16.7.15

Lombok is described as being the next dream destination. It is one of the 17,000 islands that make up the vast archipelago of Indonesia. Its major selling point according to the locals is that it is not overrun with tourists like neighbouring Bali.
My own observations will not find agreement with those involved in the tourist trade. Many of the beaches that I saw are strewn with rubbish, much of which has been lying around for a long time. In the south the sands around Kuta are promoted as being exceptionally beautiful. They are backed up by tall cliffs but even here the beaches are far from pristine.

On a walk into the jungle I followed a dry riverbed, a dumping place for domestic waste, for as far as I walked along it there were heaps of putrid sacks being picked over by quarrelsome cockerels and large grey rats.
Men sit around much of the time and when not sleeping, which is most of the day, hassle visitors. It continues non stop from first light until the late hours. Take this tour or that tour. Do you want rent a motorcycle? You go visit a factory outlet? Where you go trekking? Then there is a continual procession of itinerant vendors hawking woodcarvings, fruit, fabrics, brake shoes, plastic canoes and so it goes and it is the same on the beach. One old veiled woman asked me several times if I wanted a pineapple or a mango. When I said OK she asked me for the equivalent of 5 pounds. I only had about 1 pound on me. I said I would leave it. She insisted I take the fruit and return later with the balance. Of course I didn’t return – she was a cheat – the same could have been bought in a store for less than half the price I paid.

Later I rode a motor scooter up into the hills hoping to get a view of Mount Ranjini. I was to be disappointed – clouds hung over much of the interior. Everywhere I visited I saw the same scenes – filthy rivers, plastic bags caught on trees and bushes and more piles of rubbish heaped up between the sad dwellings

I was unable to reconcile my discerning eye of prejudice to such sights and neglect. Maybe it was here on this island that the concept of indolence was first awakened.

Indonesian shipping has a deserved reputation. It is dangerous. Thousands of boats navigate between the thousands of islands daily carrying thousands of passengers. Many of them have seen long service in the waters of other nations before being retired as being unseaworthy. Enter the Indonesian entrepreneur and the ancient vessel will start life anew.

Crews have very little training. Maintenance means the minimum to keep the ship at sea. Lifejackets are locked away so they are not stolen (passengers on flights are warned not to steal the ones under their seats).

So when we had embarked for the five hour crossing to Bali it wasn’t reassuring to see the cracked and rusted deck. It was such a small boat to be crossing such treacherous seas. I loosened my boot laces just in case.

The only really efficient thing onboard was the ship’s horn. This had been thoughtfully positioned about 1 metre above the deck and beside an area where a lot of voyagers hunker down for the crossing. One of them not knowing what it was used it to prop his head up. Three great blasts bellowed forth. The guy leapt upwards in shock and stumbled around the deck with his hands clasped tightly around his ears. People laughed.
At 3:25pm we crossed the imaginary line of longitude named for Alfred Russel Wallace the Victorian naturalist who determined that there are significant differences between the flora and fauna either side of the line. This line runs between Bali to the west and Lombok to the east. On the eastern side of the line the flora and fauna are more closely related to Australia than on the western side which is Asiatic.
Five hundred years ago Sebastian Elcano chartered these waters. He had taken command of the ship following the untimely death of Ferdinand Magellan thus he became this first person to circumnavigate the globe. Yet his name is unknown outside of his Spanish homeland. For me his name should be up there alongside those of Neil Armstrong, Scott of the Antarctic and Wayne Rooney.

13.7.15

Sengiggi

At 7.30pm I went for my first proper meal of the day. I sat inside the cafe shivering so I moved away from the fans only to find myself receiving scores of bites.
By 9pm I was back in my room deciding whether to pull a blanket over me or to turn on the AC. In the end I wrapped the blanket around me and turned on the AC.
Periodically I am joined in bed by crawling insects that I dust off from time to time. Of course once the light is out they are free to do whatever they want.
It was a long night. The sheet was saturated with sweat making it extra uncomfortable to sleep. My eyes were unable to focus meaning I couldn’t read compounding my misery. But at first light I felt a little better.

