A Travellerspoint blog

February 2009

Happy Valentine

sunny 34 °C

Valentine day is here in Thailand in a very big way - roses, chocolates and pink balloons everywhere.
Throughout our travels we have been caught up in numerous celebrations. We began with the state funeral of the King's sister in Bangkok in November; we launched candlelit krathons, (lotus blossom boats), onto the river in Ayuttaya to celebrate Loi Krathon; we saw the dawn procession of saffron-robed monks through the streets of Luang Prabang in Laos; and we celebrated Christmas with the Muslims of Malaysia. Births, marriages and deaths are all celebrated with enormous zeal here. One funeral we witnessed in Luang Prabang necessitated the closure of the road for three days while mourners feasted and drank under a massive makeshift marquee of tarpaulins. Throughout this time, the gaudy coffin was the centrepiece - illuminated like a Christmas tree with strings of flashing coloured lights. In Bali we followed funeral processions like this one, where dozens of casket carriers lurch erraticatically down the road in the hope of shaking off the evil spirits.
Each morning we found the streets of Vietnam littered with dollar bills. Grieving relatives believe their loved ones will go to hell unless they give everything away before they are buried, so, as they raucusly process with the coffin on the back of a gaily decorated truck, they throw away thousands of dollar bills - all fake. Note that they never throw the real stuff - we know ... we checked.
In Bangkok we found ourselves in the midst of a graduation throng when every university student, together with hundreds of friends and relatives, celebrate simultaneously at the King's Palace.
And today we joined a joyous procession as young boys preparing to become monks were led through the streets by dragons and costumed dancers.
Wherever we have been in South East Asia we have witnessed elaborate ceremonies. These people certainly know how to enjoy themselves - even in the midst of poverty and grief

Posted by Hawkson 22:47 Archived in Thailand Comments (1)

It's a Big McWorld

sunny 33 °C

They are all here in S.E.Asia: Pizza Hut, KFC, Burger King, Starbucks, A&W, and of course, the granddaddy – McDonald’s. All the Western fat cats are here, praying on the locals’ desire for a fun-filled sophisticated life – just like ours. Have we learned nothing from history? Are we not still apologizing to the natives of North America and Australia for ruining their health and their teeth with sugar, starch and alcohol?
Until recently, the residents of this world trod lightly - subsisting largely on rice and bananas – but now, every warung, (meagre neighbourhood store), is laden with chocolate, crisps and coca-cola – the new necessities of life. Highly processed trans-fats and sugars are heavily tipping the scales in this carbohydrate addicted world. Motor scooters are groaning under the weight of a rapidly burgeoning populace while specially adapted motorcycles peddle the deadly poisons.
Rice has sustained the Indonesians and fellow Asians for millennia, and every sculpted hillside could be exhibited at the Tate Modern or the Guggenheim; every paddy is a painter’s palette of verdant green. Yet, today, the real money in tourists' meccas such as Bali is in off-loading these ancient wetlands to the western, and in some cases, Indonesian, developers at grossy inflated prices. But at what cost? Virtually all land is now well beyond the pockets of the natives whose ancestors toiled to carve these productive pastures. Today, monstrous developments are swallowing the landscape and turning the birthrights of generations into motorbikes. televisions and mountains of junk food - instant gratification in exchange for a stable homestead and a lifetime's income. How long before the rice paddies will be nothing more than carefully manicured pastures to enhance the esthetics of the westerners' villas?
This truly is fast becoming a McWorld, where youngsters are constantly bombarded with ads for junk food and every child's dream is to have a cellphone and a motorbike. Judging by the number of fast food outlets - including 24hr. McDonald's with home delivery service, and by the number of obese young teenagers on motorbikes, the battle is already lost.
Junk on the Go is the new motto - see what this guy has to offer!

Now we are back in the sunshine of Thailand; back amidst the Buddhists. We shall miss the contadictions of Indonesia, and we sincerely hope someone will preserve a few rice paddies for our next visit.

Posted by Hawkson 04:33 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)


sunny 30 °C

Is this simply an elaborate dream or have we stumbled onto a movie set? We ask because, after four months in S.E.Asia, we are not certain about anything any more. Are these water buffaloes actually plowing the rice paddy, or is there a camera concealed around the corner?
Is this woman really doing the family’s laundry in the roadside ditch?
Does someone actually watch satellite TV in this flimsy thatched hovel?
Everything here is so improbably archaic or outrageously exotic that nothing seems real. Are the locals just actors waiting for us to leave before they rev up their tractors or fire up their washing machines and dishwashers? Maybe they have second homes in Florida or condos in Cancun?
Ever since our discovery of fake monks in Bangkok we have become increasingly skeptical. We have been touted by fake taxis everywhere. Every driver or motorcyclist outside a rail station claims to be a cab for a few bucks. But what is a genuine taxi? In Hanoi we were hijacked by a real taxi driver who took us to a fake hotel!
Virtually all DVDs and CDs are copies. We saw a bootlegged “Slumdog Millionaire” long before the premiere. The DVD came from a store where every movie was illicit – many of dubious quality. Fortunately, Tony, our man in Bali, speaks the local language and isn’t duped, unlike the tourists who stock up on their way home and discover too late that they’ve bought a complete dud - even the fakes are fake. But what do you expect for a dollar? Even BMWs and Harley Davidsons’ – the ultimate Asian status symbols – may be clones. Books, medicines, batteries, jewellery and paintings may all be imitations. Fake pearls are grown in clams and sold to the vendors by the kilo. Real copies of the Lonely Planet Guides probably don’t exist here at all, and Jim just bought a genuine fake Rolex Oyster for $3. Indonesia is home to a million batik shops, but it takes a good eye to differentiate between genuine handmade silk and polyester printed in China. Even the stores are fake - one short street in Bali has four Dolce & Gabbana shops stocked with ‘genuine’ $600 D&G bags on offer for less than thirty dollars!!!
We have discovered that we are never charged the true price. There is, we are assured, a pricing scale that starts at the top with first time western visitors; dropping a little for returning bule’s and even lower for resident bule’s, before crashing for the local Balinese.
But we do not begrudge the local entrepreneurs a few dollars. After all, the average wage here is thirty dollars, (fifteen pounds). Thirty dollars an hour? No – thirty dollars a month. Just one dollar a day. So - Do you blame them for copying our bags, movies and motorbikes and for trying to squeeze us for a few bucks? We don’t.

