Archive for May, 2009

on burma

May 29, 2009

Yesterday we went to the edge of the Moei River, which is the border between northern Thailand and Burma.

There is a lot of buzz on the banana pancake trail about Burma being the “new” Laos – a place worth rushing to now before the masses arrive.

We aren’t going to Burma and for us, the answer to “Why not?” is pretty simple. The pro-democracy movement has long called for a boycott of foreign tourists entering Burma, arguing that to do so legitimises the junta and provides valuable US dollars to the military. The largest member of the pro-democracy movement is the National League for Democracy led by the Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

We’ve met and had a few chats with tourists who’ve visited Burma. We always ask (politely – honest!) how they justify breaking the travel boycott. Answers range from staggering ignorance to a standard set of justifications: the presence of international tourists will help prevent human rights abuses; isolating the Burmese from the international community will only strengthen the junta’s ability to rule; a careful traveller can spend most of their money outside of military-controlled enterprises; and a widely generalised, post-factum observation that “most of the people seemed happy for us to be there.”

We think the most powerful answer comes from Aung San Su Kyi herself:

“Burmese people know their own problems better than anyone else. They know what they want – they want democracy – and many have died for it. To suggest that there’s anything new that tourists can teach the people of Burma about their own situation is not simply patronising – it’s also racist.”

In their wildly popular title “Southeast Asia on a Shoestring”, Lonely Planet acknowledges the boycott in a section of boxed text entitled “Should you go?” At least the question is raised but after mounting most of the defences mentioned above, their conclusion is that “with oil and gas, minerals, heroin, timber and other resources to draw on… tourism is pretty much loose change to the generals, but not to people trying their hardest to survive.” Curiously enough, the author of the Burma chapter is the only author not listed in the front of the guidebook – make of that what you will. Even more disappointingly, Lonely Planet fails to give the issues any coverage in their single volume Thailand edition, where visa renewal runs to Burma (via Mae Sot, where we are currently) are detailed – in our opinion, probably the worst sort of “tourism” that could be encouraged, providing easy money for the generals while totally bypassing any of the possible benefits to local people. Hopefully this practice might decrease in popularity due to the Thai government recently changing the length of visas obtainable at land border crossings from 30 to 15 days. The Lonely Planet website and Myanmar guidebook are marginally more measured in their approach but of course, the very act of publishing a guidebook encourages tourism and for this, many in the pro-democracy movement have called for a boycott of Lonely Planet.

For us, it comes to this: we would dearly love to go and although we don’t agree with all aspects of the boycott, we’re not prepared to say we know better than people who have devoted and, all too often, given their lives to the struggle for democracy in Burma. Admittedly, there are very few Asian countries that present no ethically grey areas when it comes to deciding whether to visit them or not, but the line has to be drawn somewhere and we have chosen to draw it at Burma. It’s a tragedy that when Thailand and India are undoubtedly the two giants of Asian tourism, their sandwiched neighbour still labours under such immense difficulty – a free Burma would no doubt give them a run for their money.

A detailed summary of the issues and Aung San Suu Kyi’s comments can be found at Tourism Concern.





bangkok stinks

May 28, 2009

Literally. Every step yields a new olfactory assault: smoking coals; sewage; diesel fumes; sun-dried squid; miscellaneous South East Asian smell that has lingered in our nostrils since East Timor.

Nevertheless, we found this strangely endearing. It’s been a while since we’ve been in a big city and even then, Singapore and KL are positively sanitised by comparison. We had a hunger for some grit and Bangkok certainly delivers on grit. The traffic literally snarls and it’s one of the only cities in the world where you can be run over by a shop.*

Speaking of shops, it might sound a little strange but we often had difficulty identifying them. In Australia, there is a very wide differential between a shop and, say, a living room. Not so in Bangkok, where families frequently attempt to make an extra baht by merging the two. Our powers of observation and deduction were tested daily as we peered through doorways wondering if the items on display were family trinkets or goods for sale. Significant failure on one occasion when we wandered into someone’s living area, foolishly mistaking it for a thoroughfare.

After spending over a month in the tourist-dominated south, where menus mostly comprise the same handful of dishes tailored to farang tastes, we were also hankering for some authentic cuisine. We managed to track down a few items on the hit-list, including yam hua plii, miang kham and sangkhayaa fak thawng (what?), as well as lots of incidental noodles and some chocolate cake. Also revelled in the wide availability and usage of ingredients that are difficult to find and heinously expensive at home – most notably limes and exotic mushrooms. Just wishing I could get my hands on a wok.

