Friday, December 31, 2004

The ubiquitous HCM

Vietnam lacks a royal family. As a proudly socialist republic is egalitarian enough to understand the folly of royals and their assorted paraphenalia. Thailand and Cambodia make portraits of their king unavoidable in a stroll around the main street, and the respective monarchs seem to have a calming influence on a hectic population. Indeed, the royals seem to be social gelatine, holding together otherwise disperate ethic and social groups with a common identity and figure of admiration.

In the absense of royalty, however, Vietnam has created its own. Ho Chi Minh is unavoidable on the streets of Vietnam, with his face of wisdom peering out over restaurants, cafes and government buildings, whilst his statue liberally dots boulevards and intersections. HCM is Vietnam, and Vietnam ceases to exist as it is without HCM.

Politically, HCM represents the father of the nation and its socialist ideology. His role, however, is much greater, in that he acts as a unifying force, much in the same way as the royals of Vietnam's neighbours. The myth of HCM seems to be much more pervasive than the reality, which sees HCM as yet another failed socialist from an era and a region which produced plenty of them.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Hoi An

Hoi An is renowned for its old world charm, its charming little village, the charming merchants at the market, the charming antiquated museums, the charming traditional music performances... in other words, the place is supposedly chockers with charm. After spending twenty-four hours in this UNESCO-listed Charmapalooza, I am willing to say that it is nothing special. Vendors hawk their wares with little concern for the lack of use for much of what is being sold. Tailors try to measure you up for a suit even as you persist in walking down the street. The fish and meats sits in a seemingly-inedible form at the market, as locals purchase some as they lick their lips. And moto drivers cruise the streets, desperate to score a ride even though the town is a simple grid of half a dozen streets, easily navigable (except in a few cases, see below).

On one occassion I was desperate to buy a replacement for my waterlogged beach/bath towel, which has endured much punishment in the past month. After speaking to a vendor who was keen to win my business, we considered the options. The towel she had on offer was pittifully small for my needs, more of use to dry hands or buttocks rather than a whole me. After thinking for a moment, the vendor told me to wait and she scurried off to find something. Three or four minutes later, she returned, insisting that she had the perfect towel for me. In her hand she held a table-cloth, with a crocheted patten and thin cotton material. Despite much evidence to the contrary, she valiantly persisted in insisting that it was a towel. Leaving the table cloth with her, I moved on.

Late at night after sampling the delights of the cosy Treat Bar (and its counterpart, ReTreat... geddit?) I ventured home. On my way home, however, the rain started falling and was getting heavier and heavier. Despite my philosophical objection, I hailed a moto-taxi (riding on the back of a motorcycle) for the short ride home. As we slipped and slid across the road, I had second thoughts as to the wisdom of this particular caper. By the time we were just 50 metres from the guesthouse, even the moto-driver was reluctant. Stopping the motor, he 'walked' the bike the remaining distance, with me on the back. Despite me offering to walk that leg (geddit?) myself, the driver was insistant. I would stay on board, in the rain, no matter how long it took him to take me to the door. Though it was only 10,000 dong for the ride, I'm not sure how much it would have been for him to tuck me in to bed. I'm sure he was willing.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Christmas in Vietnam

Vietnam is about 90% Buddhist, but you wouldn't know it judging from the omnipresence of all things Christmas. A walk through the main streets of Saigon will leave you drenched in a sea (the metaphor seemed okay when I thought of it) of red, green and white tinsel, and your ears polluted by the sounds of tacky Christmas carols being blared out of shop fronts. According to some who had been here a while, major public Christmas celebrations have only started in Vietnam in the past couple of years. Based on that, I'd suggest that Vietnam is like the little boy who has just discovered his genitals, and now can't stop playing with them. The Christmas paraphenalia is so much more in-your-face then anything experienced back home.

Given that Catholics are only a small part of the population, it seems clear that any notion of the spiritual side of Christmas is minimal. Instead, this is naked commercial opportunism, and the Vietnamese have taken to it with gusto. The spread of Christmas as a mainstrem public celebration can be tracked alongside the growth of major chain stores and internationally owned shopping centres, all of which have much to gain through the promotion of Christmas as a big public occassion. All we need now is the Boxing Day test in downtown Saigon, and December in Vietnam would be complete. I might be waiting a while.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Someone's up to no good...

Sunday night was a big one in Nha Trang. It was a full moon, you see, and so that was the convenient excuse for half of the travellers to NT to head to the local Sailing Club ('ello Sailor!) and drink the local specialty - bucket cocktails, drunk out of an oversized jam-jar and liberally doused with alcohol.

By 3am, the folks at the Sailor's Club were calling it stumps (my term, not theirs) and so I decided to call it a night and head home. Whilst walking the three kilometres or so from the Sailor's Club to my hotel, I came across the Manchester Hotel, or more specicially the monkey-man who was scaling the wall and thrust himself on to the balcony of a first-floor room.

Monkey-man and I stared at each other for a moment, before he swatted in my general direction, mosquito style. There was no doubt at all in my mind about his intentions, particularly given the fact that theft in a seaside town such as this is very high. In my drunken state, I considered my options - ignore it and head home, raise a racket and try and scare him off, or head inside and tell the management. Option three sounded like the one least likely to end up with me in trouble, so I banged on the door of the reception area and spoke with a Vietnamese man and woman.

Clearly theft had been an ongoing issue at the hotel, and so the two of them were determined to catch the culprit. Whilst the aldy and I stood outside the keep watch, the man from reception darted up the stairs and appeared on the first floor balcony. With the balcony lights on every level now switched on, the cat and mouse game could take place in earnest.

Unfortunately, as it turned out, it was really just a cat and cat game, with the mouse having long escaped, not long after seeing me give him an evil stare. The only evidence that remained was a pair of thongs sitting on the ground as the flotsam of a quick getaway. After a thorough 20 minute search, and the amusement of several bored locals, we conceded that he'd managed to get a way. But in the words on Dr Claw, WE'LL GET YOU NEXT TIME, GADGET, NEXT TIME.

I didn't do it.

