Saturday, 30 November 2013

Mon 18th Nov - Kayaking on the Semadang River, Sarawak

I enjoyed this day so much! Semadang Kayak's is a small family-run operation, it's minimum tour size is normally 2 pax, but for reasons unknown they made an exception for me. So it was just myself and two guides, brothers McKenzie (driving) and MacQueen (kayaking with me) who left Kuching and drove for forty minutes in their minibus to the Semadang river. 

Early on in the journey, I saw a discarded plastic water bottle and picked it up, mentioning how I didn't like rubbish. MacKenzie took notice, concurred and retrieved a plastic bag. With no other customers to worry about, and with no further discussion we tacitly turned our expedition into a river clean-up mission.  By lunch-time our kayaks were laden with trash that had been washed downstream by flood waters and got tangled in branches along the riverbank. 
Forgot a change of clothes so had to wring out sodden t-shirt before lunch. Don't normally look as lean as this, thanks MacKenzie.
MacKenzie and MacQueen and a delicious lunch. The chicken was cooked in the traditional manner, stuffed into bamboo tubes and sealed tightly with fern leaves, then slowly pressure cooked over a fire.

After lunch the brothers took me on a quick tour of the village where we'd stopped, including a fascinating private herb garden and a corresponding brief on the ethnopharmacology of the region.

The limestone karst is easily eroded by the water and created overhangs like this down the river.

The river was already pretty clean, but between the two of us, we collected every bit of garbage that we could safely reach, from sweet wrappers, and crisp packets to flip flops and even a crash helmet. I'm not under the illusion that it'll stay clear for long, and it'll never be totally pristine, but the locals that were fishing and collecting Durian fruit were smiling in appreciation (or incredulity, or perhaps even embarrassment), so with any luck the message may get through and less rubbish will end up in the system. I always remember my uncle Mike telling me that litter breeds litter; that is, people are much more likely to discard waste if they see some already there. I hope today we put a stop to that, if only for a short while.
MacQueen with trashed crash helmet.

The river runs through a beautiful gorge carved out of jungle covered limestone. All day we were surrounded by beautiful butterflies, swiftlets and dragonflies of many shades. Later on, at a slow flowing section of river we waded in and fed the fish. They clearly anticipated this visit every day, and arrived to feed in a frenzy of flipping and leaping.

To finish a wonderful day, we were lucky enough to see a large but shy monitor lizard basking on a slab of rock.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Sun 17th - Kuching, Sarawak

Kuching, capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak is a city that feels smaller than it actually is. One only gets a feel for its size when one drives out. Otherwise it feels like a small riverine town. (Riverine - what a lovely word.) Flying in over native jungles (hooray) and new palm oil plantations (boo, hiss) one sees muddy rivers heavy with sediment snaking in tight loops on the way to the sea.
The city was established and named by Charles Brooke, the 2nd of the three 'White Rajas' who was gifted the area by the Sultan of Brunei as thanks for helping deal with a little local insurrection, that was causing a bit of bother. His bust now adorns a monument in front of The Old Courthouse.
The Old Courthouse is now part of a bar called Magenta and is a lovely place to have an afternoon drink and a snack on their veranda, although the end of British colonialism is very much evinced by the dearth of Indian tonic for one's gin. The barman was convincingly apologetic though.
Kuching is the Malay word for cat. There are various stories about how the city came to get this name, the simplest being that Charles Brookes liked cats, other stories include conflations of various corrupted words from local dialects. Whatever, there are kitsch statues of cats at several places in the city and a museum dedicated to our feline friends.
There's a small fishing fleet on the river which is also be home to estuary crocodiles. No swimming here.
Further along the embankment I met this busker who was performing 'Bitter Sweet Symphony' very badly. I gave him some money, and he told me that Richard Ashcroft was his biggest influence, so I requested 'Lucky Man' and we muddled through a verse and chorus of that together. I hope he spends the cash on singing lessons.
This chap on the other hand was playing his homemade Sape beautifully. It's a traditional instrument of Borneo that used to have only two strings, but now more usually has four. It's sound is very delicate, plucked or gently hammered polyphonically, a little like a gamelan. Note also his tribal tattoos, inked with the help of long thorns from a native tree.
This beautiful building on the north side of the river is the state parliament building of Sarawak. 
I'd read about an interesting restaurant called Cargo, true to its name was laden with strange objects, it's walls and ceilings adorned with Chinese lanterns, agricultural tools, wooden tennis rackets, even an old salon hair dryer of the kind that might set your perm. For such an eclectic place I was a little underwhelmed by the choice of expensive pizza or pricey pasta. I plumped for the former and enjoyed it with a bottle of local beer, before heading back to the hostel.

