1993-4 (10 months)
•Singapore (November 1 week)
•Malaysia (east coast northwards to Penang) (Nov / Dec 1 month)
•Sumatra to Jakarta (December / Jan 6 weeks)
•Malaysia: Sarawak and Sabah provinces (Borneo February 1 month))
•Philippines (March 1 month)
•Jakarta eastwards to Bali, Lombok, Komodo, Flores etc(April / may 2 months)
•Thailand (June 1 month)
•Vietnam (July 1 month)
•Burma (August 1 month)
1999-2000 See part 2
•Thailand week at beginning and 2 weeks at end
•Laos (November / December 2 months)
•Cambodia (January 1 month)
My interest in the region was inspired following a 2 week packaged deal. It in turn reflected a relaxation on travel restrictions arising from the release of Nelson Mandela in South Africa. My curiosity was intensified by the contrast between this rapidly developing region and the stagnant moribund economies of Southern Africa where I had for some 8 years been fortunate to travel.
The package deal: a taster
The package deal was simply a typical package. It opened my eyes and more particularly my taste buds. My main memories were of the sanitised ultra clean Singapore. The street eateries offering a wide variety of tastes flavours and aromas and most importantly the more vibrant intense flavours and aromas of Penang where Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures moulded together.
The first backpacking trip (1993/4)
It was a turning point in my life both in terms of work where I had hit the buffers, in terms of the country i.e. South Africa and whether it offered a future, where was I going to earn money for future travels and finally my own contentment with myself. Most folk would say a good time for a break and anyway I was only 32.
I started ,as the flights were good from Joeys but also as a nervous and solo traveller I wanted the opportunity to backtrack slightly but more economically on where I had been before in 91.
I stayed close to the quite posh Raffles about 50 yards away in a Chinese style hotel of a very cheaper price rack. The plywood walls ran to within a foot of the ceiling where a wire mesh came into play and allowed the freer circulation of air. Fans were either simple stand alone or circular whirring machines from the ceiling relocating warm air from one part of the room and building to another part. There was no air-conditioner but the price was good for Singapore. I retraced many of my steps from my earlier trip enjoying the fish and meat markets but less so the increasing number of sanitised re-constructions. Its all nice but too plasticy.
The trip up the east coast of peninsula Malaysia was fine in summary. As I progressed North the influence of Islam grew, the numbers of veils became more common and by the time the bus arrived in Kota Bahru in the northeast my short clad legs were being pinched. Time to cover up the legs (the leaders into temptation). The food was always good and ingredients fresh. The range of fabrics for sale was mind boggling in terms of bright colours, and everywhere there was a buzz of development and of progress.
Reading the local papers albeit the English version provided an insight into what was happening in the country although I used a short wave radio for world news, as I'm a news junkie. One issue of race concerned the impact of the small but significant Chinese community who do well in business and also at university. I recall a local report about a government proposal to assist the native Malay or Bumiputra meaning son of the soil to get into university and for exam assessment. The writer in one particular paper criticised this proposal on the grounds that would anybody use the services of a lesser qualified but Bumiputra origin compared to the use of a Chinese doctor. Affirmative action was and is an issue in South Africa and more subtly so in the UK. I don’t think it can be manipulated at a later stage. Start at the beginning i.e. the child.
From my earlier trip it was like many holiday destinations lacking the buzz and excitement of the first visit. I sat in quite a few bars slowly sipping the expensive but cold beers.
A big fast powered vessel took me across the straits to the flat boring city of Medan. I'm sure there are some interesting aspects to Medan and I did find a crocodile zoo but crocs are none too exciting unless been fed: like some people!!.
Then it was pack up the old backpack that was becoming smaller and more manageable as I queried why had I brought food cans from Africa; a clear case of coals to Newcastle. The bus trip southwards to Lake Toba was an introduction to jungle encroaching on the road although it happened progressively as we proceeded. Lake Toba is what remains of one of the largest volcanic explosions ever and about 74,000 years ago too. The explosion nearly killed the planet. A massive lake containing an island well nearly an island. On the boat trip to the island, young boys advertise the various accommodation on the “island” with business cards or more elaborate mini photo albums, prices negotiable. This was my first breakaway from what had been to now a very structured organised and more conventional trip. I began to feel that my adventure was only now starting.
The boat dropped a couple of us off at a series of huts in what turned out to be a guesthouse owned by a German woman who had backpacked earlier in life, settled and married a local. Life can be so simple!. Walking filled the days as well as eating. Each room was assigned an exercise book into which was entered every single meal and beverage allowing one to see what had been eaten from a wide-ranging menu. It was periodically priced, added up and a request for money made if getting too large. Christmas dinner was following consultation with all the guests a massive smorgasbord on Christmas Eve. There were no water sports then, but the size of the lake was not restrictive.