Hello all. I've just logged on for the first time in two days and heard the horrible news. I was completely oblivious to it all, with only a few murmers from other tourists about something dangerous happening in Sri Lanka. I had no idea of the scale. I'm stuck in Vietnam at the moment, a fascinating place but not the place to be when big news is breaking. The little TV that I have seen has all been on the three government-owned channels, which have marked the natural disaster by screening wall-to-wall aging American movies with bad dubbing. Just like they honour every other day.

Personally, I was completely unaffected by it. At the time when the earthquake hit I was in Nha Trang, a beachside resort on the east coast of Vietnam. Thankfully we were far enough from the site of the quake to be unaffected by it. No tsunami. No tremors. Clearly, we were the lucky ones.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

The boring stuff

Greetings from Mue Ne, a sleepy little beachside town that goes off at night. Think of it like the Lorne of Vietnam, except without the Schoolies.

Nothing much to report about Vietnam itself from this particular vantage point. There are lots of Russians. Tourists can be arseholes. The sun is hot. Stuff happens.

A few quick bits and pieces about whatever:

- Sorry to those of you who got my little email, and when you clicked through on the link which was supposed to take you to the blog found yourself on the Mega site of bible studies and information. My bad. Hopefully with a bit of deft enginuity you would have spotted my typo and clicked through to the correct site. If not, then you won't be reading this and the message is largely irrelevant.

- The itinerary on the right keeps chopping and changing. I've recently decided to abandon my plans to visit Laos on the grounds that (a) it's too far (b) it's too boring and (c) I still can't work out how to pronounce it. Instead, there will be more time in Vietnam.

- I have a big, red, scratchy, itchy sunburn across my arms, legs and back. You would have thought that growing up in the era of Slip, Slop, Slap that I would be vaguely aware of the need to take care in the sun. But I'm on holidays, and the sun didn't feel too hot and the time, and now I am paying the price. Such is life.

Next stop - Nha Tranh.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

To the victors go the spoils...

It's an old but true cliche that history is told by the winners. In the still-Communist People's Republic of Vietnam, that is remarkably true. There are several major sights throughout Siagon (the capital of the former South Vietnam, and losers of the war... a fate they won't forget too easily) dedicated to commemorating the American War, and each of them act as a stake through the heart of the Americans and South Vietnamese.

Yesterday I ventured to the War Musuem, which was formerly called something like the American War Crimes Memorial until they realised it was scaring off visitors. It serves as a comprehensive assessment of the war, through the eyes of the communist North Vietnam. There's no tact or subtlety to the message - the evil imperialist Americans and their puppets in the south committed heinous offences, and the world should never forget. The horrors of life in non-Communist South Vietnam are shared, as are the cruel and barbaric tactic used by the enemy soldiers. Whilst one side was fighting with the angel on thir shoulder, the other had the devil working in a military consultency role. Or so it seems.

Today's trip was to the Unification Palace (formerly the national independence somethingarather and before that the French colonial somethingarather). This was the ornate structure that served as the residence and cabinet rooms for the government of South Vietnam, and the site of North Vietnamese tanks rolling across the idyllic (well, probably not idyllic on that day, but they were when I visited) lawn signalled the end of the war on April 30, 1975. Just yesterday the palace was the sight of major celebrations of Vietnamese nationalism and military might - it was the 60th anniversary of the North Vietnamese Army, which later became the Vietnamese army, and there was a big ceremony to mark the occassion. Despite many thousands of those who fought with the South Vietnamese suffering horrific torture and re-education and the hands of this very army, the occassion was something that Saigon took to heart.

True, all these places present a very one-sided view of history. But perhaps I - and other visitors - are more acutely aware of it because we have heard a one-sided view of these historical events for much of our lives... the other side.

Fat kids in Vietnam

There are fat kids in Vietnam. It's incredible. Surrounded by a sea of countries with poor, malnourished and poorly medicated kids, Vietnam has fat, chubby children walking around enjoying their parents love and ice-cream. It's a great thing to see, not because I can identify with them (as a minority group, us generously girthed people need to look out for each other) but because it shows the affluence that Vietnam is starting to experience.

Thirty years ago, this place was dirt poor. By the end of the war it was a horrible, unhealthy place to live. Agent Orange created a large pool of new-borns with serious deformities, and health care was third world. Nowadays, Vietnam (or at least Saigon, which is all I have had a chance to see so far) is a place that is thriving economically, and opportunities abound for someone with the right attitude. The combination of western lifestyles, decent health care, and a trend toward parents having fewer children and paying them more attention has led to Vietnamese porkers waddling through the streets of Saigon. It's great to see.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Seeing Saigon's surrounds in style

Meet Thong - alias Slim Jim. A man with a long story to tell, having fought on the losing side in the American War (as the Vietnamese logically call it) and did a stint in a Vietnamese prison, as well as as a teacher in a Mekong Delta which might be just as painful. Nowadays he spends his time in more placid surroundings, as a tour guide from Saigon to the surrounding districts, and a darn good job too. Like many in his generation, T (aka SJ) learnt his English from American GIs during the war, and liberally dots his speech with kitsch, dated cliches. It sounds odd at first: the Vietnamese accent, the perfect English, and then the occassional reference to 'having a butchers' (go on, work it out, we all did). Then it turned really strange. A group of Israeli visitors on the trip jumped on board the bus, and were greeting with a big 'Shalom Chaverim' from SJ, and then a decent level of conversational Hebrew followed. Not many Vietnamese-Hebrew speakers out there, but I now know there's at least one. (The story behind it is not really as interesting as the fact itself - SJ took a group of Israeli travellers on an extended trip and there was a bit of a cultural exchange along the way.) Now if only he spoke some Yiddish...

The trip itself was not bad. One particular highlight was a trip to a small community which is the biggest concertration of Cao Dai followers in the world. Cao Dai is to religion what Sizzlers is to the restaurant business - there's something for everyone. Cao Dai has elements of Taoism, Buddhism and Confucism, all wrapped up nicely in yellow, blue and red as a tribute to the three. It also boasts Victor Hugo as one of it's three spiritual leaders, along with a pair of 19 century Vietnamese poets. Natually enough, along with the pair of Israelis on board the bus it was worth a crack at introducing Judaism into the mix. We could be in charge of the catering. It didn't work.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Traffic in Asia

Through I'm not a driver, either at home or on the wild roads of Asia, it seems clear that there is a very different approach to driving in south east Asia compared to more sanguine western roads. Without wishing to get too philosphical and earnest about a topic that is actually a lot of fun, I wish to compare approaches to driving to differing political systems.

