travelogue – Laos rebuttal by Peter Long

Laos Rebuttal (from Peter Long) (Rick in italics)

Hi Rick:

At last a letter I know something about!! i.e. Laos

Every backpacker is on their way to Laos. Some are already speaking of (shudder) “Thailand North”.

Don’t shudder too much – Laos before Thailandization was pretty primitive from many points of view: security, health, education. Subsistence living may look romantic, but in fact is grubby, stunting and short.

So why Laos? Why now?

I don’t know. Transportation is impossible. It’s a dusty land. The most unique of the few tourist attractions, the Plain of Jars (giant, mysterious stone jars), most don’t visit because the road is infested with bandit rebels.

You’re right, I never went there. The Germans were financing the construction of Highways 6 and 7 when I was last there, which should open things up.

In fact the entire infrastructure for tourism is sorely lacking.

Wow! You should have seen it in the ‘good old days’ Gummint hotels (in the capital), sheds elsewhere, filthy, although the Russians didn’t seem to mind, better than being at home I expect.

Yet everyone loves Laos. Everyone loves Cafe Lao — fantastic strong, tasty coffee mixed with sweetened condensed milk. ($.20)

We remember that well from Thailand in the 60s. Made by pouring water through a sock filled with coffee (Joyce has just reminded me that you got a chaser of tea to clean your mouth!). Good coffee in Lao, comes from the plateau in the south. I met a weird fellow there who was helping them develop coffee (he grew up in Kenya), but quality control ws a problem, and Lao is not a member of the coffee cartel and can’t get MFN status from the US because of involvement in the drug trade.

Match that with a fresh baguette veggie omelet sandwich ($.80) and you’re off to a happy day.

Veggie omelet – Luxury!! Breakfast was rice soup (with pork), and lunch was rice soup (with chicken). Dinner was rice soup etc. The day after the order was reversed.

Lao people are laughing, joking, goofing. They don’t take themselves (or tourists) too seriously. They’ve been generously protected from tourism and Western culture by communism and bad roads.

Also by being shot if they tried to cross the river, and a security guard in the hotel to see that no-one switched the TV to the Thai channel. And Migs at the airport. All in the good old days of course.

I arrived from Thailand via the “Friendship Bridge”, built 1994.

I went over the bridge when it was under construction – a very efficient Oz operation. I usually arrived via the airport, but crossed the bridge once when I was bounced from the flight ,and took the train to Nong Khai. It took about 3 hours to cross the bridge.

And Vientienne is just about the only place in the country where you can get unkipped.

I did change a traveler’s cheque once in Luang Namtha!

You can party Friday night at the Australian Embassy. Play rugby, touch football, bridge. Run with the Hash House Harriers on Monday night.

I went with the hash. Ran through some noisesome mud, (Joyce threw my socks out when I got home)

You can fine dine though you need an expat salary to eat at the French restaurants. (menu priced in dollars not kip) All the imported luxuries are available. There’s a better selection of French wine than in Saskatoon.

Wow!!

I met a Calgary cowboy experimenting with different cattle breeds on the local grasses.

I did not see much grass, other than rice. most cows appear to be in the bush/forest. I think you need a hardy local breed to survive, but I think beef is an important export to Thailand and China.

He’s got a better chance of success than those working “crop substitution” — convincing opium poppy farmers to switch to mulberry trees (for silk).

You need a high value crop when you have to walk out 2 days with the load on your back.

3 sights not to miss in Vientienne:

1) A wonderfully weird Lao-style “Arc de Triomph”. The Americans sent concrete and cash so the military could build another runway for U.S. jets. The general, instead, completed the “Arc” as a memorial for Lao war dead.

I think it was completed after the ‘liberation’

2) The symbol of Laos (replacing the hammer and sickle on the national emblem in 1992) is the wonderfully weird “Great Stupa” which looks like some kind of gilded missile cluster. It was peacefully deserted when I was there. I never saw anything like it in all my Buddhist travels.

However, I was there on the national day with thousands of people and hundreds of monks

Unlike everywhere else, I rarely heard a bad word about the government. The dissenters have mostly left. They cross the Mekong into Thailand which actually has more Lao speakers than Laos.

NE Thailand has an indigenous Lao population, they are not all dissenters.

North to Vang Vieng on highway 13, the only “good” road in the country.

Highway 13 is the old French numbering of a ‘Route de l’interet regionale’. It ran from Saigon, through Cambodia to the Chinese border. There is a statue of the French engineer on the road to the south of Vientiane

After an authentic Lao lunch (a gamble gastrointestinal) we climbed on to inner-tubes for the 3 hour float back to town. It’s timed so we would arrive back at sunset. At the “sunset pub”. Beerlao flows freely

Pleased to say the World Bank financed the expansion of the brewery in Vientiane..

– the “Secret War” in Laos where, in contravention of the 1962 Geneva Accord, U.S. pilots (code named “Ravens”) dressed as civilians and flew dangerously obsolete planes into battle.

The DC3 Dakota was a fine plane!

– the illegal bombing of Laos, especially the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Eventually the U.S. dropped more tonnage on this little country (about half a tonne / person) than they did in all of WW II. Unexploded ordinance (UXO) still kills about 130 people / year, about 40% children. (In Cambodia the number might be closer to 800 / year.)

You need to be careful digging for bridge foundations.

The end of the line for me was Muang Sing, a sleepy little village right in the middle of the Golden Triangle. In fact, the muddy, messy square was once the greatest opium market in the world (under French sanction).