Posted by Hawkson 20:05 Archived in Indonesia Comments (2)

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

overcast 28 °C

Bule: pronounced boo-lay means white-skinned (westerner).
For good reason, the intensely superstitious Balinese are as fearful of the gods in the mountains as they are of the devils in the sea. From time immemorial, unpredictable and seemingly vengeful volcanoes have rained fiery death on this island from their cloud-shrouded heights, whilst cyclonic tropical winds have periodically whipped the sea into a destructive frenzy along the coast. It is possible, therefore, that common sense and not superstition has driven the Balinese to believe that a point halfway between these two hellish elements is the best place to live.
Our good friend Tony inhabits such an idyllic space: a lush plateau of rice paddies and coconut palms midway between the mountain and the ocean; a place of tranquility and beauty from where he can oversee the devilish forces of nature whilst remaining resistant to their destructive powers.
Tony is a creative, gentle, intellectual who has no place amongst the boorish ex-pat drunkards who lurch around the sleazy beachside bars with nubile Balinese girls for support. Neither does he fit with the get-rich-quick merchants who inhabit the higher slopes and seek every opportunity to turn a buck by inveigling purpose-made friends into property deals of doubtful value.
However, Bali is not only home to renegade westerners taking advantage of cheap women, cheap land and cheap labour. It is home to more than a million entrepreneurial Balinese who find dastardly inventive ways to pick the pockets of the neo-colonialists.
Bules can neither own property, vehicles nor bank accounts, so need either a local wife or ‘trusted friend’ to act as trustee. But trust is a matter of interpretation which often leaves the “friend” holding the bag.
The families of young people all hit the jackpot if a rich old westerner is lured to the bridal bed. What self-respecting westerner would not build a house – probably large enough for the extended family – or pay for granny’s operation, or brother’s motorbike etc. etc. etc? And why not hire the entire family as cook, cleaner, gardener, etc. etc. etc. ….? The list is endless. It is a symbiotic relationship with each player in some way or another taking advantage - from the rejuvenated bule whose friends back home are trekking through the snow to the pharmacy for incontinence pads, to the twenty-year-old bride who is the envy of the village. Not all such marriages of convenience end in heaven, although the bride and family may end up with all the money.
So, why does Tony stay in Bali and why does he love this life which is so full of contradictions? Because, like us, he sees the ugliness but focuses on the beauty. Because he lives on an idyllic plateau midway between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Posted by Hawkson 20:00 Archived in Indonesia Comments (1)

It's a Wet, Wet, Wet, Wonderful World!

semi-overcast 31 °C

It’s the monsoon season in this watery world. The oceans of rice paddies are daily turned to steam baths by the scorching noonday sun, but by dinnertime the overburdened sky can take no more and it lets go with a warning clash of thunder and lightning. Bucketfuls of warm rain deluge the paddies in a nightly demonstration of the reciprocating cycle of life. In the midst of such a downpour in Ubud, Bali, we watched the Legong dancers in the amazingly ornate community centre.
The suppleness and precision of the dancers was spellbinding whilst the accompanying gamelin was …interesting. Regrettably, we can only show you images of the gongs, drums and primitive xylophones of this orchestra. However, for a close approximation of the percussive cacophony, empty your pots and pans cupboard onto the floor and let loose a dozen of the neighborhood kids with hammers, mallets and wooden spoons.
Water has been the key element in our travels: from crossing the Pacific to Japan; zipping along the Phrao in Bangkok on the water buses; lazily cruising down the Mekong in Laos; and sailing a junk on the South China Sea. The list is almost endless: the Andaman Sea, Indian Ocean, Sea of Bali and Straits of Malacca – we’ve sailed them all. And now as we plan the ending of this journey we have decided to carry on around the world – to cross the Indian Ocean and Asia to England and from there across the Channel to France and the Mediterranean. We will then return home via the Atlantic, the Arctic, Hudson’s Bay, and finally the Strait of Georgia.
Everyday, as we check our emails or talk to family and friends by phone, we marvel at how small the world has become. But then, as we backpack our way around it, we are awed by its enormity and diversity. Despite all the doom and gloom, this truly is a wonderful world.

Posted by Hawkson 22:12 Archived in Indonesia Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

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