The roads of the west are communism in practice: each driver sacrifices their individual wishes for the good of the collective, the traffic moves at a pace which is almost identical to all, vehicles of all ages, makes and quality share the road as perfect equals with all being indentical before the traffic gods.

The roads of Asia, however, are pure unadulterated capitalism. Rather than having a common speed, vehicles move at vastly different speeds and are constantly overtaking in an effort to reorginise the road hierarchy. Faster, newer vehicles happily kick dust in the eyes of older vehicles. Every driver fights for themselves, with there being no collective spirit at all. Lanes are what you might consider a serving suggestion rather than a hard rule: it is not uncommon to see vehicles driving indefinately on the wrong side of the road, usually in a half-hearted effort to overtake but more importantly just enjoying the easy ride in the wrong lane.

I think I am reading too much into this. Goodnight from Saigon. When I leave, I'll really Miss Saigon, but for now I'll just wake up greeting the world with Good Morning, Vietnam. That'll keep me amused for a couple of days.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

You mean they don't take Israeli Shekels?

A quick one I was going to write a couple of days ago but never got around to it...

Crossing the border from Thailand into Cambodia is a hectic affair, with five moto drivers for everyone one passenger who might actually need their services, coupled with some strange currency swaps which inevitably go on. After negotiating a fair of 350 Baht for the trip from the border to Siem Reap in Cambodia, I realised that I didn't actually have 350 Baht. So instead, I paid 200 baht, plus 5 US dollars, which totals about 400 baht. And my change? 5000 Cambodian Rials, which equals about $US1.25. A typical border transaction.

Homelessness in Phnom Penh

By day Phnom Penh is alive and pumping with people on every street corner, sitting, talking, eating, gambling, smoking, drinking and just generally enjoying life. By night, the streets are full as well, but in the form of a tent city of homeless people taking care of themselves. To call them tents would perhaps be a tad generous. Instead they are mosquito nets, set up to protect the occupants from the numerous buzzing city-dwellers who spread malaria and it's viral friends.

PP has a major problem with poverty and homelessness that is impossible to ignore. Many of the moto drivers who dart through the streets during the day sleep on their bike at night, since it represents one of their few possessions and they have little else to turn to. The begging is also noticable, partly amongst the many thousands who have lost and limb or their mobility to land mines, but also amongst young, fit and presumably able people. It is worrying that a city with so much commerce and activity can also have such an obvious problem of homelessness.

...and a present for your family?

Cambodia oozes corruption. Every encounter with law and order or anyone with a link to the government has their hand out and asks for more. Routine transaction (for example, a visa purchase at the border with Thailand) require just a little more grease than would be expected to turns the wheel of bureaucracy. There is a fascinating little case playing itself out in the Cambodian English language media that shows the depths to which official corruption has sunk. Everything at this stage is simply 'alleged', and there's not a lot of point in me testing out the finer points of Cambodian libel law, so presume this all to be mere alleged. Got that. Alleged.

Brothels in Phnom Penh run rife through the city, most of them doubling as hotels or low level guest houses. The give away sign is that the rent out rooms by the half-hour and the staff are amazingly attentive. Last week as part of a crackdown on the illegal practice, a government minstry, the Ministry of the Interior's Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Department (given the nice, easy to remember acronym of AHTJPD - I shit you not) raided one such brothel/hotel, the Chai Hour II, and found 83 young women offering the aforementioned attentive service.

The 83 were taken away by the department and placed in the care of an NGO who deal with human-trafficking and prostitution, and treated as 'evidence' so that the case and the ringmasters of the operation could be prosecuted. Two days later the shelter the women were being held at was raided by 30 men on motorbikes and in cars who 'liberated' the 83 women, presumably forcefully, so that they could return to work. So far just another case of good guys and bad guys. But here's where it turns super-nasty.

Witnesses report that some of the 30 men who raided the shelter were in Cambodian police or military uniforms, so there was some official part to play in all this. A scary prospect. And then the latest twist which has caused a storm is that the government has suspended the government official who launched the initial raid on the brothel, Un Sokunthea, suggesting that the government is not at all interested in cracking down on human trafficking or illegal prostitution. Things are pretty worrying when power and influence is being used to protect exploitation rather than expose it. Viva Cambodia.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Phnom Penh - the place to be

Just days after he came to power in 1975, Pol Pot ordered the depopulation on Phnom Penh. He and his henchmen forced the cities hundreds of thousands (the people, not the sugary topping of the same name) to leave their homes and head for the countryside. His cover story? The Americans were about the bomb the city, and in order to be safe people must leave it. Pol Pot assured them they'd be able to return within a couple of days. And how's this for trusting? He demanded that everyone leave their doors unlocked, and that he and his men would keep an eye on everything. They sure did.

29 years later on Phnom Penh is a bustling metropolis. The city is home to one and a half million people, and there's a palpable energy in the air. Typically Asian commerce takes place on the streets, with every imaginable commodity - both legal and illegal - available widely and at a fair price. It's hard to imagine anyone going hungary in PP, but plenty do. There's also a strong European influence in the city. The French colonised Cambodia, and it's affect on PP remains strong. Half a dozen tree lined boulevards criss-cross the city with French elegance (arrogance?) and the streets through the middle heave with traffic of all kinds. In every sense, Phnom Penh is alive.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The wild wild far west

I was sitting in my guest house room on Tuesday morning in Siem Reap after a rather nasty bout of gastro the night before (it's the best way to test out the local plumbing system, and thankfully it works pretty well). On the TV we could pick up channels from Cambodia, Thailand, China, Malaysia and CNN. Watching a news bulletin from Malaysia, they were covering international news and introduced the next item as coming from the "Far West". The major participants were Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas. Cute, isn't it?