Well exercised and better fed, I headed south through a jungle road that was becoming more and more claustrophobic enhancing. Rounding a bend on a very tortuous road we came to a sudden halt as the way ahead was blocked by a bus on its side with no serious injuries as all buses are packed. I’m not meaning to be cruel but there's never far to fall inside a local bus. The road from both directions was backing up with traffic of buses and trucks. In the west we would wait for a big crane to come out and right the bus with traffic diverting to die-roads. Here there were no alternative roads and the road was blocked mainly with trucks ladened with merchandise. A couple of men were rigging up block and tackle as we arrived and within 20 minutes the bus was righted, the road cleared and we were on the way again.
Bukkittingi was a hillside stopover and resting point nestled on a hillside within sight of 3 major volcanoes of which one was smoking gently. Okay I exaggerate but one has erupted less than 5 years earlier and was considered dangerous. They straddled a mountain range that seemed to surround the town all very picture book like all very precarious.
Then I hit a blank spot on my travels. A fishing town of small scale on the west coast. It was non-descript and more of a stop over than a stop here place. I found a delightful guesthouse composed of wooden chalets on the outskirts of town on a long flat beach with a gentle sea. I spent several days there doing little than long walks practising Bahasa Indonesia with the locals and the outstanding memory was of a kilo of lobster and a bowl of rice for a dollar and a half. The freshness was superb. The price enhanced the meal.
Southwards to Jakarta in one long bus journey depositing me at a bus station on the outskirts of the city at a bus station with no cash to hand and all banks shut. One problem with backpacking is knowing the local holidays. I started walking to the city centre in search of accommodation of a more touristy kind and away from what is truly a big flat city. A taxi driver stopped and between his English and my appalling Indonesian we headed off with a known maximum top price been the cash I had and the fact that at every stop / red light the meter went off. He was very helpful and kind and maybe business was quiet or he on a return journey. Other than walking in a city with few road signs, falling darkness and no prior experience I was lucky. I found the Jalan Jaksa, which was the backpacking area. One might say a seasoned traveller would avoid but I was not seasoned and these backpacking areas of concentration spoke English, converted money at competitive rates and were a break. After some 6 weeks of Sumatran chillies I headed off to a MacDonald’s for 2 cheeseburgers, fries coke and a dose of diarrhoea. Was my stomach adapting to real food and away from thrash food. I never touched anything similar for the rest of my trip.
My visa for Indonesia was for 2 months long enough for most travellers but my plan was to head east and an exit re-entry was required. Via a local travel agent I got a ticket to Sarawak on the Borneo part of Malaysia.
Borneo (Sarawak / Sabah provinces)
The town / city of Kuching meaning city of cats was typical of much of Malaysia and tourist Malaysia in particular with its strident sanitised cleanliness and its blander for tourist cuisine unless you sat with locals which was the backpacking route. I enjoyed the riverside with its benches, wide walkways etc. It was cheerful and nice but it still was a city more western than eastern. Head away from the main street and one found locals and slight confusion over menus but what the heck. They the Malays always spoke enough English to sell you what they had and one could always say no if you did not want. Simple honest transaction.
And so I left heading east to the Rejang river. Here I spent a week wandering up the river travelling by means of what was a boat in the water and an aircraft fuselage above the water. Several parts of the river involved some wilder navigating in the rapids with spray flying it was logical to keep everyone and their personal effects some cargo inside and dry. But from the jetty that is what they did look like and each carried about 100 passengers in airline style cramped seats. Large people struggle. The only disadvantage was that we were played local movies which all featured lots of kung fu action interspersed with a few glimpses of pretty women and so on and on till the destination arrived. Each stop along the river revealed a town more basic and shabby than the one before. Even the number of backpackers diminished as we proceeded. Eventually we were been asked to sign declarations that we were not photographers or journalists. Small personal cameras of the time were okay but zoom lens and worse still a 2nd lens seemed to propel a traveller into the realm of professional photographer. The reason is simple, the widespread land clearance aimed at getting the trees out but which literally were stripping the land bare. It was ugly to see.
After 5 days of travelling I got to a village along with a backpacking couple and then headed out to a local long house having stocked up on the required alcohol and sweets and small cash gift to be used as gifts. If you think about it, these seemed oriented to warming the hearts of the children and the men leaving the women and wives ignored. After my first ever experience dispensing sweets, which nearly caused a riot and left some upset I vowed in future to give to the teacher or mother and never to a near mob of shouting youngsters.
The longhouse where I had lunch with my guide and translator (same person) was in traditional style a single building partitioned for each family. The head / local chief was a genial well built bloke of average local height tattooed although its to the women that one finds that the amount of the body covered by tattoos that indicates status in society. As we sat on a mat on the reed floor I could not help noticing the telly and VCR in the corner and they did have a generator for use. The next stop on the journey would take me more remote and more for research but I was slightly disappointed in a very selfish manner to see modernity intruding on my experiences.