I can’t believe that you got to Muang Sing. I have been there several times. Our stays were based in Louang Namtha, but I went to Muang Sing (and south of there to Muang Long, and once all the way to the Me Kong, from where I travelled down the river in a ‘long tail’ boat, trying to hunch down and not look like an American, who are not welcomed by Khun Sa’s men on the Burmese bank of the river. More of this another time).

The old opium market was restored with German aid, they had a nice installation in Muang Sing, with, at that time, the height of luxury of Mercedes jeeps, everybody else had terrible Chinese jeeps. They reconstructed all the pillars of the market while Klaus (?) was on leave, but when he came back they were not in a straight line, so in good Teutonic fashion he had them demolished and done properly.

It’s mainly know now as an exit point for automobiles being smuggled from Thailand to China. I saw huge convoys of (supposedly protected) hardwood too, heading north.

The porousness of the border appears to vary. On my last trip there were hundreds of cars sitting in the bush for a year. You could buy one very cheaply.

Actually, some come because this is a nexus of tribal peoples. Colourful costumes, metallic headgear, fascinating customs. Hill tribes practice “swidden” (slash and burn) agriculture. Not pretty, but apparently the environment can sustain the low population.

You are right about the mix of several tribes. Did you get acquainted with the one where if you get a massage you are worked on by a team of 6 girls simultaneously (so I’m told!)?

A guesthouse has opened up 8 km out of town so I spent a couple of rural days. I could have trekked to different minority villages. I did walk to one but found the experience awkward. What to do when the old woman runs out shouting, “Money, money, MONEY”.

On the Muang Long road once, we tried to take a picture of one of the girls with Joyce, but she was so spooked by Joyce’s white hair (maybe thought she was a ghost) that she screamed and ran into the creek. Too bad because she had good looking breasts casually revealed by her open jacket. The tiny pack horses were similarly spooked by the jeep, and the drivers were not much better either, also diving for the ditch.

After advising everyone I’ve met for the past 6 months NOT to backpack in China (unless they speak Mandarin), I’m really looking forward to the Middle Kingdom. It’s so much more … “civilized”.

Except for the toilets, the worst I have ever seen (smelt!) and heaved over, and watch for the phlegm first thing in the morning and the chicken bones on the restaurant floors.

Really enjoyed all your accounts and philosophy.

Cheers

Peter

 

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travelogue – Laos

Every backpacker is on their way to Laos. Some are already speaking of (shudder) “Thailand North”.

Actually, “Visit Laos Year” begins November 1999. It is being orchestrated by General Cheng whose tourism credentials include French Paratrooper school and Russian Military Academy. …

For the complete travelogue & photos jump to the permanent webpage in Rick’s travelogue archive. OPEN icon

travelogue – Thailand R & R

Topless beaches, nightlife, unique cuisine, Buddhist culture; Thailand is the most popular tourist destination in S.E. Asia. I’d been here before, the first time in 1996.

But I’m not a total fan. IMHO Thailand is over-touristed, over-rated, and relatively expensive. (too many “suitcase” tourists)

Thailand is “the beaten track“, enduring millions of demanding “farang” for too many decades. Thai people working in tourism appear to be fed-up with us.

Another part of the problem is Bangkok. Sprawling, polluted, congested, this city boasts that it has consumed more concrete over the past 10 years than any other in the world.

Most everyone gets stuck in Bangkok for longer than they want — waiting for a visa, organizing forward travel, or … recovering from illness.

Most stay on Khao San Road. All day and all night vans and buses deliver swarms of backpackers to this tourist ghetto. Western restaurants blare rock music or offer current release (pirated) movies so customers can laze away the hours.

Bangkok is westernized — 7-11, Baskin-Robbins, Dunkin’ Donut. All this familiar comfort is seductive. Travellers get lethargic. I met many who had been on Khao San for a week and not yet visited the Grand Palace, Wat Pho, or the National Museum — all within 15 minutes walk.

You KNOW Rick McCharles would never get sucked into Khao San sloth.

He’s the kind who denounces McDonalds, that most conspicuous of all western imperialist icons. (This trip I hit on a more devious strategy than boycott. I patronized McDonalds, fouling their spotless washrooms, soaking up the air con, but purchased only “loss leaders“, the ice cream cones. I hoped I might drive rotten Ronnie out of Asia through insolvency.)

So why, you might ask, did you find Rick drinking Gatorade, scarfing Pizza Hut pizza, and watching “Jurassic Park, The Lost World” in his room on HBO TV?

When I came to Bangkok I had been sick for 3 weeks. I relaxed for a couple of days, seemingly recovered. I was well, but fatigued. I needed R & R so I headed for the beach.

Ko Tao

Ko Tao (Turtle Island) is a newish Thai sandy paradise. I was there a few years ago and I liked it — no paved roads, no electricity, quiet beaches, one small beach techno bar (“The Drop Zone“).

The tiny island has developed rapidly. Now there is one paved (5 km) road, much construction, and far too many motor scooters and electrical generators.

I retreated to the remote “CFT Resort” (assortment of huts) hidden in the jungle on a rocky cliff.

Just to prove my stereotype wrong, the Thai manager Pat was friendly and enthusiastic.

Two minutes after I arrived she threw me the keys to her motorcycle … (so I could retrieve my pack stashed back at a restaurant. I only used the bike ONCE) … “Careful. The brakes don’t work very well.”

