A Travellerspoint blog


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Happy New Year from Indochina!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Sapa,

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

Southern Thailand and Cambodia

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

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

Singapore and Peninsula Malaysia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Langkawi,

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

East Timor, Sulawesi and Sumatra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Bukittinggi,

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

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