The following day I headed off downriver to a logging camp where I stayed in a the guest room of a wooden chalet, had meal of large bowl of rice and some chicken with the loggers and slept uneasily with the spiders in my room. There were just too many of them to start killing etc but they left me alone; A truce maybe!!.
On returning to the coast, I took a room with an air conditioner as I dried out a sleeping bag wettened when my backpack had gone swimming in the river. It was moderately distressing to see my bag floating away but the current took it back. That was my excuse for the financial and comfort indulgence.
To travel east from Sarawak to Sabah there is a long local bus and slow route around the country of Brunei or one can travel through Brunei or hey presto fly over. But Brunei does or at least did not like backpackers. Getting a visa takes several days but I decided to chance it by boarding a bus. Getting out of the Malay part like getting out of most countries is relatively easy and despite been smartly dressed I was rejected at the Brunei side. It’s a flipping long walk back to the Malay border and from there I hitched back to the big town and bought an air ticket. It was not dear but I would have liked to get a glimpse at Brunei.
Was wilder and not a patch on the tamer Sarawak. It had a big business buzz and the Buffalo gut soup was a delight. Not too chewy either under the warm sea air sipping a Pepsi. Signs of Islam also in the air.
Out to Mount Kinabalu and a 2-day climb up along what is more a never-ending series of rough-hewn steps occasional rocky scree to a cloud enwrapped overnight stop. On the final stage of the ascent I gave up due to the rain on my glasses blocking vision. There was no view of note from the top due to the clouds. Around this time a team of the SAS had their trip although away from the tourists and in a nasty gully go awry. Mountains are pretty in clear nice weather. In cold wet weather they are less so but hey it was fantastic exercise and the leg muscles were duly stretched: could barely walk for a day.
Off to the orang a tang sanctuary and then turtle island (see animals and I)
Islands belong to King Phillip of Spain before the yanks got hold of them in some settlement truce along with Cuba. Locals consider knowledge of English to be proof of education and happily display this.
There is not a single culture although Luzon the main island is the most developed. Completely undeveloped is any knowledge of electrical wiring. Nowhere in Africa had I seen such poorly connected wires plugs and sockets. A far from glamorous nightclub had wires hanging from the ceiling between different glittering globes and lights. On no occasion was I electrocuted but never before had I a 2nd thought before connecting or switching on / off any electrical device. Hopefully it has improved since 1994. It could not have got worse.
What they lack in knowledge of electric they more than make up in a passion for their Jeepneys. Post 2nd world war they took the basic American jeep and they stretched the wheelbase. I’m not sure if they strengthened anything but with a cab and a hard cover over the back they then had a passenger vehicle. Each side of the vehicle had a flap running the length about a foot in height to keep rain and dust out and could be opened in city traffic allowing the passengers to see where they were going. The passenger / driver cab was always full with at least 3 and sometimes 5. The back was lined on each side with a simple wooden bench (space below for storage) but the commercial twist was the wooden bench down the middle of the back allowing even extra passengers. The roof was for storage of merchandise be it rice or chickens and in the countryside people sat up there and although uncomfortable to the standard western bum it was at least in the open air. At the rear of the vehicle was a step upon which the additional passengers held on and the money collector operated, calling at anyone that might look at a passenger and stopping the driver when required. Twenty passengers would be normal around Manila building up at peak times and for longer runs to what I know not. Does not sound too exciting until you see the sparkling clean chrome work in addition to the paintwork that adorns the vehicle. The chrome was never grubby and the paintwork always clean at least at the start of the journey.
My next surprise in Manila was the taste of the food. After Sumatra and Borneo I had not expected livelier but all my meals seemed bland in comparison. I went upmarket in price terms to find for example the fish (unknown species and uncheap too) bland. So was the rice as is most westernised rice. It means less now with passing time but I had planned to spend some time here and was and remained disappointed by the food.
A pleasant excursion was to a rather unusual cemetery. I'm used to headstones and even the railing around the grave and even when these are done very ornately. It’s all quite typical of old English cemeteries, the variety of displays of former wealth. What was unique here was the very elaborate displays. One storey and even 2-storey building over the grave about the size of a smallish room finished as if it was a home. The poor folk were buried in the wall along the perimeter but those wanting to make a final mark had a little waiting home. Cute and weird.
A major aspect of this group of islands is the extent to which it is covered by lots of active volcanoes impacted by earthquakes and the coastal areas knocked about by Tsunamis. The cultural history museum brought home the lack of singularity to appearance in terms of bone structure with the northern part reflecting Japanese influences (it did) and the southern islands reflecting influences from Indonesia and Malaysia.