Similar to the Phi Phi dilemma, we debated long and hard over whether to visit Bangkok’s the infamous Khao San Road, hallowed mother of all backpacker ghettos and highest concentration of neon signs outside Vegas. We skirted around it a few times and one fateful Saturday night, decided to plunge head first into the abyss. Like most things we think we’re too cool for, once we gave it a try, it was actually quite fun.** There wasn’t as much shockingly bad behaviour on display as we had expected and there were actually quite a lot of Thais out for a big night too, perhaps on account of this guy who was performing in a free concert. But take heed young grasshopper: it didn’t end well.

* I must attribute this incredibly witty remark to someone else, although I can’t remember who. I read it somewhere (yeah, good story Catie).
** Note, however, that this will not deter us from being too cool for most things in the future.

Linds at Lumphini – a night of Muay Thai action

May 28, 2009

Entering Lumphini Boxing Stadium was a sort of time warp to how I’ve always imagined 70s football: grubby standing room terraces leading up into the darkness; near compulsory cigarettes and booze; collapsing leaking roof; stands without a trace of advertising – how wonderfully antique. The crowd was exclusively male and all maniacally obsessed with their chosen fighters and following their punts.

Getting to Lumphini was half the fun. The last (only) time I rode a motorbike was on the Humphry family farm in 1992. What better way to reacquaint myself with two wheels than in Bangkok rush hour, in the dark, in a monsoonal downpour, on the back of a motorcycle taxi whose driver weighed 40 kilos less than me?

As soon as I jumped off the bike (happily still in one piece), I was immediately met by a lady who I presume worked for the stadium. We took off so (I think) I could inform myself of the seating options. Explaining that there are three classes, I was told in no uncertain terms that foreigners belonged in first, which was situated ringside (full of flashpackers and Thai property developer types). I suggested that I might like to sit up with the mug punters in third class: “No! Not wanting you! Thai people only!” A little bewildered, I decided to ignore her. Anyway after a bit of back and forth, and much to the chagrin of my new mate, I got my third class ticket and wandered in. As for the Thais not wanting me, as far as I could tell they were so absorbed in following their bets they didn’t even notice the big farang wandering around, looking a little nervous.

After sinking a couple of Changs in the bar under the grandstand, I settled in for the evening. Note that Chang was possibly the weak option; all the locals where smashing Song Sam and soda.

Before the bout there are three minutes of ‘dancing’ by the fighters, honouring their trainers and the spirits. For this part of the bout they wear a headband that sort of looks like a tennis racket without strings. If you’ve seen my attempts at dancing, it’s something similar – little bit of leg raise here, jiggly arm around there, ending with a fall onto the knees. Bouts go to five rounds so they are over relatively quick and are accompanied by music that sounds very much like a combination of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo and a Bombay snake charmer.

It took me a while to figure this out but I’m pretty sure that the crowd selects a mode of cheering depending on who they are going for. So supporters of red trunks yell “Hooooooi!” when their man delivers a blow, while blue trunks yell “Wwwhhhaaaa!” when fists and knees are flying. Things dissolve into “Aarrrrrrrrrrhooo!” when they are going hammer and tong; it creates the most incredible din.


The fights run on from each other really quickly, with the judges giving their decision seconds after the final bell (no KOs on this night). The fighters end by hugging and unquestionably accepting the decision. There is something dignified about two men who’ve just pummelled the buggery out of each other acting with such grace.

In a very Thai move, Lumphini Stadium is owned and operated by the military, so none of this tendering out rubbish – more 70s. Security inside the stadium is provided by the military police and like 70s cops they wear proper uniforms and carry big pistols (ok, so that was based solely on Dirty Harry).

For the fans it’s all about the punt, with this being one of the few legal places to have a bet in Bangkok. There is no TAB equivalent or even recognisable bookies in their ring. Bets are communicated to men who look just like everyone else via a series of hand signals that get more frenetic as the fight goes on – betting is allowed until the judges’ decision. The scene is reminiscent of pre-internet stock trading – so if you want an idea of what the crash of ’87 looked like, get down to Lumphini. The weird thing is that I saw no money change hands and nothing was written down; how the bet takers remember who, how much and what odds is beyond me.

tropical beer notes #7

May 26, 2009

Archa Beer – Thailand – 5.4%

The makers of beer, vino and spirits love a medal on their label. My favourites are those you find on liquors awarded in cities of the distant past: ‘Constantinople 1880’; ‘Peking Rum World Expo 1901’. Have a peep next time you enjoy an after dinner Chartreuse. The phenomenon has gone so far that some Australian wines are starting to look like Mister T. I wouldn’t have bothered to write up this guy, but for the medal – it’s from the Australian Beer Awards in 2007. The beer tastes like nothing but I looked it up and it won a gold for ‘European style lager’. Have a peep if you want; pretty much every beer in the world won an award at that thing. Tooheys Extra Dry Platinum got a silver – seriously, that thing is a crime against the tongue. Mind you, the Show Champions are worthy. It’s interesting to note that Archa with a Thai label doesn’t mention the award. Clearly the Thais don’t care what Australians think – probably for the best in this case.

thai-land isle-lands

May 19, 2009

I’ve never really warmed to the term “island hopping” but heck, that’s what we’ve been doing. And I’ve definitely warmed to the concept.