Simple tasks here can be challenging. There is no wash basin so that I have to shave in the shower, of course this requires one to get undressed. To make matters more challenging there are no mirrors so I end criss crossing my face with slashes as I struggle with a torrent of cold water.
Later today I will take a five hour boat trip across a turbulent sea. Hopefully the sea air and breeze will speed on my recovery.

9.7.15

Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia is the second largest city in the southern hemisphere. Its population is believed to be over 20,000,000 but no one is sure how many people are crammed in to the endless slums and shanty towns that encroach and extend towards the wealthy residential districts and gleaming high rises. Due to a lack of planning and the huge number of vehicles on the roads including thousands and thousands of small motorbikes getting around is chaotic. Short distances take ages to cover – from the airport to the centre for example, a distance of 30 odd miles, frequently takes over two hours and that’s using a toll road. So many vehicles, stationary for much of the time contribute to the polluted atmosphere which manifests itself as an enormous grey cloud hanging over the city.
I am staying in a tangle of streets a short walk from Gongondia railway station. My room is basic, it has a bed, a small bathroom without a sink or mirror. On the walls hangs an old Chinese electric fan that needs to constantly revolve to deter mosquitoes that are able to enter via broken fly screens. An attempt has been made to repair them by stuffing sheets of tissue paper into the holes. It is not effective. No view of the outside can be gained from within. 

Next door is the mosque and because it is Ramadan the faithful spend hours chanting ‘Allah o Akbar’ which is relayed through speakers attached to the minaret. It is a sound one cannot escape. This is a city of thousands of such mosques. Here the moon is regarded as Islamic. Its disappearance and reappearance govern life and ritual. Fasting takes place during daylight hours adding to the discomfort of many citizens. Patience is in short supply and smiles are few.

Four kilometres to the north of the city is the original settlement, Kota, an area with narrow streets and alleyways running off one another obliquely and without logic. At times as I wandered around I would come up against dead ends and then try and retrace my way sometimes without success. It is an area populated by the very poor. New arrivals to the city find space in the tumble down buildings to make their home. Children run around barefoot and scramble in the rubble and beside a canal that is so filthy even bacteria cannot survive in it.

Sunda Kelapa is the ancient port, where a hundred or so traditional sailing boats were being loaded with all manner of goods. Sand, cement, timber, foodstuffs. Gaunt men struggled under heavy loads, while others packed pallets that were lifted on board by derricks. I spent some time chatting with them. Mostly, to avoid the sun, they were covered from head to toe, revealing only a small portion of their faces.

Next I will be heading for Surabaya the countries second largest city. This was the location for a rebellion following the end of the second world war. It was crushed with brutal British efficiency. Thousands were killed in the attempt that was to lead others to join the fight for independence. A total of 1,200 British servicemen went missing or were killed in the conflict. Indonesian fatalities were of course much higher. At the end of 1949 sovereignty was achieved.

So eastern Java here I come.