I took a tour of some of the parts of the city and met a curiously interesting English bloke from the legal profession. He was spending a few weeks out of England and away from his wife moaning about how his small legal practise kept him so busy for so little and the fact that his wife was not happy with him having a mistress. How he found the time. Our shared journeys were to reveal that he also had a girlfriend that was diverting his mind from his mistress. Talk about making life complicated but he was genuinely trying to sort himself out as we agreed to head north together. I looking for volcano experiences (inside on top but right up close) and he to Clarke air force base and the local town of Angeles a former active US military command but now emptied (following the volcano Pinatubo) but leaving behind an active Filipino matchmaking service or just a centre for casual sex run mainly by swaggering loud Australians who drank beer like eggcups of water. I was genuinely innocent and not into hiring a woman for a week which seemed to be the normal package deal from the land of Oz. (my own gender was also confusing).
After several days where I avoided matchmakers, discovered the volcano was dangerous (everywhere was covered in volcanic ash) and also found one dozy Sunday afternoon that the air force base was used by a group of petrol heads for racing cars. It was an alternative to the prospect of marrying a pretty local girl and her family.
One story from an Ozzie (they were in Vietnam too with the yanks but seemed less keen on going home) was how he used to run a 3-story establishment for the yanks. There was over a mile of establishment when I was there although with many closed. Ground floor was for the joe soaps and there were some 25,000 on the base normally doubled for exercises (of the military kind) so the customers were there. Like many military bars it provided beers some girls to talk to etc and some in human sized birdcages available for marriage. The 2nd floor was for officers and posher than below whilst the top floor was reserved for generals. The ozzie bloke genuinely missed the good times of this meatmarket. Was the volcano that closed the base inspired by a Puritan source. The absence of a question mark is intentional !!
Northwards to the caves of Sagada which are deep and exciting if you are into penetrating deep dark spaces underground. I was unsure, tried it with a group of other travellers, got scared lifeless on the slippery surfaces and let them go on as I sat in the darkness. It seemed a safer alternative and I knew they had to come back for me. I was very relieved when they did. Learning point for me is that caving etc is not for me.
I parted from my English companion who was returning to his love life dilemma but I think with regrets for the apparent but false simplicity of Asian brides, met an Israeli who shared an interest in the newly tourist opened region, safe to travel to, and no longer under guerrilla control town in the middle of the island of Luzon. The impact of landslides visible as we jeepneyed along a dusty road more and more remote with less signs of civilization. The town of our destination was picturesquely situated along side a lake. Sweet wrappers filled the streets as the Minister of Tourism and en entourage including press had been but had left and all that by mid-day. All men were already drunk. We were asked what we would like for lunch and instead of a menu we were shown a selection of canned foods and my Israeli companion wisely declined. I picked a can of squid which appeared soon after, out of the can, and chopped to manageable portions although maybe the canner had done that (there was no warmth to the food) and a big bowl of rice. The rice was tasty and enjoyed, as I was also hungry. That evening we were entertained by a group from a local school with singing and some dancing. We had grilled chicken and rice before a group of young men engaged in a furious alcohol fuelled (them not her) debate with my Israeli companion and I listened to the local teacher bemoaning how the attitude of central government to family planning was to provide televisions rather than contraceptives, this been a catholic country. There had been lots and lots of children. Bedtime came with the sound of gunfire as the local police broke up a crowd that had been watching a movie in the local plaza.
I parted from my Israeli companion to head further north to the top of the island clearly devoid of tourists and economic development. Girls were frequently offered in local bars just like a bowl of peanuts would in other bars and it seemed more desperate and these less pretty than those girls further south in Angeles and Manila.
I began to feel alone and unhappy in what was less friendly environment. The odd one out in this society. I started to travel more and stay less as I headed back to Manila from where to head South East to the next big volcano Mayon. And from there to visit other islands.
Mayon was on emergency level 3 heading to 4 which was quite worrying when 5 was erupting like mad. Whilst Angeles had ash this was covered in ash a whitish flaky substance that covered everything like a 4/6” snowfall anywhere else from cars to trees. Life seemed to proceed normally in this zone of potential disaster. My interests in volcanoes was now dissipating These were dangerous things that impacted on local life not just the day to day life but the whole sense of economic development and security.
A bad experience (yes they can happen)
My next leapfrog was across to the island of Allan. Having got to the ferry port, I found delays, some long delays. Eventually it, the unexplained missing ferry arrived and in the meantime most of the Filipinos waiting had taken the opportunity to display their knowledge of English to their friends and their inquisitiveness to me. There were no other tourists on this trip or in this direction or in this region. I knew it was a more dangerous region but I did not intend to go to that far south where there was an uncivil civil war involving Islamic fighters. Just far enough! On the ferry I met one bloke and his 7 or eight-month pregnant wife. He had worked in the Middle East and spoke good English whilst his wife spoke none and quite understandably was wilting in the heat. We made the island from where I had planned to get to the next town but seeing the traffic and transport disappear I decided to stay in the local village/ port guesthouse.
