Saturday, September 8, 2018

From ‘Crossing the Shadow Line. Travels in South-East Asia’ by Andrew Eames

The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his own room
-          Blaise Pascal, Pensees

In the first half of 1982, 5,700 murders were recorded in Thailand. Police seized 481 weapons, including 135 automatic rifles and 206 hand grenades……Bangkok accounts for the vast majority of all criminal activity in the nation, just as it accounts for most of the nation’s industry. Every year the Bangkok police arrest an average of 20,000 prostitutes in the capital, only to release them again; the state cannot afford to feed them any more than their families in the provinces ……

Bangkok’s Chinatown still bears the mark of the Chinese, even though integration here is more complete than that in Indonesia or Malaysia, and the Chinese Thais all have Thai names.

Soft drinks always come in bags in Thailand. Bottles are in short supply and no drinks vendor will let a customer take one away.

Chiang Mai and the provinces of the north only became regarded as the property of Thailand by default: no one else had a better claim. Even now the northern Thais have their own dialect and regard themselves as a race apart. Further up the hillsides behind the northern Thai villages live seven major distinct hill-tribes, even further removed from control at Bangkok. In fact, laying aside the troubles on the Kampuchean border and the communists in the south, the hill-tribes are the government’s main security worry……….Although the tribesmen are now incorporated into the body of Thailand they are not Thai. Most of them originate from the province of Yunnan, in southern China. They are wandering farmers by tradition, because their slash-and-burn type agriculture destroys the forest land. When the tribes first settled in the area it was then all contested land. Burma, China, Laos and Thailand all laid claim to ownership, and now that the borders are fixed there are tribes in all four countries. The principle of a national frontier makes no sense to the people up above 1,600 feet in the rain forests; they only understand the need to plant at the end of the rains and shift when the soil is exhausted. They owe no allegiance to any country, and no country has ever done much for them – which is as they would wish. They are hardly conscious even of today’s borders, which follow no natural barriers. The 1,100 miles of Burmese / Thai border is particularly hard to police.

Solitude – lack of family and friends – is regarded as a terrible fate throughout Asia.

No one in Thailand ever seems to be called by their proper names (except apparently by angry mothers)…….

Two turbaned Sikhs – a rare sight in Thailand – boarded at one stop with large bundles of textiles that they were touting from village to village.

Many children in Asia will run crying from matsaleh (the original Malay word for white man) simply because the only vision they get of white society and behavior is through the crime series they see on TV, where each starts with a murder and ends with a fight.
Mersing is a fairly typical small east coast fishing town. The Chinese control everything that makes money: they own the taxis at the taxi-stand, the boats that line they creek, the Japanese cars that line the streets, the larger shops, the restaurants and the hotels, and all despite the fact that they are discriminated against in the nation’s bumiputra laws, which are tailored to try to encourage more Malay involvement in the nation’s economy.

I hated Singapore when I first arrived……They way in which the old shop houses were razed to the ground to make way for further shopping centres seemed to me a wanton destruction of basic Singaporean culture. When the oldest mosque in the city was demolished there was hardly a murmur of disapproval in the press. ……..there were always rumours in Singapore, largely because the press was muzzled…….three different ethnic groups (Chinese seventy-six per cent, Malay fifteen per cent, and Indian seven per cent) that make up the island’s population……Sometimes I found the children quite frightening. Unlike the adults, they had no experience of another society with which to compare Singapore. They rarely travelled, and they had no counter-argument to the messages put across to them in their repressed society – nor even an appreciation of the need for debate. ………..In 1984 eighty per cent of graduate women were remaining unmarried, reputedly because Chinese menfolk were not keen to marry women more intelligent than themselves…….

A large proportion of cheap industrial labour was imported from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Factory workers crossed the causeway from Malaysia every day- they were not allowed to become resident in Singapore. Every three weeks Thai workers returned in busloads to Thailand to renew their visas. Many of the higher management positions were filled by Europeans and the expatriate population of Japanese was second only in number to that of Los Angeles. Construction workers were imported from Korea, but by agreement with the government they were not allowed on to the streets. Buses took them from their work-sites to “rest and recreation” in the seedier parts of the city……..No one can deny that Singapore’s track record is impressive. When it became a nation …it was …..fifty per cent mangrove swamp and jungle.

