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.

Bangkok Update

Update: Two articles of note everyone should read. This one from Agonist reader PH. And the other, here which Tina found.

As of right now this is the information I can confirm. Sorry about the garbled nature of last night’s post. I was blogging via iPhone.

There were two explosions about 30 seconds apart last night. After the explosions gunfire erupted. The area of the gunfire was no at Parliament, but at the Prime Ministers office, as I erroneously reported last night. My mistake. First night in Bangkok and still trying to orient myself as to the space of the city. Up to 40 people were wounded and three or four of them seriously. There were two explosions, not one, as the Times reports. I heard them both.

Here is where the politics of the situation lie, as I understand them. One general and one police chief thus far have been fired. The working assumption here is that they were canned because they were unwilling to storm the airport. Pleas note, all of this information is suspect until I can confirm it. My judgment and assessment of the situation may be very incorrect. If there are any readers out there who are in Thailand or Bangkok and have more to add, please do.

There is a very real fear about storming the airport right now because so many of the protesters are middle-aged women. No one in Thailand wants that blood on their hands. The protesters are extremely well organized. Food, medical supplies and water are being brought in regularly to the airport. Furthermore, many in Thailand are very sympathetic to the protesters, even though, the tourist area is suffering–even amidst thousands of stranded tourists. More protesters continue to swarm towards the airport. They are growing in number. This does not bode well for the government. The protesters want the current Prime Minister, Somchai Wongsawat, gone. And fast. The High Court is supposed to rule on the viability of the current coalition government on Wednesday. Before I got here I would not have been surprised if the military or police had stormed the airport. But now it has apparently grown to large and so we wait.

There is a planned rally-cum-protest of government supporters today called the ‘Red Shirts’ that I will endeavor to find. I’m trying to track down the location now. I figure for now this is the best use of my time. I will attempt to make it out to the airport tomorrow or Tuesday.

As for the stranded tourists: some are being ferried out of a military airport here in Bangkok to Singapore, Chiang Mai and other regional airports where they can make connections home. But many also are taking buses and the trains south are booked solid for a week.

I’ll report more soon.

Bangkok: Explosions, Gunfire Into the Night

Just heard what sounded like two large explosions and then several loud bursts of gunfire here in Bangkok. I hear sirens now. Don’t know what is happening. But the gunshots are continuing and getting extremely louder as I type. They are clearly gunshots and coming from the area near parliament. Will report more.

Oh shit. That was loud! Sirens everywhere. Loud gunshots. Oy, this might be serious.

Update: That is confirmed. It is 1223am here in Bangkok. This is the second night of gunfire. The shots have stopped for now. Sirens ring out across the city. I hope to see the airport tomorrow. Will update as things develop. Right now were waiting to see if the High Court Dissolves the government. The PAD seems to have the upper hand and the army is sitting on the sidelines. Very difficult times right now. More soon.

Farming In South-East Asia

VillageI’m not a farmer. And I’m not an expert on the WTO either. But I did grow up on a farm and I do know a little bit about global trade and the effects it has had on small, freeholding, peasant farmers. Still, take all this with a big dollop of salt.

I wanted to write about this after reading Don’s comment and question about farming in Cambodia.

He asked: “I can’t help but wonder what effect big ag (cheap industrial food) has played on the abandoned farm land you describe.” All I can add are my observations. And a kind of question. As far as I know, China, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos have signed on to the WTO, but they have not agreed to any of the agricultural components of the global free trade system. I think that’s why they gave the big industrial economies the finger several years back in Mexico, or in Doha. I can’t recall exactly which one it was. Regardless, farming, from what I have seen (and that’s a damn lot of the countryside) has not been corporatized or industrialized in the region. There is some in Peninsular Malaysia, but Malaysia is a bit of a rogue when it comes to economics in the region.

Flood Plain Of The MekongFarming in South East Asia is still the province, by and large, of small farms. And it is also one of the key reasons food is so cheap here. I can eat a wonderful meal for less than $2 in most places. Although Cambodia is a bit different because the tourist trade and international aid has inflated the economy in very deleterious ways. Sure, a fried tarantula only costs $.05, but a meal in a mom and pop joint is still $3-$5. Compare that to the price of food in Saigon or Vientiane or even Chiang Mai and you get my drift.