Ko Tarutao: Unique amongst Thai islands, this place is government run and completely devoid of private enterprise and advertising – although no doubt the government made a pretty penny from pimping it as the location for Survivor: Thailand. Bikes only, a cranking westerly, visitors lugging cartons of BYO booze of the ferry and a largely ignored history as a brutal prison – remind anyone else of WA’s favourite communist island? Although on Rotto there would be civil unrest if the electricity was turned off at midnight. We even opted for prison-like accommodation (Kingston Barracks equivalent) which we shared with a group of Wahhabi school children. Almost entirely patronised by Thais, the only other foreigners were a pair of Finns who regaled us with the finer details of Scandinavian rivalries: “Bah, Sweden. Show me your list of war heroes! And their saunas are terrible – too much heat; not enough humidity.” Certainly a bit more sophisticated than “Kiwis bunt sheep”.

Rai Leh: Not actually an island, although we kept thinking it was the former because its only accessible by boat. A mecca for rock climbers, the beaches are flanked by jaw-droppingly amazing limestone cliffs. Perhaps influenced by the mouldy pillows at our accomodation, we continued our habit of gazing longingly at exclusive resorts (security wouldn’t let us trespass on this one).

Ko Phi Phi: There was much umm-ing and ahh-ing about whether to venture to this popular island. “The Beach“, Leonardo Di  Caprio: whatever. Something in the water here apparently makes “beautiful” people transform into squawking bogans by night. It is de rigeur to drink from a plastic bucket (our response: “I’m not a dog”) and most pharmacies on the island advertise “pregnancy test” in several different languages. Perhaps we’re just bitter about our attempt at hiking to the island’s scenic viewpoint, which we somehow managed to turn into a “scenic” tour of the island’s service roads. A beautiful island nonetheless (Hat Yao is particularly lovely) but unless you can afford a plush resort, prepare to re-live the inglorious ending of Toga 2001.

Phuket: Where do we begin? Without wanting to gush, we enjoyed a week of overwhelming hospitality from Parsons family friends, the Spratts. Deluxe waterside digs, endless delicious restaurants and the services of Pa the wonder-maid. And thanks to their local knowledge, it was great to have an alternative experience of this most touristed of Thai islands – more than a little ironic that our only visit to the flesh-feast of Patong was to attend mass in a tiny hidden chapel, complete with fabulous Filipino musicians who moonlight as “The Manila Machine” at a nearby BBQ restaurant. After having now explored our fair share of Andaman imperial trading posts of old, we feel confident in voting old Phuket Town the most charming. It may have had something to do with our night out in the delightful Soi Romanee.

Ko Pha-Ngan: The beautiful Bottle Beach was the ideal setting for our last hurrah of beach-bumming. Things didn’t venture too far beyond bathers, bungalows and beers (or swimmers, sand and Singha, if you need a break from all those “B”s). You know things are chilled when Linds (almost) happily cohabits with the guest house’s resident family of cats.

We arrived in Bangkok today after a largely tortuous 24 hours of travel: boat, then taxi, then boat, then bus, then train, then legs, then boat, then legs again. And all modes of transport were of dubious quality, legs inclusive. I love it when the bus goes over a bump and bits of rubble are rained upon you from a hole in the ceiling. Tip for Thai rail travel: hit the restaurant car. Flashing coloured lights + a sound system that would rival most Fremantle-dwelling Commodores + an eclectic mix of “Funky Chicken” and Asian rock ballads = fun times!

making aperitif

May 13, 2009

Drinking an early evening pastis while seated in a wicker armchair on a veranda was one of my key goals for this journey. I’m happy to report that I achieved success in Phuket Town while taking an aperitif at the excellent Dibuk French/Thai restaurant. Our good friend Cyrille assures me that no self-respecting Frenchman would ever consider anything but Ricard. Good stuff it is too.

tropical beer notes #6

May 13, 2009

Phuket Beer Thailand 5%

I love this label, looks like a prime candidate for Hula Bula’s house beer. It’s ok, sweet malt there with normal lagery taste. One of the more hard to find beers of Thailand, it’s made by the giant Filipino San Miguel Corporation.