The Temples of Angkor

Since the 10th century Angkor Wat has stood in the north of Cambodia as a testament to glory, king, country, slavery and religion. The Angkor Wat is simply stunning, a finely details labarynth of a building which has been standing for a millennium but still gives the impression that you might be the first to discover some part of it. The walls are lined with exquisite engravings, the Bayeaux Tapestry of Cambodia, if you will. For those with plenty of patience and no aversion at all to heights can scale the steep central tower, and reward themselves with a stunning sunset spoiled only by the persistant 'wows' and 'isn't is just loooooooovely' from American and British tourists respectively.

Angkor Wat is merely one of dozens of temples that dot the countryside in northern Cambodia, in what are known rather uncreatively as the Temples of Angkor. Amongst them are the wierd and the wonderful, in completely random and unpredictable order. One temple has several hundred staring faces, which from a distance appear to be nothing more than unrefined rock, but on closer inspection have fine facial features and a rather menacing stare. Another has stood for so long that the brickwork has been engulfed by old trees which themself looked to have seen several dozen coups, revolutions and hostile takeovers in their time.

The temples of Angkor Wat, and the nearby town on Siem Reap (Siam Defeated, literally, a a big middle finger up to the Thailanders just a couple of hours away) has only recently entered most travellers itineraries. Previously Camobodia was perceived as a no-go zone, and no matter how incredible that monuments, the threat of landmines and political instability loomed large. Nowadays it is booming, and doing too well for its own good. People all over northern Cambodia have flocked to Siem Reap to make their fortune. As you wander through the ancient sites, 6 year old kids speak to you in perfect English (Hello? Where you come from? Australia? I know Australia... your capital is Canberra... you have 20 million people... lots of Kangaroos, g'day mate - all this from kids who have no doubt never spent a day in school so lucrative are the tourist dollars) and ultra-pushy sales staff offer you food, drink, guidebooks, and one even offered me a minature harp, the usefullness of which was completely lost on me. You can't help but think things would be a little more pleasant if the sites could be explored in peace. In town itself, it is clear that there is a booming prostitution industry, largely fuelled by tourists who want to spend the evening worshipping at a temple of a different kind.

A three day pass to visit all these sites is the norm for tourists, although the ultra hardcore temple loving freaks can have a whole week of temple excitement for only a small amount more. For me, though the excitement was already wearing thin by the end of the first day. By the second afternoon, I was more excited by the prospect of watching some monkeys fornicate in the surrounding countryside, and on the third day I decided to call it quits and head to Phnom Penh.

More from Phnom Penh in a day or two.

Monday, December 13, 2004

The road to Siem Reap

Am in Siem Reap at the moment. The tourist city in the north of Cambodia which is a short jump from Angkor Wat, the gobsmackingly incredibly thousand year old temples that I'm frankly bored with one day into my stay.

The roadtrip from Bangkok was great fun, if a little tiring and resulting in me needing a change of spine and hair. The Thailand side of the journey was remarkably easy, heading out to the bus terminal in Bangkok and then the peaceful four hour journey to Aranya Prathet, the border town. Then the fun begins.

A short tuk-tuk ride later, I'm departing Thailand across the friendship bridge (which should probably be renamed the Opium Overpass, but the local authorities don't seem to have a sense of humour with those things). Thai immigration was easy, Cambodian immigration a tad more trying, but before long I was in Poipet. Think of Wentworth in NSW before gambling was legal in Victoria. All the wealthy Thais head to Poipet to spend their excess Baht on gambling, booze and Cambodian prostitutes, all of which had been offered to me within minutes of hitting town.

My mode of transport for the next through hours was a taxi... although the driver assured me it was a limousine and that I was travelling in luxury. So for 2 hours me and a family of 5 Cambodians plus our brave driver headed inland to Sisaphon, a town famous for nothing except being part way between Poipet and Siem Reap. The road here is completely unpaved, and super rough in some parts. Presumably it was not deliberate, but it is the width of one-and-a-half cars, but there is an incessent flow of traffic both ways. It makes for a long winding jumping journey down a straight stretch of road.

In Sisaphon I ditched the taxi and went native... well, Khmer, really. In the back of a pick-up truck just after dusk, with 7 20-something Cambodian kids looking completely relaxed and serene about the journey. The next three hours was spent with this particular whitefella clinging on to the sides, guarding backpack, bag and wallet, and scoring myself the biggest bruises on the lower back since I spent afternoons watching Collingwood lose at Waverley in the mid-90s. The problems on the journey and multiple. The road is unpaved, bumpy and too narrow. The dust flies up with incredible thickness, and a cloth to cover nose and mouth is essential. The eyes are an optional extra, and by the end of the trip hair becomes a thick dusty lattice. The inability to speak the local language caused a few problems, particularly when we deviated off the main road to one which was little more that a dirt track to no-where. For sure, the traffic coming the other way stopped, but that didn't fill me with confidence.

Finally, 11 hours after commencing the trip, the pickup pulled into Siem Reap by the side of the road. Within a matter of nanoseconds I was fending off over-eager hostel touts keen to win my business. It was very easy to take after the nightmarish trip which proceded it. Can't wait to do it again.

Thursday night at the Traders Bar

Yangon is a city of over 5 million people, but the number of westerners living in Yangon is estimated at being not many more than a thousand. A long standing Thursday night tradition for a large chunk of those thousand is drinks at the Traders Hotel Bar. The Traders is as luxurious as one can imagine a hotel to be, with the swishest lobby in town, scarily attentive staff, and a refined air that usually scares away backpackers. All this in the centre of one of the dirtiest, most chaotic and poverty-stricken cities in the world. On the second floor of the Traders Hotel stands the Bar.

Ever the curious traveller I was keen to meet some of the expats and find out what brought them to Yangon. Even in the confines of a very western venue like that, discretion was still required when discussing politics (or "the P" as my friend from earlier that day referred to it).

First I met a couple who had moved out from Calgary in Canada. The lady (no, the lady in the couple, not The Lady - see earlier most) was working as a nurse at the Yangon hospital, and moved there as a change of pace close to the end of her career. Life in Yangon was good, they mentioned, if you had the money to afford some of the little luxuries from back home.

