Final Thoughts On South East Asia

ReflectionsI just had duck rice for dinner, which will no doubt be my last duck rice for a while. I’m in my hotel room and the usual packing ritual awaits. I can’t bring myself to do it, just yet.

First things first: this will be my last post for at least a week. I will be on a boat in the middle of the Indian Ocean and I doubt I’ll see an internet cafe floating by.

I’ve been in South East Asia for almost seven months now, three of which were spent in Singapore. I’m not ready to leave. And I’m not sure why. Is it because I’m not prepared for India? Or is it because South East Asia exceeded my expectations? I would imagine it is a combination of both.

I remember that first Saturday, July 5th, 2008 when I took this shot of Singapore’s Central Business District and it seems like an eternity has passed since then, both chronologically and emotionally. Have I put the time to good use? Yeah, I have. Seeing the things I’ve seen, doing the things I’ve done and most especially meeting the amazing people along the road have made this leg of the journey special. I never expected to enjoy, much less find a facsimile for paradise in South East Asia. If Lake Toba was the highlight, these last two and a half weeks spent in Malaysia have been eye opening and extraordinary.

(Today’s photos can be found here.)

More after the jump.

I mentioned before that most South East Asian countries are very homogeneous–at least the ones I visited on this trip. But Malaysia is the very antithesis of homogeneity. What makes Malaysia work is its diversity. Take a look at the shots from today, especially those labeled ‘faces of Kuala Lumpur.’ There are Tamils, Malays, Buddhist monks, Westerners and Chinese. They are old, young, men and women, covered and not. But what’s most impressive about Malaysia isn’t its dynamism, it’s that Malaysia has done it Malaysia’s way. No ‘Washington Consensus‘ here. Their economy works for Malaysians and the common good, something it shares with Singapore, although Singapore is all about an open-economy, Malaysia’s is just different. And that’s one of the reasons the country didn’t slump as hard and as long as so many others did during the Asian Financial Crisis of 1998. Indonesia has never recovered.

Malaysia is relatively clean, cleaner than Thailand, but not yet up to Singapore’s exacting standards. The countryside is gorgeous, palm plantations, wild jungle, tea farms and many, many mountains. All of it is green, tropical, wet and humid. ‘Tropicalness’ is much more pronounced in Malaysia than it is in Vietnam, or Laos or Thailand–but not as strong as Indonesia, although I didn’t get to see Malaysian Borneo–next time I hope.

And Malaysian food has distinct differences between those of the other South East Asian states. It’s much more Indian and frequently ‘halal’ food is de riguer in most places. Sure, you can find bacon in Chinatown, but that’s about it for pork and other haram foods here. However, the Malay’s aren’t hardcore Muslims. They aren’t Saudis, for sure. Women seem to get on well here. I imagine a part of that is because there is such a significant minority of non-Muslims in the country that hard core sharia law wouldn’t work here anyway.

It’s funny to think that I blew right through Malaysia when I left Singapore, heading strait to Chiang Mai. It’s probably a good thing too. I might have wasted a bunch of time here. There is still so much to see. I can’t believe I missed Pulau Perhentian! It’s the one beach I was willing to travel to in South East Asia, mostly because it’s not like Phuket and filled with a bunch of beer swilling hoodlums, or Bali, which is just too overdeveloped for my taste. I found Toba, and for me that is enough.

All the South East Asian countries have their charms. The frank honesty of the Vietnamese, the sweet smiles from lovely Thai girls, glorious Angkor and the mellow Mekong in Laos are but a few. But if it were my choice, I’d recommend Malaysia for the three reasons: prices are excellent, you can see just about anything that South East Asia has to offer in Malaysia and the multi-cultural diversity is just impossible to beat. One never knows what one will see in Malaysia.

Alas, of all the places in South East Asia I loved the most, well, that’s a no-brainer: Lake Toba was simply astounding. But I’m grateful I saw them all, or at least all but two: Burma and the Philippines. Next time, I keep telling myself, next time. And now I am going to go engage in the ritual of packing up, preparing to move on in the hopes that I’m ready for India this time, that I’ll not be too overwhelmed, or get too sick.