I had a conversation with a man in Chiang Mai about the price of food relative to the price of everything else and he said that the Thai government had a formal policy of supporting small farmers so that the price of food remains cheap, that they remain on the land and not flood the cities in search of higher paying industrial work as they do in so many other Asian countries. I don’t know if what he said was true, as to the specific policy, but it made sense. And it appears to be roughly the same in all the countries (excepting Cambodia) I’ve visited so far. (Note, Vietnam does have a huge industrial seafood industry.)

Vegetable MarketAs a result the food here in Asia is both very fresh and very cheap. Small farms dot the landscape everywhere. Small farmers are to be seen in the main markets selling their crops. There are no supermarkets to buy food. It’s all done at a very local, as we would say in the US, coop, level. Is the life of a farmer very pleasant? I don’t know. But I am planning a home-farm stay in Indonesia, so I will let you know. Is this the right way to do it? Well, knowing what I know of America’s state of health and the poison they sell us everywhere in the form of high fructose corn syrup I would have to say, “yeah.” But that would be a very tentative judgment, awaiting my visit to a real farm, where I will work and participate in the harvest of rice. (I’ve done this before in China and it is very fascinating, if back-breaking.)

FarmingBut, as for Cambodia. I think part of the reason food in Cambodia remains so high is demand outstrips the supply. I’ve seen immense amounts of land laying fallow. It reminds me of the countryside in some of the former East European countries after the fall of Communism, where the people fled the collectivized farms as soon as they could. If I could find someone that spoke decent English and knew more about it I would ask. But all I have to go on now is what my eyes tell me. And what they tell me isn’t real good. One note, the areas of Cambodia that seem to be the most underfarmed are those along the Vietnamese border–for obvious reasons as they were bombed into oblivion and UXOs remain a very real hazard. And also those areas which were former Khmer Rouge strongholds. Many still haven’t recovered. And remember, it’s only been about a decade since Pol Pot died. The scars remain.

The Road To Phnom Penh: On Border Crossings and Bus Travel

Me and the Mekong FerryOne of the best aspects of traveling by bus is border crossings. No, not the bureaucratic bullshit you have to endure, but the chance to see almost instantaneous changes in culture, architecture and politics. Take the Cambo-Vietnamese border for example: one moment everything is orderly, almost militaristic, clean, surrounded by high-Asian Communist architecture of bland, blocky lines. And the next moment everything is immensely poorer–and Vietnam is not a rich country–and dirtier–and Vietnam is not a clean country. The architecture on the Cambodian side is a crazy blend of Hindu and Buddhist, much more baroque than Thai or even Laotian temples. Everything is now a disorderly free for all and as you pass further into Cambodia the houses change from the well mannered small farms with pens for all the different animals and sheds for farming machines to houses on stilts, thatch roof huts, pigs, chickens, goats and humans all sharing the same space. Whereas agriculture in Vietnam is more mechanized than that in Cambodia this means that water-buffaloes proliferate. So do cows, the Indian kind.

House on WaterA lot of the Cambodian countryside lay fallow too. It’s obviously been farmed before but it has the tell-tale signs of two or possible three decades of neglect. Brambles, thatches and weeds cover an older layer of well plotted paddies that now look like swampy wastes. Seldom is my window view broken by a free holder reclaiming the land. It’s obvious, just by the distress in the countryside that Cambodia is still a broken land, whether it’s ‘killing fields’, UXOs, or the memory of Pol Pot’s atrocities. And the widening disparity between wealth and poverty has grown into a perverted chasm of gluttony and suffering.

As one approaches the city the gap widens again, becoming ever more obvious. Large, huge homes, newly built, sit behind great barricades and fences. Next to the fences shanties and lean-tos betray the needs of unemployed men and youths who gather by as Mercedes’ rush by with armed motorcycle guards. As always, urban poverty is much uglier than its rural cousin. Children with one arm, or both mangled from UXOs are an all too common sight on the streets on Phnom Penh. There aren’t many smiles, as the dark wind of history has only recently blown through Cambodia, it lurks just under the surface. I’ve seen haunted places before, but never an entire society.

Phnom Penh is a dangerous city too. Petty crime is on the rise and tourists are advised to leave all their valuables inside hotel safes. Offers to buy ‘little girls’ are almost as common as those to buy ‘skunk weed’ and ‘heroin.’ The runny noses of addicts, jonesing for their next fix are visible on almost every turn. And even though Cambodia isn’t as intense as India it runs a close second here in the capital. It’s filthy and the smells are less than salubrious, a combination of human, animal and vegetable waste wafts over the city.