Others in the crowd included the usual bunch of Kiwis and Australians. Some were there living the good life as yachtsmen, travelling from port to port, and spending a prolonged time in Myanmar. One of the more interesting expat stories was of a designer of golf courses, whose humble beginnings as a groundskeeper at a course in Sydney has led to him spending more than a decade designing courses through Asia. Apparently golf is the next best thing in Myanmar, as the locals and some expats take up the game. Reading between the lines, it seems that many of the Myanmar ruling elite in both military and government circles are keen to try their hand at a bit of western decadence, and golf fits in perfectly with this mentality.

The search for oil was also bringing some people to live in Myanmar, particularly so with the difficulty in finding oil in other parts of the world. The usual process is for companies to set up their operations in Bangkok, but there is always a need for some people on the ground where the black gold is being found. The recurring theme seemed to be that many of the expats were quite keen on the government running the show at the moment, and that they were quite amenable to the needs of international business. Concerns about politics and human rights are secondary when there is money to be made, and despite its poverty there certainly is plenty.

And one final interesting detail revealed at the Traders Bar: Yangon has a thriving amatuer cricket scene, with expat poms, kiwis, Australians and Indians taking on some emerging talent from the host country. So the Brits in Burma live on still.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Cinema in Bago

Tuesday night I was in Bago, a small town a couple of hours north in Yangon. In the midst of a rather boring, uneventful stroll down the main street (that's Mandalay-Yangon street. I think it connects Mandalay and Yangon) I came across aa movie theatre with hordes of young families heading in. With no other plans for the night, and the Myanmar heat causing a glow and a stench, I decided to head inside to see what was on offer.

Myanmar has quite a rich cinematic tradition. For many years the country has tried to reject English language media, and has instead tried to tell its own stories in its own language.

Very few whitefella obviously go to the movies on a Tuesday night in Bago. As I walked into the cinema, which was full of excitable kids sitting on wooden bucket seats, there was a murmer than went through the throng. Kids in Myanmar have no inhibitions about pointing and staring, particularly with something as unusual as a foreigner at the movies. Plenty of hellos and Mingabalahs were uttered in my general direction.

Finally, the lights go down and the room is only illuminated by the glow of cigarette butts which puff away without interuption. First on the screen appears a few pages of Burmese print, its meaning lost on me and the assembled masses, gathering from the response. Then the flag of the Union of Myanmar appears, and about a third of the audience stand. Being the respectful and subservient foreigner, I do likewise. The first few bars of the Myanmar national anthem blare out of the dodgy sound system, and are drowned up by the sniggering and hooting from the audience. A little bit of Australianness in the heart of Bago.

Finally, the film commences. Myanmar has a proud cinematic tradition, pumping out 25 films a year and even hosting its own Academy Awards, which are only a few weeks away (oh, the excitement). Fortunately, I'd chosen a family film which was light on dialogue and high on slapstick and poorly chosen sound effects. Through the subtleties of the film were lost on this westerner, it seemed to involve a bloke who was keen on a sheila but was having trouble with the in-laws. Think Meet the Parents meets any film starring the Olsen Twins.

The film was not brilliant, by any stretch, but was certainly heartfelt. At every opportunity, the film would cut to scenic countryside footage, theoretically chosen to establish the location, but more likely because the stock footage was cheap and Myanmar countryside is a very patriotic thing. The acting was pure ham, but then it is in every kids or 'family' film. The story didn't seem overly complex, and interestingly the snippets of English that appear almost everywhere in Myanmar in either printed or spoken fom were banished. Funny, that.

Come the abruptly placed intermission, I'd had my fix of Myanmar cinema, and was ready to face the world again. As I headed for the exit, several hundred pairs of eyes followed me out the door (no, I am not involved in some bizarre facial organ theft scheme, but they were watching me as I left. You know what I mean.)

Channukah in Yangon

In its hayday, there were 2,500 Jews in Yangon. Now, though, it's numbers have thinned and there are just 8 Jewish families who call Yangon home. Still, that's more than enough for a functioning Syngague, and thanks to the tireless efforts of the volunteer Trustee, Moshe Samuels, a beautiful shule stands in the heart of Yangon. The Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue was built in the 1860s, when British rule of Burma meant there were plenty of Jews who needed a spiritual outlet. The site is remarkably central, just a few streets away from the Buddhist holy sight of Sule Pagoda, and in an area that is now a bustling street market.

I was lucky enough to visit the shule for a Shabbat service during Channukah. Most of the locals are not observant, and so the shule only draws a crowd during the high holy-days and during Rosh Hodesh, when there is a special effort to run a service. Unfortunately there were no locals in attendance other than Mr Samuels, the trustee who takes a rather relaxed approach to the laws of Halacha. The small congregation there consisted of a honeymooning couple from Paris, a group of four middle aged Israeli tourists and a mid-20s Israeli on the hippy trail though South East Asia. Inside the cavernous Synagogue, the 8 of us lit the two sets of candles, said the prayers (with some difficultly, given the complete lack of observance of any of us!) and sung some Channukah songs.

Things are amazingly peaceful for the Jews of Yangon. As Mr Samuels explained, though the political situation in Myanmar may be troublesome, there is no hint of anti-Semitism. Indeed, the shule is well maintained by a group of Muslim workers, and many locals in the area of all faiths are able to use the phone and the toilet. The last big issue confronted by the syngagoue was the closure of the Jewish cemetary in Yangon in 1997, due to planning regulations. Yangon itself is a very multicultural city, with Buddhism, Islam and Christianity mixing with a sprinkling of other faiths. Whilst the country itself is ravaged by ethnic and political problems, in Yangon coexistance is the norm.

Mr Samuels himself was born and raised in Yangon, but looks forward one day to heading to Israel. His son Sammy Samuels is currently studying computer science at the Yeshiva University in New York. Most of the Jews in Yangon have a middle eastern background, with many having their roots in Iraq and heading to Burma during its more prosperous times. Of those who have left, most have made Aliyah to Israel, where there are more opportunities and greater freedom.

If you ever find yourself in Yangon on Shabbat and want to spend it somewhere special, hend to the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, which is marked on most maps of the city and is listed in the Lonely Planet guide. And get in touch with Moses at Samuels@mptmail.net.mm As with all email in and out of Myanmar, subtlety and discretion is a wise idea.