I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t a bit anxious. And I’d be an even bigger liar if I told you that I won’t miss East Asia. I will. I’ll miss hearing the languages and the amazing (and sometimes awful) smells. I’ll miss the smiles and I will miss the food. But the first leg of the journey ends tonight and the second begins tomorrow. As the Spanish say, “Traveller, there are no roads. Roads are made by walking.”

The ‘Conversation’

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long, long time. Finally, after traveling through Cambodia it coalesced into something meaningful. It’s about a ‘Conversation’ that the developed nations of the world and the undeveloped nations of the world are having. And it is a conversation that is going to get more intense in the next two decades. It’s a simple conversation, but one I do not think the developed world understands. I also don’t think the undeveloped world understands it either. Or, rather, neither side understands the stakes, both are in denial about it and it isn’t going away.

I’ve seen 43 independent nations on this planet. The majority of them have been developed countries, or those just on the cusp of developed status when I was there. South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Mexico being the top four in that category. For those of you who’ve been to Mexico and don’t consider it developed, well, visit Ethiopia or Cambodia or India and compare and contrast. Mexicans have it much better than most of the world. The reason immigration is so intense is that America has had so much better. And that is the main point. The conversation is this: there is no way all the inhabitants of this planet are ever going to have a standard of living equivalent to that which we have in the West. It’s not going to happen. And those in the undeveloped world I believe are in just as much denial about it as those of us in the West who aren’t talking about it. I’m not a Malthusian by any means, but I’ve seen enough of the world, enough of the deforestation in place like China, Malaysia, Cambodia to know that there isn’t enough wood. I’ve been to the Middle East and know there isn’t enough oil. I’ve seen countries like Ethiopia where famine is just one poor rainy season away. Too many places on this planet are on the brink of systemic ecological breakdown. China being chief among them. The ecological devastation in China is immense beyond words.

As I said, there is no way all the inhabitants of this planet are ever going to have a standard of living equivalent to that which we have in the West. So something is going to have to give. And I don’t know what that means. Does it mean the West will see a decline in living standards? Will some global cataclysm occur to change the dynamics? I just don’t know. Mind you, I’m not an alarmist. But I know enough about history to realize the worst can happen–and will. Anyway, these thoughts, as I see above, are still ill-formed. But it struck me as I drove across Cambodia that there was no way they would ever have our standard of living and it saddened me. But it also disturbed me on a very deep and profound historical level. I guess you could call it one of those, “what does it all mean,” moments. Color me confused.

Food, Language and Chaos In Vietnam

Downtown SaigonVietnam is a phenomenally loud place–horns are used all the time here, in a defensive fashion, a way of warning those you’re behind that you’re coming and they need to get out of your way.

The people, as I have mentioned before, are far less aggressive than I was led to believe. I haven’t seen a Seven-Eleven, McDonald’s or any other multi-national in Vietnam yet, except for one KFC.

The Vietnamese are a proud and fiercely independent people. They don’t like the Chinese at all and unlike many places in South-East Asia there are zero overseas Chinese here. Plus, their language is, so far as I can tell, devoid of any Mandarin influence. I’ve a damn good ear for cognates and loan words and I’ve not heard many at all. I also flipped through a grammar-cum-dictionary and found little of Chinese influence there either. (Although there is a passing resemblance in some of the structure and tonality with Cantonese, but Cantonese is so different from mainstream Mandarin that I hardly consider them in the same language family. Yes, you linguistics folks out there can slam me all you want, I am an amateur, I confess.) As a side note, I’ve found the tones here in Vietnam much easier to speak than those of Mandarin. As there are six in Vietnamese I find this odd. But they are easier to say than the four ‘ma’s’ of Mandarin. Go figure.