Ben and his brother Greg, and Greg's wife Amy run the Borneo Seahare Guesthouse that I was staying in as a sideline to their construction work. They've all moved out here over the last few years preferring the climate and lifestyle to the grey drudge of Blighty. It was on their reception desk that I found the pamphlet for Semadang Kayaks that I booked for the following day... 

Monday, 25 November 2013

Sat 16th Nov - Kuala Lumpur for one night only.

I arrived in KL late in the afternoon, got on the cheap (8RM) public bus that takes an hour to KL Sentral (which is the main transport hub in the city), then changed onto the LRT for one stop. My hostel the Matahari Lodge, was opposite Pasar Seni light railway station close to Chinatown, I checked in and then began exploring.
These are the famous Petronas Towers, world's tallest buildings '98 to '04.
The centre of the old British colonial establishment is Merdeka Square, I sought it out, hoping for a nice cup of tea on the cricket pavilion, or perhaps more likely a Gin and Tonic on the veranda. I was disappointed in both regards. Dominating an entire side of the square was a booming exposition of boy racers and their cheap Japanese and korean motors, fitted up with very expensive trims, UV underlights and as many bass speakers as the could cram in. Each car was pimped to the max in a different manner, mostly unbearably gaudy, and many carried trophies of past wins in similar events. There was definitely a lot of competition for the loudest stereo system, which I wouldn't have minded had they all been playing one good tune. Alas, they were all playing different varieties of god-awful squeaky electro-pop.
I made a beeline for the opposite side of the huge square where I could see the mock-tudor Royal Selangor Club. My hopes of leather chesterfields, rattan chairs and cricket whites were short-lived. Being a private members club I was denied entry, and I scurried away paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Looked rubbish anyway.
Up the hill to the Jalan Alor area. (Jalan meaning 'street'). This small neighbourhood is where all the bars, clubs and cheap restaurants are to be found. Things were already getting a little rowdy with a drumming procession that paused every few yards to let off more rockets and firecrackers.

Later on, a few of the Fast 'n Furious rides seen earlier in Merdeka Square formed a blaring cavalcade of neon ostentation.
I retreated to the upstairs of The Green Man pub round the corner on Changkat Bukit Bintang, for a pint of cold lager and a peruse of the expat rag. I was delighted to notice England vs NZ starting on the screen, so joined a few of the gents for some pints and the only rugby fixture that I am obliged to watch. And what a fantastic game it was too. Both sides putting up a great fight, England producing a late comeback that wasn't quite enough to unseat the victorious All Blacks, giving a record undefeated season.
Take it from me, everyone of these charming British fellas had a Malay girlfriend who joined us later.
The plainest room I've yet booked. Taller than it was wide, the walls on either side were as thin as cardboard. It was clean and I slept well, mainly thanks to the All-Black victory celebrations.
Lots of building work going on in KL.
On the way to the airport on the express train, this is not native jungle, it's mile after mile of Palm oil plantations. Pretty much a mono-culture, unable to support much of the extraordinary bio-diversity that was once here. I hope Sarawak is not in a similar state....

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Fri 15th Nov - The Mekong - Phnom Penh to Saigon

Sometimes the peculiarities of air routes and price structures force some interesting compromises. I wanted to get from Cambodia to Borneo. Getting from Cambodia to almost anywhere is much more expensive than getting there from Vietnam. So I opted to head back to HCMC and from there pick up a flight to Sarawak, but where on that big island? Kota Kinabalu? Miri? Kuching? I wasn't sure yet, but they were all reached via Kuala Lumpur, so I opted to buy some time and spent a night KL, see a little of that cosmopolitan hub city and make some Borneo choices. 

First though, I had to get into and out of Vietnam. I had two days left on my visa, and so chose to get a boat down the Mekong river across the border to Chau Doc which would take about five hours and then onto a bus bound for HCMC which should take about the same. Very achievable in a day I thought.