I rested here for 6 days reading Michener on the porch of my cliff shack, snorkelling, admiring sunsets from the Bluewind restaurant.

cliff shack

I do like Thai food. In fact the “glop” I make at home is a variation of “Pad Thai“, a woked rice noodle dish.

Great fruit! Especially rambutan and mangosteen. Green coconut curry on rice with fresh seafood. Coconut soup is similarly tasty. A late night treat is “rotee“, a folded crepe with banana, raisins, or whatever your sweet tooth desires. Pour sweetened condensed milk on top.

Walking beside the beach one night I spied a thick rope on the path. I paused to watch it slither away. This was the biggest snake I’d seen in the wild, over 2 m long.

I ran to the nearest restaurant to alert a waiter. He just laughed.

Later at CFT one of the tourists ran up the hill yelling. “Snake!” Pat wasn’t sure whether the 80 cm viper! was dangerous or not. “Better leave it alone.

We all had “monsters” (big lizards) in our huts at various times. We sleep with the door open to wind and surf. One night I had an insect infestation on my walls. By morning they were gone without a trace.

Bugs are usually no problem. We keep our mosquito nets carefully sealed. And you get accustomed to the chainsaw-like Cicadas.

There are many unbelievable insects in Asia. The Praying Mantis is my favourite.

Street vendors serve up some of the big ones; deep-fried scorpions, beetles, grubs, and locusts. Free samples for foreigners.

I love the cheetah-like street cats, especially the Siamese. Lean, angular, wild. In most of Asia cats are bad luck or worse. But Buddhist countries are more feline tolerant.

(Hey, Toms got balls!)

Ko Tao was just what the doctor ordered — often cool, windy and overcast — anticipating the coming monsoon. Eventually, though, I grew restless and moved on to Krabi, the favourite Thai destination for many.

Railly beach at Krabi, I must say, is the prettiest I’ve seen — a sweeping white crescent with striking limestone cliffs. This is a fully developed resort. It couldn’t be more touristy. Yet I liked it because it is isolated, accessible only by boat. There is luxury accommodation aplenty, but I found a unique “tree house” for C$3.50 / night.

Krabi has emerged as a world-class rock climbing site. Bring your own gear, tent on the beach, and a wealth of cave and cliff climbing is yours. Ocean kayaking is big too.

boats

The Leonardo of our age had been filming “The Beach” at nearby Phi Phi island. Based on the badly written, wildly popular cult book of the same name, it’s a backpacker “Lord of the Flies“. Many here are anxiously awaiting release, hoping to see themselves painted-up, dancing in the Full Moon Beach Party scene.

(I shudder to envision the Thai islands over the next few years as Leo’s fans in the hundreds of thousands make pilgrimage to Ko Phi Phi.)

Then it was back to Bangkok where I was admitted (for a few hours) to the highly regarded “Mission” hospital. The diarrhoea, which I thought was cured, was back. The doctor thought it might just be a “blip“. She prescribed charcoal pills of which I had never heard saying, “You’ve had enough antibiotics.

Loafing Khao San Road again. I didn’t want to depart until I was sure I was healthy.

Thence, Pizza Hut, Gatorade and Lost World!

Come to think of it, wasn’t I the one who said, “Give me convenience or give me death!” (Or was it the Dead Kennedys?)

I wasn’t a complete slug. But I had previously visited all of the main tourist attractions of Bangkok and even developed a like-hate relationship with the megalopolis.

Then I heard of a new bizarre attraction — theMuseum of Forensic Medicine. It was a bit queasy-making. Samples of skin with knife and bullet wounds. Hundreds of morgue photos; high voltage burns, train crash victims. Two murderers preserved in wax and resin! Yuck.

Last time visiting this shopping town I investigated the ultra-modern World Trade Centre (a predictable duty-free shopping mall) where cleaners scuttle about wearing jackets labelled “Anti-dirt“.

More interesting was the urban slum out back. The poor live a traditional village lifestyle in the midst of city glitz. Each family finds a niche; the kitchen expands to restaurant specializing in fried fish, popcorn, or coconut sticky rice. On family sets up a barber chair. Another repairs electrical goods. Another sells socks.

It seemed a restful, if limited, existence. People sleep when tired. Dogs, cats, and chickens take care of most of the garbage. Even here there is no smell of urine.

Patpong, the famous red light district, was busier than ever. It’s becoming more of a tourist attraction than brothel. There are many female visitors and I’ve even seen entire families with cameras there. And it’s probably the best street shopping night market in town.

The sex shows are novelty acts involving a lot of pingpong balls, bananas, darts, and razor blades. It’s no kind of serious red light district like Hamburg, for example. (Imagine a whorehouse of Germanic efficiency; behind tall barriers, an entire apartment building, every window red lit!)

Thailand’s reputation for prostitution grew out of the Vietnam war when GIs were sent there for R & R. Actually there are now more sex workers / capita in Manilla and Taipei than Bangkok. The serious sin tourists are moving on, perhaps to Eastern Europe and Russia.

Very common in Thailand, though, is to see a tall Western man with his petite (bored?) Asian “girlfriend“. They miscommunicate in incomprehensible broken English. I always assume these women are “package” prostitutes. In Germany you can book your Thai vacation (3 weeks with escort) calculated down to the last pfenning.

This trip I met a number of these couples. Actually, all were married or in long-term relationships.

Prostitution is common in Asian cultures though. In India I never once in 6 months saw a “working girl” while in Chinese cities I saw them every day.

I was wandering Lhasa at dusk when I saw hundreds of pretty, young, made-up women walking in the opposite direction. I turned around.