Friday, December 10, 2004

Meet the Lady

After having a meal at one of the street-side stalls, a group of teenaged kids sat down and decided they wanted to talk. After going through the nicities of life in Myanmar and in Australia, I took the conversation toward discussing politics, a risky subject and the best of times and potentially dangerous in a place like this. In trying to provoke a response, I quietly mentioned the name of a particular democracy leader under house arrest, and before completing the second syllable had been given the fiercest Shhhhhhhhhhhh I had experienced outside a classroom with Mrs Soccio. All of them turned to me and put their finger to their lips, librarian style, and stared without blinking. Even amongst kids who have lived all their lives under the current regime, the political importance of that one figure is fully known. In Yangon, that name is not one to mention. Instead, apparently, the local euphemism is The Lady.

The Lady is almost universally admired and respected amongst Myanmari people, but her name and her photo appear no where. She is a ghost figure who seems to exist only in the consciousness of people who have lived through her struggle. Whilst there is much hissing resentment at the current regime, there seems to be little attempt to actively undermine it. Instead it is recognised as a fact of life, yet another hardship to be dealt with along with all the other things which have afflicted the Myanmar people.

There are many touts who linger on street corners indiscreetly targetting cashed up Westerners with offers of dollars, tours, taxi or pussy (their words, not mine), and it is usually best to ignore them. I was lucky enough to meet one guy who was a little more charming and worldly then the rest. Determined to get to know me (and possibly my wallet) he joined me at a park bench as I was reading a greying late 60s book I'd bought at a stall, which, given the heavy censorship, passes as a new release and a gripping read.

The two of us sat down and started talking, and he was fascinated by me studying political science, a subject which is generally banned here. Through talking in discreet code about the G and the M and the P and The Lady (work em out, it's not too hard) he told me plenty about life in this place, and how much it has changed over the 15 years since the suspension of democracy. Then he asked me if I was interested in seeing the Lady's home. The potential for ambiguity aside, this was an offer that couldn't be refused.

To get there would be a challenge. The road itself is heavily policed, and there are boomgates 50 metres either side. The street is a couple of kilometres north of the city, near Yangon University. Vehicles with red number plates are banner (these are generally taxis) so it is necessary to have a black number plate (private vehicle), and it is absolutely forbidden to stop when between the two boomgates. It is generally unwise to tell the world of your intention, so the two of us came up with a cover story that saw us desperately keen to visit a hotel just the other side of the street we were keen to visit. After several attempts, we finally found a driver who was willing to take us to the hotel. With some appalling Myanmari pop music blaring through the sound system to drown out our conversation, the two of us in the back seat talked about the streets we were passing through. Though the site itself is rather unremarkable, to have a chance to go past and see the house was a great honour. And so begins my life working undercover.

More thoughts when on safer ground.

Over and out.

Just another day in downtown Yangon

Life in Yangon shows the effects of the lethal combination of corruption and incompetence. If it were merely a zealous regime driven by a desperate desire to please God or Marx or some other fictional being, then it would in a strange way be understandable and explainable. As it is, however, its only goal is the perpetuation of its own power. No doubt those in senior positions have looked beyond the edge of the cliff and seen what their own lives would be like if they were to ever lose their grip on power, and have decided to hold on extra hard.

There are some things that are hard not to notice when walking down the street in Yangon, all of them symptomatic of the problems afflicting the country:

-Buses. Buses are not simply crowded, but are permanently overcrowded. Most of the vehicles servicing the sprawling suburbs of Yangon are ancient, 1970s era vehicles whose only requirement is that the engine can start. All other safety features (closing doors, adequate seating, brakes) are bonuses which are really experienced. Thick clouds of black smoke billow out of each of the vehicles, sometimes coming from the exhaust pipe. On board, there are 4 people standing for every 1 person sitting. People are crammed into every imaginable space inside the vehicle, and plenty more hang out the side with no more than 2 limbs inside the vehicles. The lack of suspension and the rugged nature of roads here makes journeys especially fun.

On a two hour bus trip from nearby Bago to Yangon, I was lucky enough to be giving an aisle seat. Not a seat next to the aisle, but one in the aisle. On a small plastic stool that rarely sees a backside of my proportions. I was indeed lucky to have such a luxurious position, with many of the buses occupants standing for the entire trip. People seem completely accepting of this situation, and indeed take the most precarious and uncomfortable position as a badge of honour.

- The streets. The pavements here are in an appalling state. It has clearly been many years since any maintenance has taken place, and they have because dangerously ragged and uneven. Giant slabs of concrete poke out at sharp angles, and it is not uncommon to see large drops of two or three metres in the middle of the pavement, with no warning and simply common sense as the only thing between an unwitting pedestrian and an experience with the Myanmar medical system. This also seems to party explained why Yangon people are keen on Burmese Tea rather than beer as their drink of choice. The effects of a drunken stumble home could be particularly nasty.

The roads are in a similar state, both in the major cities and between them. The roads a dangerously uneven, and it seems an amazing effort to navigate through the potholes. No doubt Myanmar drivers are quite used to the situation, but it seems to take its toll on the vehicles. In stories which give travellers nightmares, intercity trips usually take much longer than the official estimate. The trip from Yangon to Mandalay, the other big city (approximately Melbourne to Sydney in distance) is estimated to take 17 hours by bus, but has been known to take up to 50 hours due to breakdowns and the poor state of the roads. Now that would be an epic journey.

- The street sweepers. In a city with so much ugliness, incomplete construction, abandoned sites and poverty, it is heartening to know that the city of Yangon has opted for a military style city beautification program. There is an army of people who are employed to sweep the streets of rubbish and leaves. So overstaffed is this particular operation that the rubbish is not simply swept away. It seems like the first sweepers job is the gather the rubbish in one place. The next one's job is to sort it by colour. Another then arranges it alphabetically. The next checks the quality of the work of the first three. And the fifth one picks it up. There may well be a sixth person who redistributes it across the street so the whole thing can start again.