At 8.30am I got picked up and taken to the jetty at Phnom Penh on a tuktuk. Hanging on the wall of the boat building at the port, were photo posters on the wall of The Beatles and the Titanic (surely not a good omen for the days events). With Yellow Submarine playing in my mind we boarded the fast boat and cast off. 

These four boys end up in the strangest places.

Turns out, it was a fantastic morning. It cost $23, about twice as much as the same bus route, but took only slightly longer and was considerably more fun, picturesque and comfortable.

A much needed bridge under construction near the border.

Crossing the border into Vietnam, we had to disembark to get our papers checked, and I was duly reminded that my visa expired the following day.
Cambodian border post on Mekong River.

 A minute or two further downriver, we changed a little cash at a poor rate from an uncompromising lady and then continued for a final hour to Chau Doc. 
There the dozen or so people in our boat group parted company and I got a cyclo ride to another jetty where I waited for 20mins, then a minibus to the bus station where I waited for 20mins, and finally on to the bus, where we waited another half an hour before pulling away.

The bus station at Chau Doc/ Chau Phu is a bit of a work-in-progress 

 The bus stopped near Vinh Long, long enough to eat two successively delicious Ban Mihs. Yum yum.

The Mekong rivers, (for there are nine mouths flowing into the estuary) are very wide this far into Vietnam and there are very few bridges. Instead you see small ferries, carrying scores of scooter riders between north and south banks at several towns along the way. The route as the crow flies from Chau Doc to HCMC should only take four hours, but being on the south bank compels the buses to head out towards the coast before finding a suitable ferry/bridge combination across the branches of the delta. Queues of freight lorries and buses waiting for the ferry at Long Xuyen meant that we didn't get into HCMC until 10.30, seven and a half hours after leaving - if I'd known that, I would have found another boat on a different branch of the river and headed all the way down to My Tho. Sometimes though you just have to go along for the ride.

Thurs 14th - Phnom Penh - NGO-land - Typhoon Haiyan

The night bus from Siem Reap was murder. It departed an hour late, and got later through the night. At 04.30 we stopped and I heard the unwelcome sound of the hood being popped and a box of tools clanking. The driver valiantly racked and torqued the engine, dropping spanners and cursing while we all pretended to sleep, convincing myself that my knowledge of Cambodian language and bus mechanics was less than useful. It's no wonder the buses breakdown regularly and the drivers can fix them, because the roads are shoddy, full of deep crater like holes. The previous day I had cycled five miles down a really smooth highway in pouring rain in search of one of the remoter of Angkors temples, and was dismayed to find the road suddenly stopping in the middle of a field, a muddy track marking its potential furtherance. Remembering the Pobutang incident from last month, I u-turned and visited the museum instead to dry off.

This is the bus after the long night, you may determine through the jungle of exhausted limbs, and hanging blankets, that it's a fitted with two reclined seat/beds abreast, with lower and upper levels, on either side of a narrow aisle. My seat number 23A didn't exist, so I eshewed the ceiling/nose intimacy of the upper level, and settled down in the windowless lower next to a Cambodian teenager who promptly nuzzled up to my shoulder and started snoring through his hoody, neglecting to switch-off his fake Dre Beats that at least gave me a good working knowledge of Cambodian hip-hop until his batteries finally died around 3am. I gave him a shove every once in a while, just for good measure, but he remained resolutely in the land of his gun-toting, bitch-nailing, crack-smokin brothers on the mean streets of south-central LA or PP. 

Disembarking into the sweaty heat of the Phnom Penh morning, I dodged the tuktuk touts and yomped north, witnessing a builders' lorry unwittingly dismantle some bamboo scaffolding and very nearly toppling the guy working on it. Health and safety officers didn't make an appearance. 

My hostel was Eighty8 on 88th street. It had a swimming pool, and cats, and Khmer girls on reception who thought I was very amusing, I didn't figure out why, it could have been the enormous bags under my eyes. It was good at least to see some smiling faces.

And monkeys patrolling the artificial jungle of telephone wires.

The history of Cambodia, in particular Phnom Penh is no laughing matter though. This country tore itself apart between 1975 and 1979, through mass murder and induced famine. It was already, and remains riddled with American land mines and ordnance that somehow drifted over the border during the Vietnam war. There's a museum dedicated to land-mines here, but I didn't have the time to visit it.