4.7.15

Ethnic Chinese make up the majority of Penang’s population and it was here that I met Wong Li Peng, known to her friends as Ping.
Ping runs a small bar in the island’s capital Georgetown called Monaliza. She walked over to the table where I was sitting and introduced herself. Her family have been in Penang for several generations and originally lived in the southern Fujian province of China. She speaks several languages, English, Malay, Japanese, Cantonese and with her family Hokkei or Min Nan a dialect that is common in South East Asia and Taiwan.
We ended the evening by agreeing to meet the next morning. At 11am I went to the rear of her home and shouted her name. An elderly lady appeared at the door, smiled at me and motioned me to enter. I sat on a plastic chair and watched as she prepared offerings for the two shrines that she maintains – one inside the home and the other by the back door. Incense smoke swirled around the room and she lit some small red scented candles and placed them beside a small golden Buddha.
Finally Ping came downstairs and said we would go for breakfast.I got in the back of her car and the elderly lady, her mother as it turned out, got in to the front.Ten minutes later we pulled up outside a restaurant called ‘Old Shanghai’.
A waitress brought some glasses of hot cranberry juice to our table followed by spicy dim sum, a large bowl of fish soup and a plate of acid cucumber. We took her mother back home and then went across town to see a large sleeping Buddha and continued on to the botanical gardens, that form part of a huge park which gradually blends into dense jungle. 
An overgrown track led off toward the mountains. Ping has a problem with her knee and is unable to walk far. She said she would wait while I walked up. An hour later I hobbled back down the steep slope.
While I was walking the thought occurred to me that I ought to be wearing my walking boots and not the plastic yellow crocs I had bought in Thailand. As I rounded a bend there was a flash of movement, I looked down and saw reptilian skin. 
Automatically I jumped back causing me to smash my big toe into a rock. The creature was in fact a large monitor lizard and what I assumed to be a thick snake was the upper part of its tail.
Ping needed to go the market to buy chicken and fish. While she examined the food and haggled over prices I wandered around. Like many markets worldwide this one had an overpowering smell. Chickens were piled into cages watching their kin being slaughtered and awaiting their turn. Discarded flesh lay on the floor, fat and blood was being hosed away into gutters. Teams of men prepared pork bellies, scraping away mounds of grease and then hacking the meat in to pieces with large cleavers. 
That evening Ping cooked the fish for me and served it with a mound of boiled rice. It was a pleasant change from the street food I’d been eating. I thanked her for the time she had spent showing me around – over five hours,however she refused to accept any money from me.

26.6.15

Koh Tao (Turtle Island) named for its shape is the type of location often featured in Bond movies, exotic, mysterious, overtly tropical and surrounded by ultramarine turquoise seas that sweep up and down its pristine coral beaches twice a day.
It is a destination that attracts backpackers from around the globe who wish to explore the unique marine world that exists in this southern most part of the Gulf of Thailand. To service this demand the island has developed an economy centred around PADI courses – open water diving and scuba diving.
So the news that two young English students had been brutally murdered one evening in an idyllic cove came as a shock to the local population who feared the news would damage the important tourist trade upon which they depend. They were not the only British citizens to die in this country. No fewer than 362 of their fellow countrymen and women also lost their lives.
Getting here involved taking a cheap evening flight with Nok Air from Yangon to Bangkok and then a sleeper express train to Chumphon followed by a two hour catamaran ride across swollen seas to Mae Hard the island’s main town and ferry port.
After three days I felt I had seen all the sights so I took another two hour cat ride to the larger island of Koh Samui. Here I stayed just across the road from Chaweng beach that is praised in the Lonely Planet Guide Book for its beauty and cleanliness. It is not a view that I am sympathetic to.
At night Chaweng comes alive. Neon lit bars and restaurants line either side of the main drag. Ladyboys stand outside cabaret clubs touting for customers. Henry’s Africa bar the largest on the island is full of raucous screeching bar girls. It is open sided, offers free pool, cheap beer and endless chit chat from girls trying to get ‘lady drinks’ – expensive drinks that are watered down and passed from girl to girl.
Another boat, this time on route to Hat Yai, a railway junction town close to the Malaysian border. Since 2005 there have been several instances of bomb attacks, one at the airport, a further one targeting a Carrefour supermarket and in 2012 one was detonated in the centre near where I am presently staying killing five and injuring hundreds. Last year two bombs exploded the first outside a convenience store and the second at a police station killing nine. These attacks are carried out by a seperatist group who are agitating for an independent muslim Malay state. When will they strike again?