Vietnamese numbers (mot, hai, ba, bon, nam, sau, bay, tam, chin, muoi) unlike those of Japan and Korea, bear little resemblance to Mandarin either. Mandarin-putonghua from one to ten: yi, er, san, si, wu, liu, qi, ba, jiu, shi. Korea from one to ten: il, i, sam, sa, oh, yuk, chil, pal, ku, ship. See the resemblance? If not, eat me! (The Koreans also have a second set of native numbers, but they are less used and infrequent; the Sino-based numbers being much, much more common, especially in commerce. You’d never hear a merchant using native Korean numbers in price negotiations.)

But the language, like all in the region, with the possible exception of Bahasa Malayu, is tonal. And it does seem to bear a passing resemblance to the levels of politeness and formality with slight leanings in a masculine or feminine direction, exceptions that are found in Royal Thai, and Isaan, also known as Lao. Like most East Asian languages there are no plurals (now you know why your waitress at your local Sichuan Diner says such outlandish things: it’s called Engrish.), no tenses (Korean, however, has simple past, present and future), and all questions are answered in the affirmative. For example: “this rice doesn’t have peas in it?” The answer is invariably, “yes.” Contrary to what most people believe, this isn’t about a supra-Asian distaste for saying, “no” and thus saving “face.” It’s actually a quite logically answer to the question, as opposed to how we answer in the West. “This rice doesn’t have peas in it?” The answer is, “no.” How does that make sense? Although it leads to lots of frustrations when ordering food at a Chinese takeout joint back home! Call me a wanna-be anthropologist, as I can now count in Vietnamese, ask for the check, ‘dun ting’; say OMG, ‘cho yoh’; ask for the salt ‘muiou’ like the Spanish muy, with a slight rise in tone; say excellent, ‘huan hao’; and say hello, ‘xin jao.’ Hell, I’m going native aren’t I?

But enough about the nerdy shit, right?

One wonderful thing about traveling in Asia and Europe is the quality and tastiness of the vegetables (my recent stomach episode notwithstanding). Unlike our industrial corn-based food chain in America everything here is organic in the truest sense of the word. All is small farm grown. The tomatoes actually taste like tomatoes, as opposed to cardboard boxes as they do back home. Just the other day I saw carrots so huge, orange and fat that would make an American carrot farmer blush and would give massive wood to Bugs Bunny. I love markets here in Asia, especially the meat and seafood markets. Here you can pick the live animal you want to eat. It’s butchered right before your eyes. You pick the choice cuts, and in seeing the animal die before you, you are brought into communion with its sacrifice. This is right and good, in my opinion. We are too detached from our food in America and it shows.

Fish of all kinds, squirming black eels, darting elegantly painted tiger shrimp, oysters, crabs, lambs, chickens and other meats are all there for the picking. (They don’t eat dogs or cats here in Vietnam as they do in China and Korea.) Everyone, for the most part, is healthy. Everyone works. I’ve seen men with one arm, or a leg missing, working in the food markets, or at kiosks. I’ve seen even fewer beggars here in Vietnam than in Thailand and Laos. It’s all a part of the communal Vietnamese need to ‘get ahead.’ It’s a national obsession. They also happen to be excellent hagglers–giving way only at the end and then only a very little, just to close the deal.

There are a lot of hawkers, however. Oftentimes in other countries I’ve pretended not to speak English when approached by them. I’ll fall back on my Russian and it usually works. But in Da Nang I was approached by one hawker and when I shot back something in Russia he let loose one of the foulest barrages of ‘Mat’ I’ve ever experienced. He said things that would’ve embarrassed my ex-wife, and a sailor’s mouth that one had! I slunk away in shame, not daring to let him in on my duplicity.

So far it is safe to say I like Vietnam much more than any other South-East Asian country I’ve been in yet. There is an energy and purposeful chaos here that I much prefer over the smiles of Thailand and the laziness of Laos. Did I mention the women were gorgeous? Oh, sorry, I forgot. Well, let me tell you: they look good.

Malaysia, at least what I saw of it, was nice, but not overly impressive. But I will be back there at some point (maybe even visit Sarawak) so the jury is still out. And Singapore? Ahh, my Singapore. Wonderful. Clean. Orderly. Modern. Antiseptic. All good and wonderful and there will always be a special place in my heart for that lovely gem of sanity on the Straits, but give me crowds and chaos, curious stares and a little filth over order and fixed prices any day. It’s too easy to live outside the moment otherwise.