In the late seventies Cambodia, for many of us, was a byword for famine. I remember watching Blue Peter as a five or six year old as they appealed for donations to help the crisis. I don't recall hearing anything about a genocide though. I wonder if that was because we children were shielded from such matters, or whether the situation wasn't readily apparent to the western press at the time. Since then though international aid workers have made Cambodia their home. Non-Governmental Organisations are ubiquitous in the country. Western development agencies compete and collaborate to rehabilitate the traumatised population and shattered economy. More recently the city is gaining favour with expat sunseekers who are finding Bangkok too expensive. There's a couple of English language newspapers, one is called The Phnom Penh Post, and reading it gives a clear sense of a firmly embedded anglophone community. As with any area busied by NGO workers, there's also a fair amount of navel gazing; self-analysing for best practise, minimum harm, and ethical policy and issues surrounding intervention. 

That's all well and good, but in the back of a tuk-tuk returning from the Choeung Ek centre, driving through one of the very poorest parts of town, I was passed by a short convoy of big SUVs, lead by a bright yellow Hummer, with a VIP placard on the dashboard, followed by swish new Lexus, ploughing through the locals on their scooters. It wasn't military, it didn't look governmental, or private (there is an increasingly wealthy elite here), could it have really been an NGO group? The area that this convoy was driving through is somewhat notorious here for its vast Steung Mean Chey landfill site that until two years ago received all the city's trash. The children and adults that spent their days scavenging through the rotting filth for anything of worth, are the poorest of the poor, open to exploitation and vulnerable to gang violence. I'm wondering how they perceive that huge gas-guzzling vehicle. They must be aware that the intentions are benign, ostensibly at least, and hopefully they have received some valuable benefits, maybe clean drinking water, or medicines or access to education. (It's likely that these kinds of questions are a luxury and the preserve of those who don't have to worry about where the next meal is coming from). But from where I was, it smelled like imperialism. A humvee, is hardly the most cultually sensitive means of transporting your crew through town, shoddy roads or not. We're here to help! Get out of the way! 

Since super-typhoon Haiyan swept away large parts of the Philippines a couple of weeks ago, I've become a little more aware of the aid community and the politics of disaster relief. I strongly considered heading to the islands a couple of weeks earlier than planned to get involved and do what I could to help those desperately in need. There was certainly no way I could countenance the idea of chilling with a cocktail on a Palawan beach, while a hundred miles north, bodies were still lying unburied by the side of the road. I was willing, and I was able. I'm reasonably strong and healthy and can wield a chainsaw - surely that would have been useful in getting the supply lines opened? But of course, I need to eat and I need somewhere to sleep, I am a demand on scarce resources. Best leave it to the professionals, I was told. And so I did. 

The professionals arrived from all over the world. Small experienced outfits from the UK, local medics from the Philippine Red Cross, public volunteers from Singapore and Japan, tourists already on the islands. Big money too from foreign governments and public appeals, (only China was less generous, weakly, citing their own Haiyan damage). And then the enormous USS George Washington, already in the area rocked up and deployed it's mammoth resources to get the aid to isolated communities on tiny islands. This huge and timely effort has clearly saved a lot of lives, and alleviated terrible suffering.

Yet while the total number of dead (5000 and rising) is not necessarily a good yard stick to determine ongoing distress and risk, is it fair to say that Haiyan has thus far received a disproportionately high amount of attention? I dont think so, I'm not downplaying the scale of this awful tragedy, particularly while it is still very much ongoing*, quite the opposite. Yet consider the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 that left nearly 50 times as many people dead. Or closer to the west, the Haiti earthquake of 2010 that killed a similarly vast number. Did they receive 50 times as much aid?  If not, why not? Could the superlative, unprecedented power of the wind that kindled the world's imagination? The strongest typhoon ever to make landfall. Everyone loves a record breaker. At the other end of the scale who has heard of Typhoons Odette, Paolo and Santi, that all hit the Philippines in 2013, each killing more than fifty people and displacing thousands - They barely made an appearance in the British press. I guess there's such a thing as compassion fatigue, and it would appear there is a ceiling to people's generosity. But there is also a news agenda, and a political one too. Which editors determine the schedule of the nightly news, and which stories get the finite column inches? Politically, some have already referred to, the wielding of 'soft power', a conspicuous and acceptable deployment of military might for the benefit of a grateful and now indebted nation. Making friends in peace time for reasons that may not be entirely humanitatian, nothing wrong with that, but we should not let it go unnoticed. 