21.6.15

Fried water convulvulus, pig colon salad, sting ray eggs with pineapple, spicy intestine salad, grilled pork’s neck, lady glass shrimp, deep fried pork’s rib,fish head with albino soup,fried jelly fish, Porks tewdon with red sauce. With so much choice it was difficult to choose from tonight’s menu. In the end I decided on Welfare chicken which may have meant organic or simply that it wasn’t cooked alive. It tasted like snake.
Durian fruit has a bad reputation. It is deserved. Many hotels insist that it not be taken into rooms.They are the size of an American football with a tough outer skin covered in hard spikes. Once they are prised open there are four segments each of which contains a brown gooey mash. It looks and tastes like Bostick and unlike Bostick it glues things together.
Yangon is graveyard for many things including my trainers which up until arriving in this crumbling city had rendered sterling service. Now in the space of a few days the sole of one fell off then that of the other. A major control button on my camera also yielded to the climate and detached itself from the body – it will be expensive to get fixed.
It is now officially a UNESCO world city, an eastern version of Havana. It has required many years of native inertia to achieve this appearance.
According to the WHO 1% of all deaths are the result of road accidents, many of them are pedestrian fatalities. There is no coherent strategy for crossing roads, one simply leaps between the onrushing cars and trucks until you reach the edge of the lane. Then you pause and repeat the operation four or five times more before finding sanctuary on the broken pavement – it can and does happen that people manage to escape with their life crossing the highway only to plunge down a huge hole into a river of sewage.
Having negotiated one such highway I stood a while to catch my breath. A tall lean man dressed in the traditional lunghi wandered over. “Where you from” he asked. “I’m from England” I told him. “English very good. I used to work in telegraph office, long time” he continued. “Have you been to Emperor Club.” I said I hadn’t. “You must go” he admonished me with a wave of his hand.
Later that evening I walked past the Sule Paya Pagoda and turned into a warren of narrow streets filled with market stalls and crowds of people sitting and eating and spitting. I made another turn onto a wide road flanked by blocks of long gloomy buildings. In front of me was an uninviting lobby.A man came across and motioned for me to follow him into an elevator. The attendant pressed the button for the 6th floor. When the lift stopped I was led through to a reception and handed over $5 which included the entrance fee and a drink.
Inside there were forty or so girls.It was dark.I wished I had thought to bring my torch. The girls were in the pre boredom stage of the evening glaring at their mobile phones. I stumbled into the bar and passed over my voucher and in return got a bottle of Heineken. A young girl came over to chat. She told me that in an hour there would be a fashion show. What? Her name was Daw. She fidgeted and stood around while I drank my beer. My eyes took some time to adjust to the dim conditions and even then I could only make out flitting shadows. The girl disappeared, I drank up, collected my new umbrella from the surprised check-in girl and clambered into the lift. At the bottom I neglected to give the attendant his customary tip. He glared at me.
50th street is the location and the name of a half decent bar, patronised by embassy staff, oil industry execs, financial traders including one by the name of Alex a big man in the powerful sense of the word, from Texas, and whom I’d gotten to know a little over the previous nights. It was a twenty minute walk away. I strode down the road and through another night market,avoiding the piles of rotting rubbish and looking out for those infamous holes in the sidewalk.

17.6.15

Bo Gyoke (General) Aung San is revered today throughout Myanmar.Photographs of him are on prominent display in many homes, offices and government buildings. He was the catalyst around which the movement for independence coalesced. As a young student at Rangoon University he had begun to agitate for an end to colonial rule.

Japan promised to train and equip the rebel group for the fight against the British. Once the war had begun it soon became apparent that Hirohito’s army were in fact not interested in freedom movements and acted far more aggressively toward the native population than the displaced administration had.

Resentment built up against the Imperial Army of Japan. Aung San met with the British and offered his support on condition that there was a route to independence.
In 1947 he met with new Prime Minister Clement Atlee. A date was set to hand power back to the Burmese. Before he could assume his role as the new countries leader he, along with five other members of his government in waiting were gunned down in the Ministry building. His daughter was two years old.
Today Sung San Suu Kyi is known throughout the world for her opposition to the military rule that has impoverished this country and its peoples. Her views have resulted in many years of isolation. Her home has been her prison.
Today I made the long walk from downtown Yangon past the now crumbling and derelict red bricked building that was the scene of her father’s assination. It occupied a six and half hectare plot of land and like much of colonial Rangoon has been neglected for over sixty years.
Now her home which is in the north of the city on University Avenue is the headquarters of the NLD – the New League for Democracy. How would things have turned out had her father lived?

