Monday, May 23, 2011

Cambodian Night Fright

 There's a good chance I may not live to finish this blog.
  I am composing this in the back of a car travelling at high speed down a dark highway in the south of Cambodia.
  Our arrival at Phnom Pehn airport was uneventful, just passing though the gauntlet of 10 military officers who check your passport, take your money, and review your customs declarations. In Malaysia, the job's done by one person with a computer; here, it's a pre-computerized throwback process. Welcome back to the developing world.
  Oh jeez. He's passing again. My foot digs into the floor. The propane-powered car has no pickup at all. The lights of a transport truck are growing ahead. He flicks his high beams at us. We cut back into our lane with seconds to spare.
  We ignored the airport touts when we arrived and looked for a taxi service to Sihanoukville, about four hours' drive to the south, on the coast. It's near sunset and we wanted to get there tonight. Short version: no intercity drive service at the airport. A guy approaches us, has a friend with a car, prices have gone up for  gas, blah blah. An hour later we are sitting in the back of a late-model Camry with good seatbelts and struggling aircon.
  Please don't pass on this curve. Oh Christ. Here we go again. My nails dig into my thigh.
  Our driver seemed a pleasant enough middle-aged man. We front him $20 of his fee to fill the tank to get us to Sihanoukville, and we began snake our way out of PP's commuter traffic.
 The road's in good shape, and traffic lights and rights-of-way are mostly observed in the big city. We pass through PP's endless suburbs, past windowless garment factories whose workers  are now piling onto half-ton trucks, heading home, packed liked sardines in minivans. The pace of traffic is speeding up as the sun races for the horizon. A last few moments of half-light, and our universe shrinks to the confines  of our Camry.
  The only other lights on the highway are transport trucks and local boy's motorcycles.
 You don't have enough room to get between those motorcycles. You don't. You don't.
 You did.
 Last time we were here we took the bus. Dirty, smelly, noisy. Never again, we thought.
 This way gives us a much  better view of local driving customs. Suicidal driving customs, it turns out.
 Take, for instance, the language of high-beams. In Canada, you may flash them to warn about a speed trap, or if the other driver has his highs on. Here in Cambodia, it's its own stand-alone language.
  Each time our driver wants to pass, he flashes his intentions to the vehicle in front of him. If it's a truck or bus, they'll flash to let him know the way is clear ahead. The driver then goes into the opposing traffic lane, on faith, flashing high beams at the traffic that has the audacity to be heading the other way. Several light signal exchanges now take place, and drivers in both directions cede right-of-way. Usually. Or they'll slow down, or if they're a motorcycle, swerve off onto the gravel. Laws of physics trumping traffic rules. Several more flickerings either settle the issue amicably, or the drivers flash a photonic middle finger to one another.
 All this is of course, happens in the opposite lane simultaneously to us, with all the other drivers on the road, several high-to-low beam conversations going on at the same time.
  The use of turn indicators is another sub-dialect, not to get into now. Because I am surely going to die in the next few minutes.
  Our driver is confident, not very chatty but friendly enough. He seemed to know what he was doing, and we were only going 60km. That's a comfort.
 Until I double-checked the speedometer. This was an American model vehicle. We were travelling 60 miles an hour down a country road. Passing on curves and up hills. Depending that every other vehicle also has working lights- hardly a given. Going faster when we could. And faster.
  Then it starts snowing.
  Big, fat, thick flakes fly toward our headlights, hitting the windshield. It looks everything like a September snowstorm in Yukon, when the ground is bare but a squall blinds the way ahead.
 Not snow. Insects. Insubstantial, like may-flies by the river. But millions of them are everywhere, peppering the windshield.
  The driver hits the wipers, smearing the 'snow' across his field of vision. He gives a soft Khmer curse and hits the sprayer button. The plain water in the spray does nothing but add streaks. But when the water hits the air-conned windshield, condensation forms on the inside of the window, fogging what little clear spots of visibility were left.
  This doesn't slow down our driver. We are now heading down the road, blind, in near-blackness, at 60 miles an hour.
  The only points of reference the driver has, between smears of clear windshield, are the lights of the oncoming transports, now passing uncomfortably close to  my door.
  The driver slows as we head into a nameless highway town. He pulls into a parking lot to clean his windshield, refill the wiper reservoir with water, and we take off again.
  The drive gets hairier as the road gets lonelier and darker between the dirty little Cambodian towns. We straddle the painted line, hitting 80 now. We pass more transports, farmers on tractors, families walking along the road, ghosts in our headlights. Every new challenge on the road follows the same pattern: flick lights, change lanes to pass far too early, too slowly, and watch headlights grow ahead of us, pull into our own lane at last moment.  It never gets easier.
  Then we pull up to another guy, also doing at least 60. Our driver signals, moves into the oncoming lane. It's on a blind curve, but that's par for the course. Then, as we move to pass, the other driver accelerates.
  Of course, such challenges to manhood cannot be ignored. The douchebag in the car ahead weaves into our lane when our driver speeds up, blocking him. Side by side, they race at ever-higher speeds. Finally we overtake him. On a hill.