I was surprised to see the 2 travellers arrive on their bike and sidecar at the same place but then maybe it also made sense depending. She retired to bed and he and I went off to find food. The village was built around a public green and the street was lit with 30watt bulbs or maybe slightly more strength but not much. I bought half a dozen bottles of beer and he arranged food to be delivered with me trusting his selection. Back at the guesthouse there was a nice verandah overlooking the central green area and the distant port. I opened a beer to taste its sickly warmth, which was not what I was looking for after over 14 hours of travel that day. Left him on the verandah whilst I went for some ice and when I returned we shared the ice. Next immediate memory was of my head drooping uncontrollable to my chest and the sight of my feet. In the morning I was in my bed, head dopey, and in a time delay between thought, action and response.
My rucksack had been thoroughly emptied and all cash including the hidden cash stolen. Watch, Swiss army knife and a few other material value possessions (we are talking a backpack contents) taken but not my traveller cheques, credit cards etc. indeed there was enough small cash to get to the next town. A curious touch. I went to the police station still feeling dozy. They sent a bloke over to question the guesthouse keeper who said that I had been drunk. A nice touch. I packed up and got to the next planned village cashed some cheques and got a plane back to Manila a mini whirlwind and I was still not okay. My travel confidence was shattered by the subtlety of the theft and in what I considered any absence of violence. I had planned for another month of travel and my total cash loss including the hidden stuff was some $500. Too much to carry. But they had not known that. Back in Manila I decided to carry on with my itinerary but without the remainder of the Philippines.
Back to Jakarta where the immigration delayed me for a couple of hours because I did not have a return ticket. Showing my traveller cheques and telling them I planned to exit via the port from Medan across to Penang (where I had originally entered without this huw-ha). Only got the invite for a bribe; unpaid. Eventually I left for the obligatory airport taxi rip off from an airport that was so far away from anything and this on the crowded island of Jakarta. The idea was to travel out east as far as possible and then to back track as quickly as possible. Continuing further east would take me to Oz or Papua New Guinea appealing idea to the passing thought.
Arrived in Bali very soon and found myself a massive volcano crater in the north east of the country, with the opportunity to climb a couple of smaller active volcanoes. That morning it was eerie to stand on the edge of the active crater sipping the overly sweetened coffee with bananas for breakfast listening to the rumbling and bubbling below. Did not get the t-shirt. Then it was off to the main cultural centre with its wonderfully gentle and friendly Balinese culture. It was a fiercely touristy place where the commercialised funeral of a local person saw over 150 tourists attend in regulatory sarongs, with financial contribution to observe the pallbearers jog down the street turning in different directions reversing, turning, going forward, etc all with the objective of confusing the spirit in the coffin so that it would be unable to return home. The funeral procession was followed by a cremation. It was the biggest most offensive and intrusive incursion into the private affairs of a family. It was consensual or so it certainly seemed but the payment of money for the whole charade was probably welcome. I think most people would welcome such an opportunity if there were only a couple of tourists and done discreetly but here there was about 150, which outnumbered the family and friends at the cremation. All in all a very colourful and cheerful event but one to think about. It certainly got money to local folk direct.
A daily practise outside every home building on Bali was where a young female resident or worker would supply fresh food and flowers to a shrine at the entrance. It was generally a wooden post more like a birdhouse and indeed shaped like a house but very ornately even outside the poorest homes. The old food and flowers were removed and prayers said. The Balinese religion is based on Hinduism and historically stems as some time back the growing influence of Islam on the populous Java had forced them onto this pretty and beautiful island to carry on a gentle religion and lifestyle with both fierce and good gods. Their customs have been neatly wrapped up to facilitate the willing and happy mutually beneficial extraction of money from tourists.
Lombok / Sumbawa / Komodo
The next island on my way eastward was the equally volcanically well endowed, Lombok but without the trees and vegetation and tourism of Bali. Very much like a poorer disgruntled neighbour as the backpackers headed north to a group of islands. Nothing special of note other than that on the return trip from the islands the engine on our motorboat died. Have since read about similar and the passengers used mobile phones although that was for a lot longer than the 20 minutes or more that we drifted for.
Sumbawa wears its signs of volcanic destruction on more than half the island.
And then out to the luscious island of Komodo covered in more detail in the section “Animals and I”
Flores more quaint and pleasant than some of its neighbours.