14.6.15

Monsoon rains coincided with my arrival in Yangon.It took an age to find a taxi and there are 50,000 operating in this city.After twenty minutes waiting under a flyover one stopped.I didn’t have a reservation but there was a guest house on 52nd Street that seemed reasonable.It wasn’t one the driver knew but I was certain it was pretty close to the railway station.
With a little prompting and encouragement we finally pulled up outside. I was sodden. The driver gave me an umbrella, a broken one but it was better than nothing.
Getting here took 10 hours.Ten hours without anything to drink or eat. At least half the time I spent beside an open door. I was still experiencing problems with my back,and the seats on the train were functional rather than comfortable, hard being the adjective that comes to mind.
Riding the iron horse across the endless malarial paddie fields was quite an experience, a laughable one but also somewhat painful. Mosquitoes flew in and out of the open windows, the train rocked and swayed like an ocean liner riding out a violent storm. We the passengers bounced up and down in unison as if we were a troupe of charging cavalry.
Seriously it should be impossible to build a line this bad, no one has the skills required to construct a thing of such imperfection. No to achieve this has taken 70 years of neglect,70 years of independence.
Much of the time I passed focused on not getting flung through the door. Itinerant vendors made their way from one end of the train to other, selling fruit,prawns, betel nuts and drinks. I decided to buy a bottle of water. It was 100 kyat about 10 cents.
I put the bottle to my mouth, it was 3:00pm, nothing had passed my lips since 7am. The liquid was warm and earthy. Then I realised there was no plastic seal on the bottle. It was a recycled bottle filled from where? Although most of the country is covered in water much of it is grossly polluted. The last thing I want to do is to contract amoebic dysentery. Fortunately I hadn’t swallowed.
Come early evening I was ravenous. Once again the menu made interesting reading – fried water convulvulus, pig colon salad and my choice, welfare chicken. Perhaps it’s the translation. At least beer is a universal word.
seat61.com/Burma.htm

12.6.15

Before he wrote Animal Farm, George Orwell joined the Imperial Police. He asked to be posted to Burma because his maternal grandmother lived in Mawlamyine, a large town in Mon state. While here he contracted dengue fever. Presently I am standing high above the town in Kyaikthanian Paya an enormous temple, looking down on the town’s infamous prison. I could see the squalid two storey blocks of cement rendered cells with their thick bars of iron and coils of shining razor wire. It is everything a prison should and shouldn’t be, menacing, intimidating but also unreforming. This was the inspiration for a short novel that Orwell wrote – The Hanging. It made me recall the Merle Haggard song ‘Sing me home’ – a doomed convict’s last wish that the song he used to hear be played again for him by his friend as he took his final steps alongside the warden to the place of execution.
In the early days of the British Raj this town was made the Burmese capital. Due to its location it became the most important port in the country. A port from where huge quantities of teak were exported. Due to its strategic location and importance it acted as a gateway to the country through which passed colonial officials, businessmen and many personalities including Rudyard Kipling who all those years before had stood on the same spot that I was now occupying. He was entranced by a beautiful and elegant Burmese lady. He was to later write “I should better remember what the pagoda was like had I not fallen deeply and irrevocably in love with Burmese girl at the front of the first flight of steps. Only the fact of the steamer starting at noon prevents me from staying in Moulmein (Mawlamyine) forever.”
In reality Burma was considered a very hard post. Tropical disease took a heavy toll. There was constant trouble. Disparate and antagonistic tribes made consensus and cooperation impossible. Hostility between the warrring regions could and did flare up frequently. It was not a quiet posting.
Grey clouds were blowing in from the gulf of Mottamar, it was time to get back to the riverside and a beer station. Karaoke is popular and a small stage stretched out between the tables. Two young girls were taking turns to sing. An organist accompanied them pausing frequently to cough and cack and spit, all of which was amplified by the microphone.
Mama San is a beast of a woman, nicely coiffered, wrapped up in an elegant silk robe. Her cheeks wore an intricate design of white painted tanica that contrasted with her ruby red lips. She’d been on the phone for over an hour but kept an eye on her ‘angels’ barking instructions to them from time to sing higher, lower, more dramatically. It’s not music that resonates with me and my western mind. I couldn’t even hum along. It was my last night in Mawlamyine, I looked across to Mama and asked for another beer, she bowed and smiled and ordered a young waiter to make sure that it was cold. 
A breeze blew in off of the Thanlwin river. The rain had stopped for now. I drank up, I had an early train to catch. Mama walked to the door and said goodbye, please visit us again,bowing as I said goodbye. I sucked in the warm night air happy to be moving on again.
The warden led a prisoner down the hallway to his doom
And I stood up to say goodbye like all the rest