As for the provenance of all this grief? Some would point their fingers in righteous anger towards Nixon and Kissinger. But like all historical morality tales it’s just not that simple. One must also look to the Vietnamese who started the chain reaction of Cambodia’s implosion by using the country as a sanctuary on the road to liberating the South, in a sense forcing Nixon’s hand to bomb the country, thus further destabilizing it to the point where a monster like Pol Pot could flourish. Sure, America played its part, but it is far more complicated than the one-off ‘black and white’ narratives which dominate the discussion still.

Meanwhile, back in the capital, a barge fights the strong current of the Tonle Sap, creeping slowly upstream with a cargo of bricks. Colorful flags ripple in the breeze along the waterfront and I’ve ordered too much food. I feel ashamed. I leave two spring rolls on the plate, while not 25 meters away a woman holding a naked child begs.

Cacaphonous shouts ring out. “You want tuk-tuk Mr,” yells one young man. Another says, “Motorbike?” And another asks if I want the ubiquitous ‘skunk weed’ on offer. Lots of construction machinery is everywhere. Making a hell of a racket on the riverfront. But the Tonle Sap ignores it all, flowing relentlessly downstream towards its union with the Mekong and then the South China Sea.

It’s a completely dollarized economy–ATMs dispense dollars and everyone takes them. Naked infants, toddlers and young children run amok. The Cambodians, I think to myself, resemble the Mayans. They are short, stocky, stout and dark. Even the architecture reminds me of some of the big lipped, big eared Olmec statuary of Mexico.

The language shares clear affinities with Thai and Isaan and sounds very, very little like Vietnamese. Words have many more consonant clusters and syllables than Vietnamese, which has a morphology based on mono-syllables.

The Hindu influence, as I have already mentioned is extremely prevalent. Much more so than in Thailand, Laos or Vietnam. It’s like parts of the country have been preserved in amber since the fall of the last great Hindu kingdom in the 14th Century.

Every country has its travel rhythms. Those in Thailand are laid back. You go to the bus station to move from place to place. No hard sell. It’s similar in Laos–except mopeds are difficult to rent in many places. The buses and roads in Laos are atrocious as well. About as bad as Georgia and Ethiopia.

Vietnam was pushy, aggressive–they want to get you from one place to the next, especially as there is always a commission involved. They pick you up at your hotel and take you to the bus. And the buses are nice–comparable to a Greyhound back home. The buses in Thailand run the gamut from awful, as in Laos, to plush, like the VIP cruisers in Mexico. Three rows, a TV and they recline almost like a bed.

In Cambodia, however, travelers are guarded. The fear, while not palpable, isn’t too far from the surface. The buses that make the main travel run, Ho Chi Minh City-Phnom Penh-Siem Reap-Bangkok are nice. They come equipped with a toilet, unlike those in Vietnam and Laos where you are at the mercy of the driver’s bladder not your own. They also collect you at your hotel. All in all, buses are a nice way to travel here in South East Asia, especially with the closure of Bangkok’s airport.

Finally, getting around Phnom Penh is rather easy. The tuk-tuk drivers are always in your face, but as supply way outstrips demand haggling is a breeze. If you walk away they melt, immediately. You can then climb in and drive away to whatever site awaits your attention.

My Latest ‘Young Turks’ Exclusive

My latest exclusive ‘Young Turks’ post is up. You have to read it there, that’s why we call it exclusive. The topic is my visit today to the Cambodian Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Prison. Extremely disturbing visit.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

I’ve posted a handful of photos from Cambodia, here. Today I am, reluctantly, off to see the atrocities museum and the ‘Killing Fields’ monument and museum. I’ve been to places like this before, well, not exactly. I visited the Ossuaire de Douaumont in Verdun France, the one made of 600,000 bricks, representing each French poilu felled in the battled that raged here. And it was grim. I’ve also visited just about every major international battlefield of America’s foreign wars. But I don’t think anything has prepared me for something like this. Hence, the reluctance. I don’t know how I will react or what I will find. But I’ll do my best to faithfully report back what I find.

Off To Cambodia

Alrighty then! Saigon, it’s been fun. But not that fun, as I spent most of time here recovering from a stomach bug. But that’s no biggie. It’s a cool place with a great atmosphere, although the air quality needs a little help. Will I ever come back? Doubtful. But hey, I’ve said the same thing about a lot of places and ended up there once again. How about a top Ten List for Vietnam?