The Chinese have recently built a massive Casino complex in Tibet to help justify their more massive investment in that barren plateau. These ladies were on their way to work.

Arriving in south China I was astonished at the number of barbershops, sometimes entire streets of them. Twice I ended up in one of these tiny brothels, a couple of beds separated only by curtains. We chatted with the ladies (through a translator) and had drinks.

I didn’t stay for a styling.

PS

I’m next to the mountains of Northern Laos. It’s getting a little hot and wet in Thailand. I need to gain altitude and latitude.

Everyone is raving about Laos — “a backpacker’s paradise“.

I’ll let you know.

travelogue – Burma, Metronidazole, Chloramphenicol, Ampicillin, me & SLORC

“This is Burma and it will be quite unlike any land you know.”

– Kipling, 1898

The iron fist of SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council) squeezes the citizens of Yangoon, the capital, through the day. After curfew, the dark, empty streets are over-run by giant, fearless rats. Postal clerk turned dictator, Ne Win, (hugely wealthy, married 7 times) has controlled this detested military regime since 1958.Officially retired since 1988, Ne Win continues to pull the strings from his residence where he surrounds himself with ‘wizards and astrologers’.

This is the kind of stuff I had looked forward to writing about Myanmar (the correct name of the country). I had expected to find another Cambodia which I visited a few years ago — a tortured, impoverished, backward country of suffering Buddhists.

Not so. Arriving in Yangoon in the evening, we were efficiently whisked from the modern airport through a bright city of wide streets and spacious architecture. Yacht Club. University. Our first impressions were good. The golden spires of pagodas light up the night.The hotel was spotless, new, friendly, and inexpensive. A Vancouver couple immediately took me out for beer and traditional Burmese food at a street restaurant which had never entertained foreigners. After dinner we joined up with one of the roving gangs of street musicians to sing old pop songs in Burmese and English. Bryan Adams is by far the most popular artist.

I was feeling pretty damn good about Myanmar and happy to be Quit of India after 4 months there.

Next morning was Easter Sunday. I went to Mass, conspicuously under-dressed, at the biggest Catholic church in town. I was over-whelmed with the warm welcome.

In the light of day I began to see the shabbiness and neglect, the socialist drabness.

Dozens of major construction projects, mostly hotels, were stalled or abandoned. Paint was peeling on most buildings. The huge sports complex, a gift from China, empty. The Yangoon Trade Centre (“Prosperity Through Trade“), deserted.

Still, the market was vibrant and oh so clean as compared with India. You can buy virtually anything. There has never been any kind of economic embargo of Myanmar except self-imposed isolationism. All of the multi-nationals are here with the exception of a few like Levis who opt not to do business with this regime.

I saw only 3 or 4 homeless people. When the police spot them, they are transported to some ghetto for the poor far from the city and prying eyes of tourists.

That evening we visited the famed Shwedagon pagoda, massive!, packed with tourists. The spire, built 1769, is covered with 53 tons of gold leaf and adorned with 5000 diamonds and 2000 other precious stones. Every 100 years the gold “umbrella” on top is replaced — this would occur on Buddhist New Years, a few days hence.

Shwedagon
Tourists are dismayed with the amount of money Buddhists donate to temples. We all quickly resolve to donate to people (Buddhist Home for the Aged Poor, School for the Deaf) not buildings. As in Tibet, we do everything we can to minimize the number of dollars going into government coffers.As quickly as possible I left Yangoon, heading north on the road to Mandalay which was the capital until the British took-over. En route we passed an endless military graveyard. In Burma 27,000 allies died in WW II, 200,000 Japanese.

In Mandalay I stayed at the wonderful AD1 Hotel where I was fated to spend a lot of time on the roof, admiring the pagoda spires rising above the leafy green skyline. I had plenty of time to chat with the staff, especially the generous owner.

Older Buddhist people are soft-spoken, polite, and kind. All males spend some months as monks — it seems to have a lasting influence on their characters.

I was surprised, though, at how much this Buddhist nation is influenced by India. They eat communal meals with their right hand as in South India. The Burmese chew betel nut even more than do the Indians. One young man, teeth reduced to stumps, embarrassed, hiding his mouth behind his hand, told us, “I can’t quit. I like it too much.

A more uniquely Burmese scene is an older woman smoking a huge cheroot.

This is the worst possible time to be in Myanmar and in Asia. Pre-monsoon the weather is insufferably hot.

The upside is that the annual heat wave coincides with the most important holiday of the year, the Water Festival. This party compares with Carnival in Trinidad or Rio in length and intensity. For 4 days people go nuts drinking and dancing. Costume, masks, make-up. And for 4 days you are soaked. Worst are the fire hoses and ice water kids.

After 1 day of drenching most tourists just want to hide in their hotels.

In Mandalay I got fever. Four nights I awoke, the sheets soaked with sweat. Then I would huddle in my sleeping bag trying to get warm despite cold chills.

I’d seen enough colonial graveyards to know that many foreigners die young of strange fevers. I decided to find a doctor.

Unfortunately, nobody works during Water Festival. Employees of essential services don’t show. I finally found a retired family doctor who works out of his home. He was British trained, perhaps 50 years ago. I made the leap of faith. A more sincere, kindly doctor I’ve never met. He took a stool sample and prescribed about 6 different kinds of pills including a sulfa drug. (I wasn’t sure I wasn’t allergic.)

I assumed the pills would cure or kill me.