And I heard him tell the warden just before he reached my cell

“Let my guitar playing friend do my request”

Let him sing me back home with a song I used to hear
And make my old memories come alive

And take me away and turn back the years

Sing me back home before I die

I recall last Sunday morning a choir from off the streets
Came in to sing a few old gospel songs

And I heard him tell the singers, “There’s a song my mama sang

Could I hear it once before you move along?”

won’t cha sing me back home, with the song I used to hear
Make my old memories come alive

Take me away and turn back the years

Sing me back home before I die

Sing me back home before I die

10.6.15

On the lakeside in Ye are several restaurants looking over toward a golden pagoda that stretches out into the water. Because the lake is considered sacred the sale of alcohol is prohibited in the area but I wasn’t here for the beer, just nourishment. I made my way to a small sticky table and sat down on a cheap red plastic chair. A young man handed me a menu but it was written in Burmese. I placed it on the table and explained to him that I wanted a dish that didn’t contain meat – to ensure he understood, I said “No oink, oink” “No moo, moo” “No baa, baa” ‘No cluck, cluck”. He probably thought I was mad. Then he said “Noodles?” “OK.” I replied “Noodles.”

He disappeared. Then I thought what if he brings back snake. I hadn’t said “No hiss, hiss.” I needn’t have worried. He returned with a large plate of freshly fried noodles that were tasty and that I dived into with wooden chopsticks, slurping them up and all for the price of $1.
Evening found me in a classroom in front of 30 or so keen Myanese students eager to improve their level of English. The problem is that it is too large a group, the student levels are totally different, some advanced, others just beginners. Due to this incompatibility the class wasn’t dynamic the way I had hoped it would be. I introduced some new concepts designed to stimulate and these worked fine if you worked with a small group of say five or six.
At 8.35pm the class ended. Outside tendrils of white lightning spat and sizzled and sparkled across the electric blue night sky. The air was heavy and wet and it felt as if you could gather it up with both hands and wring it out. Bats were chasing around in the demi-gloom and as always gangs of feral dogs were yapping and tearing one another to bits.
I made my way down to a bar. Most of the customers seemed pleased to see a foreigner in their midst however there was one man who wore a lot of white makeup giving him a ghostly look. His hair seemed as if it had been dyed a reddish brown colour and was parted down the centre. It was long, hanging down to his shoulders. He sat opposite me, uninvited. He was staring intently and his smile revealed sharpened teeth, badly stained. as were his gums, from the constant chewing of betel nuts, mild intoxicants that most males cannot exist without. Users are continually coughing up and spitting out the disgusting contents, splattering the red stained spittle anywhere and everywhere.
Of course I felt uncomfortable. Abruptly he stood up, walked across to the counter and returned with a selection of small nuts. These he said would act as a powerful aphrodisiac. I knew it was time to leave. A friend of my admirer who spoke a little English said that they wanted to take me out and show me the country. Yes!
I made my excuses and left. I didn’t look behind until I was a couple of hundred yards away. Then I checked once again as I walked up a narrow alley. I wasn’t being followed. What a day. Unwanted companions, a difficult class and my first and last taste of durian fruit but that’s another story.