Piracy In The Straits

I’ve had a few people ask me if I wasn’t a little worried about piracy in the Straits of Malacca if and when I make my journey on the Tiger Breeze. My answer, “no, not really.” Half of the answer is just glib fatalism, I mean, really, if it’s supposed to be that way then there isn’t much I can do about it. Besides, it’s not like I am cruising up the Straits in a yacht!

But the other half of my answer is a bit more pragmatic. As Tina discovered in this interesting article about piracy in the Straits, it’s not just a real problem. As the article notes:

In Somalia there is no proper government and there is no joint co-operation between the states surrounding the Gulf of Aden. These countries are also incapable of securing the waters due to the lack of resources,” he said.

Associate Professor Ralf Emmers, a specialist in maritime security at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said piracy was an economic crime and few places on earth were as desperately poor as Somalia.

“It’s important to remember that piracy is related to socioeconomics… and this partly explains why you see such an increase off the coast of Somalia now,” he said.

As the article also notes, there is a great deal of cooperation between Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia to combat piracy in the region. All three countries also cooperate with the US too, and multilateral cooperation makes all the difference in the world, as the US is discovering in Somalia.

There are a lot of safety issues to be worried about while I am on this journey. I’ve shelved plans to visit Papua New Guinea for safety reasons. And I’m probably not going to be able to visit Socotra, an island of the coast of Yemen made famous from the incense trade, nor will I be able to take a dhow from Aden to Djibouti as I had hoped, but traveling up the Straits to India? Nope, just not one of my major worries.

Frank’s Cousins Or Han Gao-Tzu?

Penguins!So, I’m in Saigon and the stomach bug seems to have experienced its Waterloo yesterday. Now that I’m feeling better it’s time to start thinking about my next moves. I’m definitely going to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat. That goes without saying. But as to what comes next? I’m actually rethinking my plans. It seems the boat from Singapore to India is pretty regular, running every twenty days or so, which makes this method of travel reliable and relatively cheap. It also means I can put off the journey for any amount of time to see some other places in the region I really want to see.

One of those is the Komodo Islands in Indonesia. I’ve always wanted to see a komodo dragon up close and personal (although not too close, as one bite would lead to massive infection and quite possibly death). I’d love to see one of those six to eight feet bad boys eat a live goat. That would be cool. And besides, it would give me a chance to visit East Timor and do some reporting on the place for The Young Turks. But it’s a damn long haul down there. I’d have to backtrack all the way down the peninsula (I’ll have to anyways to catch the Tiger Breeze) and then travel down Sumatra, Java and catch a ferry to an island in the Flores Sea. Add to all that, a new country, new bacteria, and more damned heat. I know to you winterbound folks up Minnesota and Canada way that’s a pretty babyish thing to whine about, but I’m sick of the rain. The 75 degree weather in Da Lat was a nice reminder of what fall should be like. And it is November, even if it doesn’t feel like it right now in this steamy South-East Asian metropolis they call Saigon.

Which leads me to option two: I’ve been offered a short-term teaching gig in Xi’an, China. It’s only for one semester, mid-December through late April. It’s part time, includes housing and the pay is reasonable. The benefit is that it is Xi’an–the imperial T’ang capital, a place I have visited twice and written about in my book. And it would afford me some time to explore the battlefield where the Xiongnu beat back the great Han army of Han Gao-Tzu two thousand years ago. It was a pivotal battle in Chinese history. And any chance to explore the arid Ordos Loop is a chance I’d really like to take. I’d also be able to experience some cooler weather, maybe cooler than I’d like, but still. It would also give me a chance to brush up on my Mandarin and Xi’an is the absolute best springboard into Central Asia. It’d be quite easy to take the Khunjerab down into Pakistan as soon as it thawed and then into Afghanistan.

We’ll see what happens. I’m still waiting on some more info from Xi’an, but I’m really leaning that way right now. But it would mean no komodo dragons. And I think it would make Frank very mad!