Captured in those images is a sign of what is wrong with the regime running the show at the moment. This country has so much human capital, so many people willing and able and desperate to improve themselves and the world around them. But instead of building roads and maintaining buses and establishing businesses and writing books, the government has an army of them engaging in pointless busy work. This is all the product of carelessness, poor planning, and a complete and utter lack of innovation and creativity. The single objective of the regime is the maintenance of its own power, and it has little interest in the legacy that it will leave.

Media in Myanmar

Here in Myanmar people get a very limited view of the outside world. The only images and media which can flow in freely are of English soccer, a national obsession here that makes even the most hardened United fan look like a softy. The rest of the media is heavily controlled and regulated, to the point of intellectually isolating this place from the rest of the world.

There are 2 TV channels which are broadcast here are both government owned and run, and it is no surprise that they are as boring as the ABC would be if it was Gardening Australia 24/7. Looking at the listings for the two channels in the New Light of Myanmar (more on that later), it is rather unappetising viewing. On the two occassions I have had a chance to watch Myanmar TV, it has almost lived up to those low expectations. The first show I saw featured a middle aged woman singing traditional songs, with a single, fixed camera angle and no set to speak of. Just singing. Lustily. For an hour.

The next show I saw was a little more exciting, and featured Myanmar's appearance in the Tiger Cup Asian soccer tournament taking place at the moment in Malaysia and Singapore. On Tuesday, the might Myanmar took on the Phillipines, and Myanmar TV was there to cover the excitement. A single, monotonal male commentator brought us the action, and the broadcast seemed to have been shot with just two cameras. It reminded me a little of the cricket broadcasts from the 70s, that had so few cameras that alternating overs would be shot from over the batsman's shoulder and over the bowler's shoulder. But there was a packed crowd in the coffee shop to watch the action, and in the 90th minute Myanmar scored to pull off a deserving 1-0 victory.

On the streets of Myanmar there are plenty of newspapers, most of them in Burmese. All, however, are government owned and controlled, and seem to offer nothing more than a fictionalised account of the world. The Enlgish language publication is the charmingly titled New Light of Myanmar, a scarey piece of Orwellian propaganda that bears only a passing resemblence to reality. The NLM writes of which particular government officials and army generals have been visiting particular villages and townships, and shares in great detail the warm response they received from the patriotic Myanmari villagers. There is usually also a recording of the gift that the particular government official bestowed apon the village. "Minister Major Leiutentant-General so-and-so gave a box of pencils to the elementary school in Fuckknowswhere, to great applause." As for foreign news, the NLM publishes mostly wire service reports, often from Reuters or the Chinese newsagency Xinhua. Usually these stories have an anti-American bent, in line with the recent affiliation of the Myanmar leadership. Stories of positive encounters between Myanmar government officials and foriegn officials also get plenty of prominance, no doubt because of the legitimacy it offers to the status quo. The warm response that PM Soe Win received last week at the ASEAN conference in Laos was prominant news.

Recently there has been a newspaper with a more independent vibe, the Myanmar Times. Targetted mostly at expats and educated locals, the newspaper has a mix of local and international news, as well as ex-pat gossip and some sport and showbiz. Whilst the articles are never critical of the government, they are more factual in nature and are much less news-as-political-fellatio, unlike the NLM (who send pornography was banned in Myanmar). It is a little strange, though to read amongst the news and gossip an assertive looking box of text with the objectives of the nation:

(Will publish em when I can access them online. Use google and a bit of nous and your curiousity will be satisfied)

It seems that by law every publication in Myanmar must feature these major principles. Even a childrens cartoon, published in both English and Burmese, featuring messages of the wonders of personal hygiene and staying off drugs and sponsored by Unicef, features these same slogans. It is hard to know what your average 12 year old keen to practice their English makes of all this.

Finally, the internet. The email situation was explained in an earlier post, and the internet situation is quite oppressive as well. There is limited web-surfing which can be done, although you will often come across the screen of doom which reads something like this:

ACCESS HAS BEEN DENIED -

Access to the page:
http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&lr=&q=%22Emergence+of+a+new+enduring+state+constitution%22+Myanmar

... has been denied for the following reason:

Banned phrase found.

You are seeing this error because the page you attempted
to access contains, or is labelled as containing, material that
has been deemed inappropriate.


All this is more than simply inconvenient. It is deeply frustrating for those who must live with it. People here in Myanmar and hungry to learn about the outside world and to take their place as citizens of the planet. They desperately want to engage with the rest of the world on equal terms, and no doubt given the opportunity they would be fiesty participants. At the moment, however, they have no voice and no ability to take part in global dialogue. Surely it is only a matter of time before technology grows and becomes such an irrepressible force that to try to restict it would be folly. For now, though, it is working, and with remarkable success.







Myanmar people

There is something unassuming and friendly about Myanmar people. Relatively few visitors from the rest of the world come here, and so there is a yet-to-be-satisfied curiousity that every encounter inevitably begins with. For most people, there is no hostility at all, but simply a desire to find out about life in the outside world. Many people are keen to practice their English, and they perceive it as their ticket to a better life, and most people have a decent grasp of the intricacies of the language. An Australian accent on my part doesn't help things, though.

Most conversations that I have with people include a few vital pieces of information. After establishing that I am an Australian (ah, Australia... Melbourne or Sydney?....ah Melbourne... kangaroo...Harry Kewell) they then ask if I'm alone (you are one?). This is meant purely out of curiousity, with no hint that they might be taking advantage of the fact. Then things turn a little strange, when they tell me that I am fat (You are fat man!), always said with a smile and with admiration. If only things were the same at home. After a long conversation with a middle aged school teacher from Yangon - a conversation which, incidentally, included a offer for me to meet her daughters, a common experience in Myanmar - she ended the conversation with "Goodbye, and you know Ari, you are very fat!" How kind.

Logging on in downtown Yangon

Well waddayaknow? After a week in Myanmar, I decided to check out the internet situation for myself. And disappointingly, web-based email can't be accessed, blogging has been given free reign (not quite true about the web-based email - most of the major and minor sites have been barred, but it is impossible to catch them all, so my uni email account is okay, and plenty of Myanmaris have found themselves ridiculously obscure email addresses, which have yet to be barred. Or you could use a .mm address, and have everyone in the Ministry of Communications reading your email.)