Next day I was wiped. I could barely stand, never mind climb stairs. When I finally got back to his house I told him what I wanted — what was recommended in my guidebook. Of course he didn’t have that drug but prescribed an alternative antibiotic.

I hate taking any drugs. They mess you up and weaken your immune response. These chemicals had the side-effects of making me forgetful, stupid, and unlucky. Nothing went right. I even, somehow, lost the antibiotics.

To escape the heat and water I travelled up to the British hill station at Pyin oo Lwin.

Transport was by crappy Toyota pick-up — 20 passengers plus cargo.

The town is spacious, green, quiet, and quaint. The only taxis are brightly coloured horse-drawn stage coaches.

I stayed one night at Candacraig, former quarters of the Bombay-Burmah Trading Company. It’s an English country mansion constructed of teak. By far the best hotel of my trip.

Mr. Bernard, the cook, refused to leave after WW II and wouldn’t allow any alterations to building or menu (Roast beef, potatoes, English vegetables). He unfortunately eventually died there. Now the place is deteriorating apace with the other potentially gorgeous mansions.

The rich all seem to have a summer home here. I was charmed by the girls and young women who often stopped to ask, in careful English, if I needed directions. In Buddhist countries confident women hold-up far more than half the sky. And there’s been no “street-proofing” of kids yet.

woman with sun blockBurmese women smear coloured “thanaka” on their faces as a beauty cream and sun block. This is a paste made from a tree.

The rich young males are another story. Long hair, sun glasses, dressed in denim and Doc Marten boots. Serious bad attitude. A bit shocking for a Buddhist, asian culture.

They’ve seen all the violent American movies but the only English they’ve mastered is, “Fuck You“.

SLORC has encouraged traditional dress and Buddhist values. Now, in one of the least western-influenced countries in the world, they will suffer a huge backlash.

With some difficulty, I managed to get an air ticket to Bagan. If I was going to die, I at least wanted to see Bagan first. It’s one of the 2 great ancient sites in Asia along with Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

In Bagan I had to find yet another family doctor. He disagreed with my former medication anyway prescribing alternatives Metronidazole and Chloramphenicol.

At least the fever was gone and I was able to explore the 2000 pagodas of Bagan. By 1044 this was the rich trading hub for India – China. Unfortunately, Ghengis Khan rode in in 1287, utterly sacking the place.

These are really ruined ruins. Very little has been restored. It has an ancient ambience. I walked among the pagodas at night. Spooky. One day I hired a guide, horse and cart to take me to “excellent and unusual” pagodas. We started at 5 AM to avoid the heat.

pagodas
Actually, I was more impressed by the “newer” pagodas of Mandalay. As I flew out of that city I’m sure I saw over 2000 structures there too.When I judged myself healthy enough, I booked a bus back to Yangoon. On arrival I went to Thai Airways to explain my health problems, to see if I could move my flight sooner.

Bangkok is the best place in Asia for a foreigner to be ill.

The airline suggested a flight that same evening. I jumped at the chance.

As it turned out, that was my first healthy day — my last in Myanmar and my first in Thailand — after 23 days of diarrhoea. (I reckon I caught this bug in Rishikesh, India.)

To be on the safe side, in Bangkok I immediately purchased “Ampicillin“, the antibiotic I couldn’t get in Myanmar.The Ampicillin gave immediate relief. I hope I’m cured.

In summary, I had cut short my seemingly jinxed visit to Myanmar. I saw only 3 of the 6 great sites in that country. I should go back some day. It’s my kind of place; untouristed, Buddhist, and beautiful.

People hope that Ne Win, now close to 90-years-old, will die soon. That might precipitate a major change for the better.

Every local I spoke with in private quickly agreed that their government was terrible. The biggest complaint was power cuts. Myanmar has mountains and rivers, but still doesn’t generate enough hydro-electricity.

The next complaint is the economy. Things have greatly improved since moderate pro-trade General Than Shwe was installed as leader. Actually, there has been steady growth since the regime abandoned socialism in 1989. Before that Myanmar was one of the 10 poorest countries in the world. Ne Win had nationalized every industry, even retail grocery shops.

Everyone has suffered under this crazy regime. Most were, until recently, reluctant to use banks as the government took a cut of every deposit.But hording cash was risky too.

SLORC would occasionally announce that notes of a certain denomination were now worthless — supposedly to combat counterfeiters.

Today there is a lot of money around. Count the Toyota Land Cruisers and Mercedes.

Where does the hard currency come from? Rice, drugs, gems, and hardwood.

Half the heroin in North America is made from Myanmar poppies. They have 75% of the world’s teak reserves. In fact, deforestation is probably the biggest long-term problem. They’ve denuded entire mountains just so rebels have no place to hide.

There’s been much criticism of the 100 lovely golf courses in this impoverished country. (Ne Win and his cronies are all big golfers.) But I find those cynics short-sighted. Just as the rich pagoda is a symbol of spiritual fulfilment, the golf course represents the secular.

Every mother’s son can aspire to become a military officer or a smuggler, and earn membership in the club.

The government mouthpiece newspaper, “The New Light of Myanmar“, is a comic, embarrassing propaganda rag. But it does cover golf scores from all over the world.

Huge out-of-place, out-of-time billboards proclaim:

People’s Desire:

  • Oppose those relying on external enemies,
  • Acting as stooges …
  • Oppose foreign Nationals interfering in the internal affairs of State
  • Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy.

