I’ve been to Asia again and it sucks. You know those places on the Lonely Planet beat? They’re crowded with brusque, loud travelers from places where respect for other cultures wasn’t taught or the current bunch of road-killers didn’t learn.
Here we are in South East Asia, where the overland hippies from Europe and America brought banana pancakes to Samosir Island in Lake Toba in the 1960s and 70s. Where Bali was already an artsy rest stop by the 1930s. Where Thailand lured Vietnam War vets on R&R leave. The same areas that by the 1980s found Swiss and Germans with months of paid vacation hanging out on remote Andaman islets frittering away long winters.
Then came the ’90s and the ’00s. Western travelers flew to the obliging “Far East” for smokes and more-different-stranger-sex. Indonesia’s money values swooped low, some Christians were killed in Ambon and there was a worldwide slump with the dot-com bust. And hello, wake up, what happened to quiet peaceful Asia? Now comes terror bombings on the beaches where Ozzies rave. The world recession-depression through the ’00s, meant travelers didn’t need a trust fund to waste a year on beer, naked mud slides, temple massages and cheap beds in Chaing My and Koh Tweetie. Tsunami Tragedy and more of the same. Wow, what an awesome mess. No one spells correctly anymore and respecting local cultural norms has ended, full stop. And don’t think it’s only the westerner travelers who dress inappropriately and spurn local customs.
Asia’s relentless push to acquire the consumer veneer of success has displaced the traditional culture that attracted travelers in the first place. Do locals have any images about life in the west except what is online or in film/video/tv? They see a Droid sized version of superficial trappings. A highway of revved cars, bright skimpy clothing, painted fake fingernails and Red Bull parties. That’s the western culture dumped by itinerant bored travelers on gap year and beyond. The intellectual and cultural understanding, once as necessary for successful travel as a passport and a guidebook, could be missing.
Development Requires Water
In a land of monsoons, peninsular Malaysia and Western Indonesia are developed with scant regard for water run-off or sustainable civic management. Public buildings spring up swiftly without plans for increased car ownership, traffic routing, sidewalks or transportation safety amenities like cross walks, ramps for the handicapped and bicycle lanes. Existing public facilities that don’t serve the image of the emerging computer chip state, like bus stations, cross walks, public toilets, are left unmaintained. And all the bustle and growth is to the tune of the requisite recorded mullah blaring off-key from radio speakers, rooftops and storefronts. No, I’m not politically sensitive, so what. This is the reality I experienced.
Highway fatalities escalate because driver’s licenses can be purchased and training would take too much time. Perhaps even contrary to the arrogant Muslim male who feels the seed of Allah in his loins, and struts as if he alone were responsible for populating the world. Women are said to share public life, yet they aren’t seen and certainly not heard. Facilities for women are limited and shared public space can harbor danger. In a world of men, litter, urine, cigarette butts, trash, chewing gum and food wrappings are tossed everywhere. No one cleans up when women don’t have a place or voice in the public spaces.
In a world where men believe they are the holy endowed, women are ignored, patronized or baited into compromising and uncomfortable situations. Mercedes speed along the roads beside open sewer drainage ditches which irrigate the city and overflow when it rains. Tropical forest has been slashed for furniture, replanted for palm oil production and bordered with toll plazas and shopping theme parks.
Huge tour groups from the new middle class of China and South Asia parade around, while tour buses chug, sending fumes into the already smelly air as the drivers smoke and chat, or sleep in their seats, bus motors running to fuel the A/C. How much water do these visitors use? Can the local villages in Myanmar, for example, sustain their own people’s needs with the onslaught of tourism?
Contemporary politicians have grafted their ideas onto the glory and prestiege of the sultanates to gain depth to their history. Has regard for the masses ever mattered to those elevated by lucre, king or church?
Did I really expect places to be the same?
In Kraabi, the town appears changed for the better with a jetty promenade and flowers planted down the new four lane roadway. Why did they need a four lane road? To handle the tourist influx. Yet the old buildings endure and you can still find a clean bed for $4. Thailand seems more prosperous than years back, but not in the flashy way Malaysia has opted to express prosperity. Public services, structures facilities are reasonably advanced. Trash bins, road signs, curbs, stoplights a bus station with waiting benches and an indoor toilet. Here, I see a balance of women and men in public. Women wrapped in headscarves stare vacant eyed and follow careless, pushy loud men. At least they’re not smoking.
In the bright morning light filled with promise, fishing boats chug out from Kraabi to sea. Dried fish on woven mats during the day. A cat nibbles at the fish. Women sort the dried minnows and smelt. I saw a cicada caught in a spider web last night. Cigarette butts everywhere around the public space. Why is it travelers never realize they’re littering when they flick away a butt?