With global water levels rising, weather patterns shifting and climate changing, these 'natural disasters' and 'acts of god' are on the increase. Who decides who gets the publicity that brings the aid, who does not? Its not all decided by the UN and UNICEF, it's a strategic decision to win the hearts and minds of certain developing and needy nations. 

*Meanwhile, reports out of Tacloban nearly three weeks after Yolanda swept through, continue to describe horrific scenes of total destruction and utter bedlam. Donate here:

Monday, 18 November 2013

Thurs 14th - Phnom Penh - The Killing Fields and S-21

Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh on 17th April 1975 and immediately set about dismantling every aspect of society, dissolving jobs, separating families, removing all rights to any property, outlawing religion and doing everything necessary to return the state to 'Year Zero'. The distinction was made between the 'Old People' peasants and farmers who toiled in the country (good) and 'New People' - educated city dwellers (bad). The new people - doctors, lawyers, teachers, journalists, Buddhists, any kind of dissenter, foreigners, and the families of all of the above, were incarcerated, tortured into fabricating any kind of confession and then executed, but not before giving the names of colleagues and family members who would soon face similar treatment. City dwellers that escaped immediate death were forcibly exiled to the countryside and compelled to work the land, despite having neither skills nor tools, in an insane attempt to triple national rice production within a year. The result was famine. That was the first year or two. After that the regime began to turn on itself. Dissent was in the ranks and Pol Pot, Brother no. 1 became increasingly paranoid, and many members of his party and their families also found themselves bundled away in the night to a torture centre and then on to a mass grave.

The Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre is a memorial and education site that has been built around one of these mass graves. Known as the Killing Fields, there are at least two hundred known mass graves around the country, but this is the one closest to Phnom Penh and the one that draws all the tourists. It's reckoned that 20,000 people were executed here. They were brought at night in covered trucks from the nearby S21 prison blind-fold and bound; and admidst the noise of a generator and revolutionary songs played loud over the tannoy, were forced to kneel at the freshly dug pit, and as their names were checked off a carefully maintained list, were bludgeoned into it with a spade, or hoe or an iron axl from a cart.
Executioners were reported to have laughed as they killed children, so as not to be seen to be sympathising with their victims.

At least two million people out of a population of eight were killed between 1975 and 1979 when the regime was finally ousted. Pol Pot continued as leader of the exiled Khmer Rouge for another twenty years and never faced justice. Incredibly even after 1979, it was the Khmer Rouge that had seats in the UN, rather than the new government imposed by Vietnam. 

It begs the question, how could a people turn on their own kin in such a savage and prolonged manner? There was no war being fought here in '75 to justify the radical expropriation of land, possessions, society, rights and morality. The Milgram experiments show that an individual can act with terrible cruelty when authority is imposed and responsibility ceded, but this ideological experiment, coming a decade after Mao's disastrous Great Leap Forward, and imposed by the most cruel, divisive and insidious means really beggars belief. "To keep you is no gain, to destroy you is no loss".

The Cheung Ek centre is a deeply moving place. The calm and measured first-hand accounts on the headphone audio-tour helps visitors remain quiet, contemplative and respectful. 

From there, like the drivers of the now empty trucks, I travelled back into the city to the S21 prison. By the time I arrived it was dark and I was the only visitor to this former school. It was turned by the KR from a place of teaching, to a place of unknowable torment. I can think of no more horrific place. The photographic mugshots of the victims, taken upon arrival line the walls, and look down on the iron bed frames where they were manacled, and the devices which were used upon them. Some of the former classrooms in the three storey building have been roughly divided into brick cells, others remain open. Upstairs there are copies of long confessions, mostly Cambodian, but also a few foreigners, including an unfortunate Australian who strayed into Cambodian territorial waters at the wrong time. Being a foreigner gained you no protection at all. 

I exited the building's barbed wire and concrete by moonlight, psyche barely intact. I spoke to my tuk-tuk driver. Two years younger than me, he'd lost both his parents and his older brother to these atrocities.