tropical beer notes #5

May 7, 2009

Leo Beer Thaliland 5%

Doesn’t Leo normally mean a lion? I pretty sure it does, and the wife says yes so that means it must be true. Anyhow no lions in the Kingdom of Thailand so a leopard will have to do. This one is thin, slightly sweet and pretty much tastes of soda water only. So ok when consumed on the Koh Phi Phi long beach, just about anywhere else on Gods green earth it would be pretty dreadful.

malaysia round up

May 6, 2009

At various points during our trip, we’ve tried to implement a plan of rising early to sightsee before retiring to our guesthouse to seek refuge from the midday heat. Despite the apparent simplicity of this plan, our efforts have been consistently thwarted by various factors. During our stay in Penang, such factors included sensory deprivation (our room had no windows and hence, it appeared to be midnight at all hours) and the fact that using an alarm clock whilst on holiday offends our sense of morality. And so we slipped into a far less sensible routine of shuffling around in the boiling sun until the inevitable collapse into a roadside stall for a restorative lime juice.

All afternoon recovery efforts were focussed on preparing to seek out our evening meal. Hawker eating in Georgetown is quite excellent. Every few metres, a collection of carts offers up endless varieties of tasty treats. Fellow shoe-stringer and kindred appetite Colleen had sought expert advice from a Malaysian friend and before we could say “Old Trafford Burger“, we were on the bus to Gurney Drive. Announcement of our destination earned us sage nods of respect from the bus driver and fellow passengers. We adopted a “divide and conquer” approach and later regrouped to share our culinary loot. Thanks Colleen – we wouldn’t have ventured out there without you.

(We must digress at this point to say that Penang bus travel is at odds with the previously mentioned “abandon hope” strategy: it is seamlessly efficient and simple. And the vehicles don’t look like they were made in People’s Albania during the immediate post war period.)

Our day trip to Batu Ferringhi gifted us the rare sight of a woman parasailing in full burqa. We also dabbled in an activity which is quickly becoming habitual: trespassing upon the grounds of 5-star resorts and imagining ourselves happily ensconced therein. Not sure if the excuse of “my parents honeymooned here” would have cut it with security at the Rasa Sayang, but thankfully we never found out.

And so we said goodbye to Malaysia. We had only planned to spend a couple of weeks here, but it ended up being about six. In summary: diverse, absolutely hassle-free and yet to reach the critical mass of tourists that turns taxi drivers into rabid animals.

We read a lot of newspapers in Malaysia and aside from now being full bottle on the constitutional crisis in Perak state, we were also pleasantly surprised with the standard and frankness of a lot of reporting and commentary. It’s also worth checking out the New Internationalist’s recently published country profile of Malaysia. Perhaps a little bit harsh, but unfortunately for Malaysia when they get it wrong, they get it really, really wrong.

Of vague final interest is that Tourism Malaysia is the Carlton Blues’ joint major sponsor for 2009. But don’t let this stop you going there.

highland fling

May 4, 2009

The Malays and Singaporeans go nuts for the Cameron Highlands and my “extensive” public polling (read: hastily-formed presumption) leads me to believe that this is attributable to one factor: it’s cold; apparently never above 25 degrees. It is often described in tourist literature as a “hill station”, which conjures up images of the sort of place where infirm colonials would be sent to recover. And hence, an appropriate location for us to regain our strength after the excesses of KL.

But the immediately apparent downside of the CH’s popularity is the proliferation of enormous and mostly hideous apartment complexes to cater for weekenders from more hellish climates. Nothing like having your panoramic view of the lush, emerald green hillscape obstructed by a 20-storey, mock-Tudor high rise monstrosity.

Thankfully, there remain pockets of glorious countryside unmarred by concrete and we loved our hike through the Boh tea plantation, powered by visions of tea and scones awaiting us at the fairly impressive cellar door-style operation in the valley. Plus, as children of staunchly Anglo-Australian upbringing, we felt a sense of overarching duty to pay homage to the corduroy striped hills of tea goodness.

As an aside, CH also gave us ample opportunity to further test our “abandon hope” strategy for catching the bus:

Step 1: make extensive enquiries about the scheduled departure times and frequency of buses for desired destination.
Step 2: promptly arrive at departure point full of enthusiasm for the day’s planned activities.
Step 3: wait around at departure point for interminable period of time, noticing that departure point becomes increasingly hot/dusty/smelly with each agonising minute that passes.
Step 4 (integral step): Abandon hope.
Step 5: Bus arrives. Whoop with joy.