   We leave our opponent in the dust, now having to stay above 80 but with no-one ahead. I glance at my wife. She's closed her eyes, making peace with her maker. I want to die with my eyes open. 
  But this is ridiculous. I have to try to relax.
  I glance off to the side, close my eyes for a moment.
  Then WHAM!.
  Something is under the car. The wet,sickening sound of something tumbling, breaking, but it happens too fast to see. Our driver cuts down 10 mph, checks his engine indicators. A few kilometres later we pull through a toll booth, and our driver pulls off to the side of the road. Checks for any marks on the grill, anything under the carriage.
  'What was it? I asked. 'A box? An animal?'
  The driver just grins at me, and his English has done a disappearing act. He smiles, mumbles irrelevant 'yes'es to my questions, lights a cigarette, draws on a water bottle.
  We stretch for a few minutes, then he throws his bottle into the shrubs. He nods to me. “Twenty minutes to go", he says.
   The toll booth recedes in the distance. I wonder what else we have left on the road.
*   *   *
    The first street lights of Sihanoukville reduce the anxiety that we'll hit something we don't at least see first, though the driver takes no opportunity to slow down as we enter the city.  A turn down a side street or two, and we reach our destination.
    We pull our bags from the trunk and I pull out my wallet.
    I fish out his fare, and add an extra five.
    "Good driving", I say, and shake his hand.
    He pulls out without looking back,  heading to his family four hours away. I have no doubt he'll get there safe and sound.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Malacca Turned Me Into Rick Steeves

It's not often in Southeast Asia (heck, the world) that you see tourism done right. Touts and hawkers desecrate the peace at the entrances to Angkor Wat in Cambodia; corrupt politicans privatize whole beaches in Indonesia; monks forced to ask for early-morning alms in Laos to satisfy amateur photographers. 
Malacca is different.
We pick up a cab at the bus station after an unremarkable two-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur to the port city on Malaysia's southwest coast. A few minutes drive, over a few modern overpasses and down wide boulevards, and we turn onto a tiny side street. Back into history.
This is Malacca's (properly, Melaka) old quarter, a UNESCO heritage site. Three years ago, the UN decided the old core of this port town was worth preserving for the world. It's easy to see why.
Our guest house was a converted 200-year-old warehouse; on either side are buildings just as old, still functioning as such. Walking by them is a glimpse into history, with crates of cloth and oriental medicine, wrapped boxes of ginger and pepper and dried fish.
The warehouses line a canal that snakes more than a kilometre in from the ocean, an artery of commerce that goes back from before Columbus sailed into history.
Malaysian sultans, Chinese exporters, Arab proselytizers and Indian entrepreneurs made the city important. Smart taxes and tolerance to different ways allowed the city to thrive and grow.
Then we came along. Portuguese, then the Dutch, then British. Europeans actually choked off the port with their greed and prejudice. High taxes, religious intolerance, and just downright douchebaggery saw Malacca slowly strangle. By the 19th century, British indifference (or desire to emphasize their post on the island of Penang, up the coast) finally sealed Malacca's fate. It languished in obscurity, its harbour slowly silting in.
Which is not to say it disappeared. Melacca limped along. And as it goes in so many other places, neglect equated to preservation. A hodge-podge of 500 years of building styles and cultures survive to charm today.
There's Harmony Lane, with mosques, temples and wats that have tolerated each other's differences for centuries. The buildings are so old they lack that bland uniformity you see in their younger kin. So the Chinese temple has a Hindu flair, the mosque has European accents. Then there's the red-brick utilitarianism of the old Dutch administration buildings; British and other European churches, fading in use and form.
Apparently there was a building boom in Malacca just before the Japanese invaded. Many buildings in the historic quarter sport dates from the late 30s to early 40s.
Much of SE Asian history is of the 'you have to imagine' variety- either various waves of development have wiped out older buildings, or they don't survive the climate. Usually the only old buildings in any town are temples of worship or palaces, and there's only so many of them you can visit before eyes start to glaze.
That's what makes Malacca a delight to visit after six months of touring. There are shops, warehouses, parts of a fort, bureaucratic structures. There's a wide brick walkway along the canal, for pedestrians. Restoration work and preservation seem to be ongoing.
Nearly two dozen small museums crowd in the quarter, telling stories from the history of education (skipped that one) to the Japanese occupation (watched the video).
It's a town that still relishes its diversity. Restaurants and markets emphasize the multi-cultural nature of the port's history. There are Dutch, Portuguese, Indian, and Nyonya (Chinese mixed-blood) eateries dotting the quarter. Antique shops and artists' studios produce genuine handicrafts, interesting art- again, a sight rarely seen in the area.
I sound like Rick frickin' Steeves, I  know.
In fact, the daughter and I started doing passable imitations of the American TV tourist to each other, so easy was Malacca's material to work with.