10. The countryside. Stunning and gorgeous.

9. Being 38 and actually getting catcalls. (Yeah, I know, they were from working girls, but a guy can hope, no?)

8. Freshly made spring rolls.

7. Pictures of Ho Chi Minh everywhere!

6. The people.

5. The ruins of ‘My Son.’

4. Hoi An.

3. Seeing Da Nang and the place my Uncle Paul died.

2. Da Lat and nice fall weather, even though I’m in the tropics.

1. Cafe Sua with ice. Nothing beats the heat like a good Vietnamese iced coffee. Starbucks be damned!

And with that I bid Vietnam adieu and head off towards Cambodia.

Two Months Today

Saigon by NightHas it already been two months? I realized it just a few moments ago sitting in a sidewalk cafĂ©, sipping cafe sua, that wonderful Vietnamese concoction of strong coffee, condensed sweet milk and ice. Two months have passed since I walked away from the world of corporate America into the real world and I haven’t had a serious bout on loneliness or with ‘the darkness’ as I call it yet. I’ve only been sick twice–once was just a minor cough and I laid in bed all day to make sure it stayed minor, and the stomach bug.And if you count my time in Singapore I’ve been gone almost five months. The longest stretch since I lived in South Korea in 1994-95. Thirty-eight years old with a not-so-good back and I’m doing it. I’m actually surprised I’ve lasted this long. But you know what? I feel good.

Earlier I walked down the street here in Saigon just marveling at the fact that I was here, happily trudging the road one step at a time. I remember when I was making plans in Singapore for this quest I am on. I did make backup plans–there is a flight out of Singapore on the 24th of December just in case; just in case I got worn out, or tired, or lonely. But I feel good, ready for whatever comes next. And what’s even more surprising is that I’ve met several people around my age doing the exact same thing.

So what country is on deck? Well, this morning I bought a bus ticket to Cambodia, Asia’s Heart of Darkness. I’m leaving in the morning for the capital. There I will do some digging around and report for the Young Turks on Cambodia 15 years after the Peace Accords of 1993 were agreed to. I hear strange things about Cambodia and am curious to see what the place is like.

Two months? Amazing. It does look like I’ll be heading down to Indonesia to see Frank’s cousins after all, the teaching gig in China, well, they just couldn’t be flexible with a short-term contract. So, I’ll do Indonesia, then swing back up to Malaysia and catch a January ship out of Port Klang to Chennai. After that who knows. I’ll let the road rise up to meet me.

Women In Vietnamese Society

Women In Vietnamese Society

Ladies At WorkOne aspect of society I always keep an eye out for is the role and place of women where ever I may be traveling at the time. As I noted about Singapore, women there seem to have the best lot in all of East Asia, even Japan and South Korea. As for Vietnam, well here is what I wrote in my journal back on the 12th of November:

I wonder what the status of women is here in Vietnam? I see many working, but I haven’t seen any but one running a restaurant. Normally the restaurants, or the front part of it is where the food is prepared and served. The back half is where the family lives. The women, I assume because I don’t see them, are cooking while the men take the orders and the money. The women, usually young women, late teens, early twenties, serve the food and the disappear. Obviously this is a porr anecdote to generalize from so I will wait and see what it’s like in Saigon before pontificating any more.

What I’ve seen in Saigon has done little to alter my first impressions. All the restaurants are the same. So are the hotels, except for the one I am staying in, as one young lady seems to be the manager. As a general rule, the women do menial, shit work. Sometimes I’ll see an older women running a kiosk or bodega, but that’s only because her husband is sitting in the shade drinking beer with his buddies

When I visited a government office for visa reasons what I saw was pretty much the same. The women, all young, do the menial work and the men sit around, collect the money, boss them around and pretty much seem useless. There are no women police, as I’ve seen in South Korea and Singapore. And there are tons and tons of them that fills the bars at night, ‘bar girls’ is what they are called. But that’s just a euphemism. They don’t have any formalized representation in what passes for Vietnam’s parliament, either. The only woman I know who’s managed some national respect and success is the architect of the Crazy House in Da Lat. She has an interesting story. Her name is Hang Nga and her father was president of Vietnam in the early 80s. That goes a long way towards explaining the opportunities she’s had. But still, she’s an accomplished architect and she’s earned the respect of her countrymen. It’s a start, I suppose.

All in all, I fear the lot of women here in Vietnam is not very good. Job opportunities don’t seem to be particularly fulfilling, nor do they pay very well. There are tons of pregnant women here in Vietnam and loads and loads of infants and young children everywhere. In that sense it is a healthy society, but I prefer to see women in places of real influence. Singapore, in my opinion, is the model for East Asian women to aspire too. Let’s hope the future is better for the women here. They certainly deserve better.