AungI didn’t sense any particular support for Aung San Suu Kyi who won 85% of the popular vote in the 1989 election. The Nobel Peace Prize winner has been under house arrest for most of the past decade since SLORC imposed permanent martial law.

The U.N. has documented the arbitrary arrest and torture of political opponents. SLORC has been ruthless. But western media has been particularly disinterested in Myanmar.

SLORC is a dictatorship that stifles free speech. One tourist waiting for a callback in the International Phone centre wandered upstairs looking for the toilet. He found a room full of people with headphones listening to the calls.

In another idiotic move, SLORC closed the University in ’89 and shutdown about half the colleges. Of course the University is the centre of dissent. SLORC would rather sacrifice their intellectual future than risk another uprising like ’88 where 3000 were killed during a 6-week period.

That’s Myanmar.

I never did look for Kurtz up the famous, atmospheric Irriwaddy river. It was at low flow. There was a big risk of getting hung-up on a sand bar. I did manage one short boat ride on this most evocative of rivers. Lovely.

057On to Thailand and good health!

travel – to tour or not to tour?

Lonely Planet Cometbot:

 

You won’t have to go far to hear someone putting down organised tours.

It’s almost de rigeur to write organised tourists off as camera-toting, Bermuda-shorts-wearing, loud, insensitive and ill-informed oafs. Many’s the independent traveller who’ll be more than happy to tell you, over a beer or two, that people on organised tours would be better off sitting at home watching it all on TV – after all, they only ever see the country through the windows of an air-conditioned bus, don’t they?

The litany of ills is endless: you never meet the locals on an organised tour, you’re not allowed to see the things you want to see, you never really get involved in a culture. Organised tours give you a pre-packaged, sanitised view of a country, with no room for serendipity. As if that isn’t reason enough to turn up your nose, there are the evil effects that organised tours have on the local economy: foreign-owned companies ship people in, drag them around then ship them home again, using the country’s resources without giving anything back to its people. Independent travel, in comparison, is a wonderland of cultural interactivity – nights spent with local families discussing village politics and eating like the real people do, days spent wandering at your own pace, finding things by accident, getting off the beaten track, and generally immersing yourself in the whole ‘travel experience’.

Fans of organised tours, naturally enough, say almost the opposite. If you take a tour, they suggest, you use your time efficiently and you draw upon the knowledge of local guides who can give you a great deal of historical and cultural insight into the country. Organised tours help the economy by employing people in hotels, restaurants and as guides. Independent travellers, on the other hand, spend half their time looking desperately for somewhere to lay their head or fill their belly, gawk at sights without having any real idea of their cultural significance and corrupt the virginal locals by inflicting themselves and their fleece jackets on regions which just aren’t ready for virile western culture.

So what’s a poor traveller to do? Here’s what we reckon – before you decide how to travel, you should sit down and have a good think about what sort of person you are and what you want to get out of your journey. If you don’t mind spending a lot of time alone, if you’ve got time up your sleeve, if you’re confident about introducing yourself to strangers, if you already know a fair bit about your destination, if you think you’ll cope all right with the frustrations of organising your own transport, accommodation and food, then independent travel will probably be incredibly satisfying. If you’re a shy, retiring type, if you’re travelling because you have a particular interest you’d like to learn more about, if you’d rather someone else did the dull bureaucratic stuff, if you’re going somewhere dangerous or want to learn a new skill, or if you’ve only got a couple of weeks, then an organised tour may be just the ticket.

Sure, there are plenty of awful organised tours, tours where you’ll be shuttled between piss-ups and more often than not wake up in your tour mate’s vomit, tours where you’ll only stop long enough to shoot a roll of film, tours where the only local you meet will be the bloke on reception at your hotel. But there are also plenty of great organised tours. There are theme tours, like those that give you an in-depth look at the architecture of northern Italy, or the wine-making regions of France, at the ecology of Madagascar, or development projects in Guatemala. There are adventure tours, ideal if you’re keen to develop your trekking, rafting or skiing skills, or want to see a particularly remote area, but don’t feel confident about doing it by yourself.

There are tours which will teach you something new: learning to paint in Florence, learning a Gaelic instrument in Ireland, learning to fish in Botswana, learning to surf in Australia. You can book yourself a luxury train trip through Rajasthan or a five-star fling in France, or you can sign on to rough it across Zimbabwe, pitching your own tent and cooking your own breakfast as you go. Maybe you want to find your Karelian roots, follow in the footsteps of Gustaf III, engage in bi-plane combat, rope a calf or make your own Hollywood blockbuster.

If you want to do it, there’s someone out there who wants to charge you for it.

 

travelogue – some concerns – India

From Charles March Blackride:

Subject: McCharles

I beg your forgiveness if I am overstepping my slight acquaintanceship with your Mr. McCharles, but having just scanned his most recent email from India, I’m somewhat disturbed. His letters are getting longer, more frequent and, dare I suggest, possibly manic-depressive. McCharles would appear to be on course to declaring as one of the very mystics he rightly ridicules. Perhaps one of you who understands him better than I should alert him that he is Kurtz.

My apologies, once more, if this electronic mail is an over-reaction.

Sincerely yours,

Charles

travelogue – there is no God and McCharles is Her prophet – India

Nehru called India “a madhouse of religions“.

Spiritual tourists” like me are certain we will discover secrets here in a country where we can’t even find the train station. This is the land of saints and sages. Six million sadhus can’t be wrong.

None of us are dissuaded when we learn that the Indian sex manual (Kama Sutra) was written by a celibate.