The multi coloured lakes of Keli-mutu are situated at the top of a mountain range in 3 volcanic craters. Reached by an early morning drive (2am start) to get in place after some more than convenient pancakes sold from a griddle on the edge of the mountain as we ascended the last stretch on foot. The lake colours back then were a black, (boring) green and most impressively a bright pale blue. The setting was more of a lunar landscape.
A few days later I headed out to a village of former headhunters. Christian missionaries who had arrived in the 1950’s had persuaded them to give up their headhunting. Headhunting was a way of rubbing the losers face in the dirt. Loser of some fight over some thing but when peace was eventually declared or negotiated the heads were returned to the tribe from which they came. I dined with the men in a large room in a reed and thatch home on stilts. This was after presenting my gifts of alcohol money and sweets (same as on the Rejang river in the Malaysian province of Sabah but selection based on recommendation in lonely planet guidebook but even in hindsight gifts difficult to improve on and at least they were welcome). Conversation was basic based on my growing vocabulary of Bahasa Indonesia the national language as laid down from the capital Jakarta but not one that they spoke here. Sign language and a few words of English well that was it.
All the islands showed their volcanoes proudly but Flores had had the misfortune for devastating earthquakes and Tsunamis. Imagine if you can a Spanish style church the size of a pair of semi detached homes with a tower to each side of the front door. All very simple and non-ornate. Then a jagged lightning like crack across the front of the building been a scar of an earthquake a few years earlier and from when a tsunami had wreaked devastation on the coastal population.
In this area I found one of the quirkiest guesthouses on my travels. Nestled between the trees did a series of interconnecting huts comprise a shared living area with bedrooms off corridors in a spidery squiggly direction? It was haphazard beyond the guesthouse, as if intended.
The International Whaling Commission has tight restrictions on how many whales of what sort can be caught, where and when too. Globally there were 3 villages allowed to carry on their traditional methods. Considering the number of whales caught for supposedly scientific research by the Japanese the handful caught by these fishermen pale into insignificance. It took a day by truck and foot to get to this village where whaling had been suspended. Three long boats, which could take about 22 men, had gone after a whale, which had sunk 2 of the boats leaving all crews safely in the 3rd but dragging it off in the direction of Oz or somewhere else. The Indonesian navy had been called and had rescued the crews but whaling was suspended.
The whole village was dirt poor but an entrepreneurial couple of a teacher and nurse had started a guesthouse of basic construction and simple menu for travellers. The views were lovely and quaint with no electricity or phone pylons. A local kiosk has some soft drinks and sweets on display but there were no scrap papers or litter.
The village ceremonies for the start of the whaling season (not seen) combined a mix of pagan ritual and Christian blessing. The boats were owned in partnership by extended families. The catch when it happened was divided up based on seniority of role be it harpoonist navigator or oarsman. Men will go whaling whilst the children fish for shark from the beach.
Take away whaling and there was nothing else but a few chickens. And anyway this is not destructive fishing but genuinely brave people maintaining a tradition that will change in time but not until alternative employment can be found.
Backtracking by boat and bus but via temples of Borobodur and Prabanan
The layout of the islands and the way that people from Java have been actively encouraged to scatter to the other islands and in a way that is frequently seen as colonisation (grants and subsidies are paid to get off Java and go elsewhere) by the locals. There never was a united “Indonesia” until the Dutch patched it together and the islands until recent years had their own patchwork of belief and religions.
Travel by passenger vessel is therefore a convenient quick and cheap way of moving big distances. I caught one such boat heading back west to Java. My ticked indicated I was below decks in what turned out to be a large open plan humid room divided by partitions into sections of 8 or so sleeping mats made of rubber or similar. Family groups could stay together in these non-spacious dormitory like setting. Overhead televisions showed the regulatory actions movies at blaring volumes. My journey was for 2 nights ha ha. This would drive me mad. Taking rucksack I went in search of something else. On the top deck at the stern was a simple noodle soft drink and biscuit takeaway. It had a half canopy and was protected on the sides. It also had fresh air. It attracted other backpackers about 10 in number, which improved the range of conversation but negated the opportunities of getting to know the people. One fellow backpacker worked out how many lifeboats there were and how many passengers there probably were. That was discomforting in its conclusion. I hope safety has improved since then but I can’t help thinking that the lifeboats were enough until the interior layout was changed to squeeze more people in. After the 1st night we pulled in at another port for an exercise in bedlam as passengers disembarked and a crowd tried to join. We arrived on time after 2 nights of travelling on Java: Surabaya?
Borobodur is one of the most extraordinary surviving Buddhist temples built in a series of concentric circles on a rice filled plane surrounded by a mountain range speckled with active volcanoes (there are very few dormant volcanoes).