Racism was another issue on which the government was particularly sensitive………..the Malays, Chinese and Indians may not have mingled readily, but they did live together in relative harmony. It was the government’s policy to distribute the different ethnic groups evenly around the housing estates; no ghettos were allowed.

In truth I envied the Singaporeans for their green and clean city, their bus-services and their police efficiency. I envied them their food, their hotels, the then strength of their economy and the cheapness of their telephone bills. I envied them their new airport and the way the post office handled their mail, and I admired my students for the diligent way in which they noted down carefully whatever I said or wrote in class.

……..Java……the densest agricultural population in the world with over 1,500 people per square kilometer……cracking of joints – many Asians do it as a habit……..They are easily superstitious, the Indonesians……….Older people on many of the islands often don’t speak Bahasa Indonesia, the new national language, and many of them speak Dutch as fluently as they do their own dialect…….on the island of Alor alone there are reputedly seventy different dialects.

Kumpung Hijau was a Muslim village, and made quite a contrast to the Hindu villages on Bali. The sand was dirty, the houses poor, the people much less free and open. For us as foreigners the pockets of Catholicism on the islands gave us much the best reception. By the end of our journey we had all developed a slight antipathy to Muslim strongholds, which generally were a good deal friendly. On one of the later Muslim islands (the further from central Indonesia and the more remote the people, the more fanatical the isolated religions seemed to get) a couple of boys threw stones at me whilst their parents looked on indulgently.

…………Komodo Dragon …….is in fact a monitor lizard, the largest and fiercest of its kind…….It lives only on three islands in the world – Rintja, part of Flores, and Komodo……Every now and then the beasts show their power by eating a local or a visitor.

…….Lamakera, a whaling village on the other end of Solor …….The villagers had an unusually perilous way of hunting: the spear-thrower stood on the bows until the whale was close enough, then jumped on the animal’s back before stabbing it with his spear. The boats were often dragged huge distances before the whales died – and sometimes the spear-throwers themselves died too.

The population of Darwin was a strange mixture. The town was still very much a frontier outpost, and seventy-five per cent of employment was in the administration machinery that kept it going. The employed section of the community was relatively small, however, and the civil servants were easily identifiable by their neatly pressed shorts and their white socks which never fell down. There was also a significant population of Asians, but these Asians did not stop and smile at white men. …….I found the sophistication of the Asians in Darwin rather disappointing. ……Darwin seemed a sleepy backwater…….like an eddy between two whirlpools. Out of the Australian whirlpool drifted a wide variety of young people who for some reason or other couldn’t handle life in the mainstream, whilst out of the Asian whirlpool came odds and ends who were united by one factor – they had managed their paperwork cleverly enough to enable them to stay. ……..But while most of the white drifters were unemployed, the Asians were largely well set up in a variety of small businesses.

…….like everything else in Australia the mosquitos were enormous.

The people of north-eastern Thailand are particularly charming despite being the poorest in the country……..

Thai dining-cars are a delight, and this was no exception. Fresh purple table-cloths and fresh purple orchids; cheap, quick, good food, and plenty to look at. Here were number of business-women with half-empty bottles of beer between them; beer-drinking women are a very rare sight in Asia, but in Thailand the women are a force to be reckoned with.

Durian have a very distinctive smell, and no airline will allow them on board. One wag likened the experience of eating the fruit to eating an old raspberry yoghurt in a French urinal!

In Bangkok sex is presented as public entertainment…….

‘No sir. This is Padang Bawah. Ipoh is thirty kilometres from here.’ Judging by the accuracy of his language he must have been an Indian.

Kali Gandaki is the deepest river gorge in the world and the path is narrow and treacherous, the route is still the steadiest ascent from the countries of the south of Tibet, and large numbers of mule trains and porters move along its length.

Even the transport was depressing. Where Burma had horsecarts and Thailand had trishaws, the rickshaw-wallahs in Calcutta just used their own two feet. For me this epitomized the lack of humanity in the city – and even in the nation.

I found Calcutta hard to take ………..streets were full of tiredness, tragedy and filth, and partly because the Indian culture was too large and too new for me to want to attempt to assimilate it at this late stage in my travels.