The XX Century is done. Y2K looms. India tramps are hearing much talk of “Kaliyug“, the “age of darkness“, the “end time“.

This helps fuel the “enlightenment industry“. (Gita Mehta) Buzzwords attract tourists like flies — “tantric“, “karma“, “dharma“, “nirvana“. No worry they are so over and mis-used they’ve come to mean anything and nothing.

India is a place where people will embrace spiritual novelty. Any self-proclaimed prophet can quickly attract credulous devotees. The most enthusiastic are promoted to the inner circle.

India, Japan, and the U.S. boast the lions share of religious con-men, but they’re found world-wide.

An Indonesian prophet Petrus Ratu required his followers to wear their underwear on their heads. He was last seen in 1996 on his way to prison — with his underwear on his head.

Indian astrologers can veto weddings, corporate mergers, and wars. Gandhi said it all:

I know nothing of the science of astrology and I consider it a science, if it is a science, of doubtful value, to be severely left alone.”

I’m embarrassed how many pathetic dupes are fleeced of $20 – $30 U.S. by street fortune-tellers. (I was savvy enough to limit my loss to $20 Canadian.)

I travelled with Harry; educated, articulate, sun-burnt, “square” — a prototype Brit. He started out to get his palm read and finished hugging the seer. Both naked.

Harry couldn’t explain how this happened except to emphasize that it was never threatening or coercive. They separated on excellent terms, the palm-reader looking forward to meeting Harry’s wife.

Channelling? Rebirthing? Angeology? Put up a poster and westerners will appear. (10 minutes early to get a good seat.)

I was considering a Gandhi-inspired fast until a Colorado “rolfer” advised a 10 day “cleansing“; drinking salt water, “chomper” pills, electric “zapper” (to kill parasites), twice daily enemas. “Long black oily strings are still coming out day 10.”

A group of travelers nodded approval. One packed-up and headed to Goa to sign-up.

I told “Rolf” I had decided, instead, on a “gorge“. I hurried to the bakery.


Brahma Kumari (Daughters of God)

A guidebook promised much; “an indisputable force for good in the world“, “integrity is unquestionable“, “perhaps the least corrupt organization in India“.

I climbed Mt. Abu to investigate their “World Spiritual University” (excellent!) and “Forest of Honey” administrative headquarters which oversees 4500 branches worldwide.

Mt Abu

The BKs (Hindu Shivites) promote:

  • morality
  • women in leadership roles
  • universal peace
  • celibacy
  • social work
  • yoga and meditation

I attended a couple of introductory classes at their “Academy for a Better World“. My instructor Nagraj had a good message, but no teaching technique. The pitch compared badly with the sophisticated wooing of the multi-level marketing companies of the west. Nagraj could learn much from pyramid schemers.

(One point of similarity — MLM companies always include a prophet, usually the corporate founder. The BKs deify a Calcutta diamond merchant who had bizarre visions.)

I descended the mountain feeling warm and fuzzy, memories of happy, smiling people all dressed in white. Like Heaven.


ISKCon

I dropped by Krishna’s hometown to check-out Hare Krishnas India headquarters. The place was surprisingly run-down.

Blue GodThough the blue-skinned God is understandably respected for satisfying 900,000 milkmaids one night — at his ashram: no sex, intoxicants, meat, or gambling.

There’s a daily requirement of at least 16 rounds of the Hare Krishna mantra.

Entering the temple I was immediately hit-on to “adopt a cow“. When I innocently asked, “Why not a goat?”, I was nearly throttled by a sputtering, enraged little fellow. This was profane mockery. Krishna is the “sacred cow-herd“.

I fled (my usual exit from Hindu temples) but ran directly into a shouting match between two shaven, orange-robed devotees.

Bad karma. They should be singing and dancing ecstatic with Krishna.

Thinking I’d just caught ISKCon on a bad day, I tripped to their gorgeous new temple / recruitment centre in Delhi. Conch shell horns sounded, curtains swept open, all fell in prostration to Krishna. It was an impressive show.

At the gift shop I couldn’t find a copy of “the book“, “Monkey on a Stick“, a damning expose of ISKCon U.S.A.


It was only 15 minutes walk to the stunning new (1986) Lotus Temple of the Baha’i — immaculate gardens, pristine pools. Really fantastic.

But the “park” between was a stinking cesspool. This is India. A slum latrine between two spiritual palaces.

Lotus TempleLotus Temple, Delhi

Baha’i

A modern (1850), common-sense religion:

  • improve quality of life on Earth
  • social service work
  • condemns superstition and prejudice
  • equality of men and women
  • abolish extremes of poverty and wealth
  • permanent world peace
  • common foundation for all religions (they all produced great teachers)

The Baha’i have an interesting system of decision-making. They elect leaderless committees of 9 who are expected to arrive at a consensus. Even if there is some disagreement behind closed doors, all support the final decision.

Other innovations: no priesthood, donations accepted only from Baha’i, gossip discouraged. Courtesy, modesty, and decency are expectations.

I had a few concerns; the cult of personality around the Persian founders, they are a bit inflexible on alcohol and drugs, and (inconsistently) only men can serve at the embryonic world government, the “House of Justice” at Mt. Carmel, Israel.

The Baha’i have no hang-ups with sex, so long as its monogamous, wedded, and not over-frequent. Homosexuality is an aberration that, thankfully, is treatable.


BeatlesBeatles

Rishikesh

Shanti“, man. The Holy Ganges still flows clean as it emerges from the hills. Quiet, relaxing. A perfect space to write that novel, play bongos, or watch your hair grow.