About 50km down the road is a less touristy but more impressive Hindu temple of Prabanan. Its ornate carvings are far more complex than the elaborate shapes of Borobodur. And Hinduism has a much more relaxed attitude to reflecting images of a sexual nature. Don’t you think so?. And as for comparing it the prudish simplicity of Islam although it does have wonderful patterns lots of ptetty patterns. If I was to view the finest of each for a day rather than just an hour my preference is clear to me.
I then took a 4-day (no tourists but I) bus journey from southeast java back up to Medan in Sumatra. It should have been 3 days but we knocked someone down along the way and had to stay overnight in a large bunk bedded room. The scenery along the road back up and particularly through Sumatra was one of large-scale development. It was the number of ladened trucks in construction logging and anything else moving along new highways. Environmental protection second fiddle to development.
Back in Penang and on to Thailand
I found the Thais very similar to the Balinese: very tourist friendly with very strong national traditions and beliefs and geared to encouraging spending money.
Off to Bangkok: big traffic mad city under a permanent humid heat haze. Impressive temples, tasty food but a real busy city making money.
Off to the more sedate Chiang Mai and the border area
I have fond memories of the place in general but memories seem more like that of Bali. Pampering to tourists, making money, preserving just enough culture.
Flying in to Ho Chi Minh or Saigon the name depending on whom you speak to. The moped ride from the airport, with the rucksack between the driver and front wheel and I clinging closely to a complete stranger of a driver who navigated his way through light free intersections with relatively few vehicles, lots of mopeds and bicycles and then accelerating away to the next.
If south East Asia was developing rapidly then Vietnam was in a league of its own. The people friendly, always working generally smiling when exchanging money. The food delicious flavoursome and cheap. The half baguettes piping fresh filled with a mixture of unidentified processed meats and salad (did recognise the salad bits) were a lovely start to the morning.
Every government building had a flagpole and a Mig jet parked at its entrance.
Out to the tunnels of Cu Chi to see and experience the ingenuity of these people. The yanks based one of their divisions above there tunnels and could not reason why they were been shot from inside their security fences. But then the access to the tunnels was by an area no larger than 2 face bricks. Dexterity in the hips is essential to gaining access. You don’t just drop in but need to get one side of your hips in first. After that even the tourist enlarged sections were frightfully claustrophobic a real hands and knees job with head bowed. On the way back was an area, a very big area completely out of bounds due to large scale munition dumping by US planes that had not found their targets. Having regard to the passing of time I wonder if it has been cleared since.
Southwards to the Mekong delta took me along the wonderfully long and straight waterways supposedly built as part of some big waterways scheme centuries ago. Transport was by wooden barge. At one point and clearly not a destination we stopped and all had to disembark for what was a 2 military man kiosk style checkpoint. My passport caused much curiosity and some smiles. At least the French bit of it was understood.
The 3 towns I visited of Ha-Tien, Chau Doc and Can Tho were nothing special. The buzz of Saigon was missing. Ordering food required more smiles than normal particularly when walking into kitchen to point out what food group one would like. The older folks were more inclined to speak French than the younger English but less so in these quiet towns.
I was curious about the coastline and found there were no beaches in this area. The east coast was more protected. I only found this out by ignoring the guidebooks and getting to an area where I had expected a beach. I found a large number of fishing boats tied up at a large half constructed harbour type thing. Well "quarter" rather than half. There were a couple of stalls selling beer and ice in a windswept concrete and aggregate base. Quick drink and go back to hotel. I then find myself chatting with 2 Vietnamese blokes who were inviting me to join them for a meal. I expected to be heading for a restaurant, even a most basic kind until they invited me on board a fishing boat. Flashbacks to the Philippines loomed rapidly and I made my excuses much to their apparent annoyance. They were not happy by any means by my non-sociability. I was 98% correct but sometimes the 2% raises its head and asks so what.
Northwards to the mountain town of ……….. which was a welcome change to the humidity of the lowlands but darn cold in the morning. Danang was nice and boring and suit made up in 24 hours although allow a bit longer for a proper fitting. What was of note was that I arrived in Danag at 1am, found a hotel build by the yanks for some R&R and occupied at that hours by some football mad Vietnamese in their 20’s and some a bit older. The Republic of Ireland had just finished the last game in the first round of the world cup (1994) with all teams level on points. Really keen people politely explained by sign language and smilesto me that Ireland was going through to the next round. I had spend over 16 hours on a Vietnamese bus but their enthusiasm was infectious at that early hour. I slept well and long that night at peace with Irelands performance!!
North and South Vietnam
The contrast between North and South was reflected in the cleanliness of the hotel rooms with the North grottier in general. The food in the north was of poorer quality both in quality and flavours. By paying more I got good quality but the simple baguette had not got here. A nasty colonial influence! In the north we had 2 tier pricing (local v tourist) visibly so for rooms and transport. Annoying. In general the impact of the war was more visible with infrastructure much poorer, bombed bridges replaced by ferries and the people more dour in their appearance.
