of his 20 something other wives. Or any member of his 5,000 (why would you need 5,000??) strong harem for that matter.
Now I'm at the Karma Sutra temples where I've continued to learn about 'love'; the carvings of women with chests that would put Simona Halep to shame show an incredible degree of artistry and are of course petty graphic. Historians aren't really sure why the obsession with sex but the most common explanation is that the Chandelas (ruling class who built the temples) thought that it was purifying and a way of transcending evil to achieve enlightenment. Personally I prefer the view that it's simply a way of representing love in its most natural and arguably most honest form. And if that form of 'love' requires 3 other people and a horse to achieve, then so be it.
So from here I head south into Central India, enjoy the election and nce again the final paragraph isn't very nice so be warned.
When you're in India you very quickly realise that you don't so much visit the county as absorb and experience it. I've already seen quite a few things about which Indians seem to be very hypocritical; whilst I'm sure I'll say more in the emails ahead one of them is their claim to treat animals so much better. A few times already I've got into conversations where a local has started lecturing me on why we don't treat animals well in England and India is much more humane, but despite being in the socially dubious category of a vegetarian myself I found myself arguing back quite vehemently. Yes, the cow is sacred here and has right of way but I don't think allowing them to roam around motorway reservations and the like supplementing their inadequate food supply by eating plastic bags and other bits of rubbish is better than feeding them grass in a fenced field. Similarly they won't put stray or ill dogs down and so you have the sad sight of ill or wounded dogs desperately begging for scraps everywhere. Therefore I find myself strongly disagreeing with the first part of the phrase "In India all life is sacred- except human life".
The second part of the phrase however was neatly illuminated by an incident on a ghat in Varanasi, whilst sitting in the shade I noticed a dog dragging a doll by its lining, only I looked a bit closer and it wasn't a doll- it was the top half of a baby with its arms and head still attached and the 'lining' were its guts and lungs spilling out. I've no idea where it came from or how the dog got it but needless to say I was bit shocked. I didn't have a phone so asked a few passers by to call the police, the first 2 just said "Why? it's already dead", the 3rd guy then actually made a joke and said "It looks like a monkey" b4 a 12yr old lad corrected him and said "No, that's not a monkey - it's a baby" and they both strolled off.
As the succinct tourist board slogan aptly puts it: Incredible !ndia.

From Khajuraho,
Barney

Posted by carlswall 13:17 Archived in India Comments (0)

Bangladesh and Bhutan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Kolkata,
Barney

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

Going Barmy in Bangladesh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laos and Northern Thailand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Bangkok,
Barney

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

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