Rishikesh is “The Yoga Capital of the World“.

Yoga? I know nothing of the science of Yoga. But it seems to me they obfuscate a practice (stretching and light conditioning) done safely and effectively by 7-year-olds.

Practitioners would highlight the mental discipline, a total lifestyle. This is true for serious yogis as it is for dancers and martial artists. But I just can’t stand mute when someone extols the “topsy-turvy manoeuvre” as religious experience.

It’s a headstand! We teach it to 6-year-olds!

Still, students in Rishikesh were all mellow-happy. I should make time to try yoga. (Should I choose Bhakti, Hatha, Laya, Kundalini, or Raja yoga?)

Rishikesh is replete with dozens of massive ashrams, housing untold thousands of Hindu pilgrims. Yet there was no place for me.

One gatekeep looked like a sadhu, but acted more soldier than sage. (Ex-military in the British tradition, as it turned-out.)

Later he warmed to me, after I concurred that most backpackers are complaining cheap-skates. Suddenly a great Ganges-view corner room became available. I camped on my balcony looking over to the cremation ghat.


GodGod?

In 1900, God was a “given“. But by 1980, 20% (worldwide) of people said they were non-believers. (World Christian Encyclopaedia)

Einstein believed in God. Feynmann found only “a mysterious universe without any purpose“.

Particle physicists have a better chance to answer the question than philosophers. They seek the G.U.T. (Grand Unified Theory) which will explain “everything“.

Many a genius concluded that God exists. Saint Vinoba was asked, “Do you feel as sure of God as you do of the lamp in front of you?

I am sure, quite sure, of God. But as for the lamp …

Gandhi heard what he assumed to be the voice of God tell him to undertake a 21 day fast. Gandhi did not lie. Was it a schizophrenic episode?

Psychologist Antony Starr noted that unprovable beliefs shared by a few are delusion, but those shared by millions are religions.

Scientific rationalists should not believe in God. Nor should they fall in love, or feel fear watching a horror movie.

The Dalai Lama (officially an “atheist“, but the most religious atheist I can imagine) pointed out that we are born into this world not needing religion, only affection.

The historical Buddha told his followers clearly that there is no God. After his death they rushed to fill the void with … The Buddha.

Gandhi said that all religions are different leaves on the same tree.

But what is the tree?

Joseph Campbell called the myths and religions of man, the “masks of God“.

But what lies under the mask?

Even the most devout atheist will agree that E=mc2. Matter is energy. The atheist might even go along if you call that energy “God“. It’s just a word.

The debate really starts when you claim that God is sentient, creates or destroys, intercedes on Earth.

This is difficult to defend as “it rains on the just and the unjust“. Bad things happen to good people. None of the religious rationalizations, I’ve heard, convince me.

Yet I don’t have the conviction to deny that your God exists. Some microbe in my small intestine might deny that I exist. It would be mistaken.

Obviously a God might “be” which we can’t yet perceive. Perhaps God is unaware of our existence too. (Could you call him “God” then?)

Microbe that I am, I still can’t condone any God which calls you to hurt yourself or others. I get suspicious if your religion:

  • is exclusive (“chosen people“)
  • demands surrender to God or guru
  • emphasizes recruitment or donation
  • includes “extreme” doctrines (better is a “middle path“)

Ethics and morality can certainly exist autonomous from religion. Best is if your religion reinforces the (ever evolving) mores of society. At a minimum it should not conflict with our current standards of human rights.

Me? I’ve been studying monkeys.

We and the apes evolved from a common ancestor. Thence we came — tribal bands of pesky hunter-gatherers.

Life was short and brutish for primitive man. (We sired 20 offspring in order that 2 survive to adulthood.) Life was precarious. Drought, flood, disease, invasion. A dangerous world of evil forces.

The only defense was to “call upon powers which were a match for these adversaries or to propitiate the malevolent forces themselves“. (Roger Housden)

Superstitions, rites, rituals for protection evolved in every clan. The “evil eye” was feared the world over.

The first deity of which we know is the “fertility goddess“; “Earth Mother“, “Maha Devi“.

The miracle of life. The profound sense of wonder at the magic of birth was akin the awe of the mountains, thunder storms, the sea.

Energy.

Often She was represented by a clay figurine. I know because a friend once made and gave me such a fertility goddess — a fine gift. (Mine hasn’t worked yet, Mary.)

You must know that a female supreme deity can’t last long in a male-dominated species like ours. She was usurped by male warriors like Zeus, Thor, Indra.

But for me the original God is female. And She is energy.

prayer

… of course I could be wrong. Perhaps my Truth is some sort of ignorance I’ve mistaken for wisdom.

I should go back to Tibet, search out Shambala, consult the “Spiritual Masters” of the Theosophists who have been monitoring the progress of mankind.

Hard RockI was mad to have missed the chance to ask Satya Sai Baba, near Bangalore. Two Texas Indians married at his ashram assured me he’s a true fakir.

Sai Baba is the #1 guru of all time, a “man of miracles” who can materialize Swiss watches, heal the sick, and once turned into a sea serpent in front of hundreds of witnesses.

Sai Baba out-draws everyone but the Pope. He fed a million people for a week at his 70th birthday party.

A founder of the Hard Rock Cafe knows he’s for real. He donated $54 million. “Love All. Serve All.”

PS

I’m Quitting India. I’m gone down the Irrawaddy to hunt down Kurtz.

McSadhu