I'm on my last day in Myanmar at the moment, and will be heading back to Bangkok on Saturday afternoon. I'll be putting some thoughts about this place on line over the next hour or two, and probably over the next couple of days.

And on non-Myanmar news, I just found this today:

Code Semester Year Description Mark Grade

166021 2 2004 International Relations and its Others 072 H2B
191006 2 2004 Policing 078 H2A
325209 2 2004 Human Resource Management 077 H2A
333101 2 2004 Finance 1 065 H3

Looks like I passed.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Myanmar-bound

I'm bound for Myanmar later today, a place largely secluded from the rest of the world. Unfortunately internet access will be out for the week (well, almost, you can check your email... well, not your email, but a government created email account... oh the joy) so the blog will probably sit idle for that time. There'll be a full report back when I get back to Bangkok next Saturday, but until then sit back, relax, watch the cricket, and most a comment. The comments have been a bit scarcer than I was hoping for recently!

Breathing in Bangkok

Bangkok is a beautiful city. At least it probably is, but it's a bit hard to tell. Visability is so poor here, that the horizon simply disappears into a haze of smoke and dust and fumes. Thankfully this is a phenomena that all five senses can enjoy. There's plenty of haze to see, taste, hear and smell, and if the layer of grey greasy sweat at the end of the day is any guide, there's plenty to feel as well.

There is nothing inevitable about this state of affairs, though. It is the product of a city and a lifestyle which has quickly grown beyond what it can sustain. The city has sprawled quickly before proper public transport could be put in place, so that large parts of the metropolis can only be accessed by one of the aging buses, car or tuk-tuk (the open-aired mini-taxis, apparently named as they are due to the sound of the motor, but more probably so that tourists can joke with each other that they were tuk-tukken for a ride, usually in more ways than one.) The consequence of all that is that the city streets are crawling with cars which have few occupants and spend most of their time in traffic, pumping out more noxious fumes with no-where to go.

The other big environmental issue that confronts the city is the issue of rubbish. One a train ride a few days back, for example, a group of Thai school kids had finished their post-school-snack (PSS) and so decided to slide open the window and through the remnance of the PSS out of the window. Where does it go? Disappears, apparently, like magic! The predominant attitude seems to be that rubbish is an inconvience, and that people have every right to dispose of it as a quickly and recklessly as they wish. In the minds of most Bangkokians (Bangkokheads?), there is no link between their own behaviour and the state of the city they are living in. Sooner or later the Baht will drop, but things might turn ugly and smelly before it does.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Thai-Burma Railway, Hellfire Pass

Kanchanaburi is an unremarkable town with an incredible history. It lies as the capital of the local province, 2 hours west of Bangkok. Nowadays, it's a quietish middle sized Thai town with a history of mining and hooning on the streets (not as yet a recognised industry). It is, however, also the home of the bridge over the River Kwai, one of the most remarkably engineering feats of World War 2.

The bridge is a part of the Thai-Burma railway, built by Allied PoWs and well as unwilling local Thais, Malays and Burmese, under the instructions of their Japanese masters. The initial estimations said it would take 5 years to constract the 415km railway, but with slave labour and torturous techniques, the railway was completed in 16 months. Thousands of soldiers died in the process, mostly through malnutrition, disease and construction accidents.

The legacy of the railway is everywhere in Kanchanaburi. In the centre of town lies a graveyard, where 6,782 allied soldiers (Dutch, British and Australian in this case, with the Americans repatriated home after the war). It's interesting to think back 60 years, to what it must have been like at the time the bridge, and the railway, was being constructed. The temperature here does not dip below 30 degrees during daylight hours, and even it town conditions are dusty and unfriendly (the weather, not the people). From all reports, the PoWs were working more than 12 hours a day, the rations were pittiful and even the badly injured were forced to work. The situation seems to have been truly oppressive, and it is comforting and remarkable that so many survived.

The first week in December each year there is a spectacular commemmoration in honour of the bridge and those who constructed it - a stunning sound and light show tells the history of why the bridge was built, the allied bombs which dropped on it, and its repair, all with lots of things that go BOOOOOM and FIZZZZZZZ and POWWWWWWW and "what the fuck was that?".

Thai people seem to have a genuine appreciation of the sacrifices made in constructing the railway. There's much respect for those people involved, and some of the many monuments and museums in honour of those involved are very moving and heartfelt.

As a quick sidenote for those political tragics out there (okay, just me, really). The Australian government have done an excellent job of honouring veterans here. The two major musems - The Death Railway Museum at the war cemetary, and the Hellfire Pass museum just outside of town - had heavy Australian involvement in the design and funding. Fading newspaper clippings show that both Keating (1994) and Howard (1998) have been here to pay their respects. Bronwyn, Bruce (Scott, not Ruxton), Dana and whoever else has had Veterans Affairs to look after: top stuff, chaps.

Thai Royalty, and some quick karaoke

The Thais love their Royals. Deeply, utterly and unquestioningly. It is hard to travel more than a few hundred metres down the street in Bangkok without seeing a photo of the king or his wife, usually a flattering portrait of the king being king-like, with the photo surrounded by lights, a fancy frame and various bric-a-brac intended as a small sacrifice to him. In a nation where most of its citizens observe Buddhism, it seems that there is a second revenential figure that rivals Buddha's rotund figure.

They also love the national anthem, something I saw demonstrated in full voice on Monday. After misreading the Lonely Planet guide which indicated that the most incredible market, complete with live animals for sale, took place in the northern part of Bangkok. Saturday and Sunday only. Do'h. So instead, I retreated to a nearby park, with a nice pond - including live animals, though not for sale, sadly - and some Thai people hanging around being Thai. In complete serenity (The Castle style) I relax and read the Bangkok Post. Then at the strike of 6pm, blaring from the loudspeaker comes a short announcement in Thai, and everyone stands to attention, including the poor folks who call this small park their home. Out of the speaker comes what I presume was the Thai national anthem, with vocal accompanyment from the assembled crowd. Can you imagine the same at home? The indifference would be overwhelming.