A couple of hours (maybe 6) away from Hanoi a youngish man got on the bus with 2 smartly dressed girls of about 8 and 6. There was a long discussion with the conductor and he sat with them for some time before getting off the bus. At a ferry point the bus was approached by beggars. Three women in black with skin that had more wrinkles and crevices than imaginable came to the door of the bus with outstretched pathetic begging hands. The handle on a pickaxe would be thicker. The girls were eating but handed over their food instinctively to these three. It was a kind gesture of natural instinct that embarrassed my laziness. On the outskirts of Hanoi we took a diversion to drop the 2 girls off with an elderly woman maybe grandmother?.
Hanoi was far prettier than Saigon with wider streets tree lined and a more spacious feel to it. It lacked the bustle and enterprise of Saigon where every 2nd building had merchandise spilling onto the street. There was an old section of town with twisty streets where each street was named after a trade and most of the shops in that street were to the trade. I was enjoying this informal self-regulation or was it when I can across an Irish bar called something like that. It was not an Irish street or a street of bars but its locations seems so out of place. Some Irish bloke in Hong Kong apparently owned it. I was looking for something Irish to drink and there was nowt but Irish coffees with Jameson whiskey. It seemed inappropriate for 3 in the afternoon and where would cream come from in this country? I progressively asked for Irish coffee without cream and then without sugar and then without coffee. Eventually I got a neat whiskey but gosh it was work. Somehow I would think it would be simpler in the south. Too many rules and restrictions in the north. Doing this trip north to south might be a better choice but with things changing so quickly I still curious as to how quickly the north will change in playing catch up with the south
If Vietnam was the fastest changing country on my travels then Burma was going nowhere.
I flew in from Bangkok to the official capital of Myanmar called Yangon and generally called Rangoon. The problem with this country generally involves its generals. The Air Bangladesh flight was on its way to Dacca and was not full. Its overhead air-cooling system you know those little individual air-cooling vents were leaking water. We were hopelessly late that night in arrival and all with smiles but no explanation. The low-grade officials (all male) at the airport wore sarongs and the higher ups the trousers. An interesting take on Orwell’s Animal Farm where traditional attire of the animals is sacrificed for the human attire. I got to town by shared taxi to find accommodation by 10pm (bloke at airport corralled a small group of us for the taxi)
There was no light pollution in Rangoon. A dire shortage in fact of bulbs. Upon asking where I could find food I was sent up the street to a door with shuttered windows that did contain a group of 30 blokes in traditional sarongs watching one small black and white telly. A high shelf around this room / restaurant question mark had a scattering of canned Australian fruit. I ended up with a plate of small fried fish & rice and a beer. The beer was chilled but not cold which was same as food although the fish was warm but monotonous to the taste. Cant remember who was playing yes it was the world cup a strangely unifying game around the world.
Rangoon was a more basic version of Hanoi with fewer coats of paint. There was even less merchandise food etc on. Buildings retained their colonial feel.
Northwards to Mandaley on a train that seemed to suffer mechanical fits of activity
and inactivity taking some 18 hours instead of 12. But what a welcome change to find a city much more relaxed with itself.
Westwards to the fantastic temple complex at Pagan. Fantastic in terms of its scale and beauty despite its passing years. Also in terms of its quaint internal transport of pony and trap yes a single pony with a traditional trap for 4 at most to take one between temples at the sunrises and sunsets. What was most delightful was the absence of people. Other temple complexes and shrines had on my travels busloads of tourists and sellers of merchandise to tourists (also by the busload) but this was just about deserted.
Outwards to the temple of 100,000 Buddha’s (count not checked)
Years have modified the cerebral functions but I was pleasantly surprised about how much does remain.
My overriding experience was based on sights and flavours combined with the pulse of development. I had come from Africa and was returning there with a better appreciation of why one region was prospering, as one was stagnantly poor. Africa has vastly more mineral wealth and starting with independence at the same time as Asia.
The answer I believe lies in the cultural values. Both regions have had their share of autocracy and democracy is but a young bud. Burma has more in common with Africa where power lies with a minority. Contrasting Burma with both Malaysia and Indonesia shows similar political structure but the leaders of the latter 2 have cared for the country as well as themselves. Burmese leaders care only for themselves.
Throughout Africa, Burma is replicated time and time again. It is the presence of strong and not necessarily democratic that is required to spur economic development not be a gentle tug but by a rough and tumble scruff of neck. African countries were divided up by the white man but so was the Philippines and Indonesia. although Indochina has the same geo-political structure
The attitude of males to work is far more positive in SEA than in Africa. A dependency culture has arisen in Africa that is accepted as the norm.
Progress cannot happen without changing attitudes and a leadership that cares for the country.