Malacca has its flaws, for sure. Garish Chinese-style gates advertising beer and dried noodle mixes greet you at the quarter's entranceways. The antique stores will fleece you, and tourist-junk shops abound. A riverboat ride down the canal shows massive developments near completion, which will no doubt put more pressure on the area to cater to the masses.
But you can see the development has been done with some thought to the surroundings. There aren't many examples of really unsympathetic construction.
And the core is very well protected. You see no-smoking signs everywhere- there's no smoking in the buildings. Let me repeat that. This is Southeast Asia, and there are no smoking signs. And not only for one place. The whole quarter. And people were respecting that. I saw no one smoking in a building.
The day we left, the papers had a story about a developer that had cut down some centuries-old heritage trees to make way for a new building. Shit hit the fan. The governor was livid. The town mortified. “He'll never work here again,” he threatened.
This is simply unheard of. Worrying about trees over development? I had to pinch myself I was still in SE Asia.
We hardly stayed long enough. We walked the streets at night, feeling perfectly safe. Smart placement of floodlights add both a feeling of security and charm to the place. There's a quiet but busy sound to the evening. The church bells rang nine, prompting birds roosting in the trees to call out an angry chorus for being disturbed.
God help me, I am turning into Rick Steeves.
It was time to head back to the guest house. The streets were quiet. We jump as some rats race out from under a car and dash for the sewer, scrapping with each other as they went. Even that doesn't bother us. It's an ancient port city, after all.
These are world heritage rats.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Brunei: There's No There, There

Tourists have been underwhelmed with Brunei for years. The guidebooks generally paint the picture of a dull place, with little to do. I want to take that with a grain of salt, as most guidebooks are tuned to the sensibilities of drunken Australian frat-boys. So while part of the family flies off Borneo from Kota Kinabalu, my daughter and I hop on the four-hour ferry to Brunei.
  Brunei has a history that goes back 1,000 years, but the modern postage-stamp country is an accident of British geopolitics in the region. It was created partly through the efforts of one of those early 19th-century freelance imperialists someone should make a movie about, and botched negotiations for unification with the rest of Malaysia in the late 50s and early 60s. It only gained independence from Britain in 1984. The end result is a privately-held enclave making an unremarkable and somewhat distasteful family among the richest people in the world.
We arrive, and are ushered quickly through customs, and onto a dingy minibus for the half-hour drive into town. Well-kept homes populate both sides of the well-kept highway. I'm reminded it's a country with free health care and education, and no income or corporate taxes, which even ofers subsidies to buy a car. Wealth almost beyond measure from oil. The 'Shellfare State'.
Fantastic modern office towers rise out of fields- home to various government ministries. It's an urban layout made for cars. We saw no bicycles, no motorcyles, no pedestrians.
We're dropped off in the downtown core of Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei's capital. Five blocks wide, maybe ten blocks long, peppered with attempts at architecture.
We're settled into our 80s-era hotel just as night falls, and decide to hit the town. Forewarned being forearmed, we expect no nightlife. And are thus not surprised.
It's just short of seven, but no one is walking the streets. No cars make jaywalking the least bit dangerous. Office blocks dark from the second floor up.
But there is light, at street level. We walk down Jalan Sultan, a double-wide downtown street, past CD shops, jewellers and restaurants. The intricately-cobbled sidewalks glow in the dark from the light of commerce.
Brilliant white fluorescents, clean tiles and booths- we choose a restaurant that both satisfies us on its sanitary appearance and ability to hide our ignorance of local etiquette. We're welcomed by an Indian man-all the shopkeepers here seem to come from the subcontinent- and we slide into a booth.
And into heaven.
Our host, unbidden, brings us some samosas and sweet snacks for appetizers. We order from the menu- a roti telur (with egg), chickpea masala, kuey teow ayam (chicken with large egg noodles), and murtabak daging (the house speciality, we're told, a thick roti with beef and vegetables). Small dishes of sauces from yellow to red offer various wonderful ways to torture our tongues further. The best orange and lime juices we've had this trip.
We eat till we can't any more, and pay our bill. Twelve Brunei dollars- about $9US, and we walk out happy and satisfied.
We wander some more just to aid digestion, and the downtown offers more of the same- empty parks, open but customer-free stores. Thunder rumbles overhead, lightning flashes through the cloud decks, but there's no audience on the street below.
There's no drinking in Brunei, but that can hardly be the only reason for the empty streets. We've been other places where the majority can't drink, and the coffee shops are alive, teens walk in laughing gangs, street hustlers hang on their cell phones, parents and children play. 
And it's not that the people aren't friendly. We are met with smiles and greeting when we catch a local's eye- one of the nicest receptions we've received in SE Asia. And we feel perfectly safe, even where the streets are dark. 
But it's not alive.
Maybe, I think, it's a function of a society where only one person- or family (and the corporation it's tied to) really has a say in what is to be. No one has a stake, a reason to try to strive, to create. To make a different world. Brunei is a place where you work, where you consume, where you keep your nose out of the sultan's business. Nothing intangible is being created out of the chaos of people interacting, just for the sake of it. A monoculture of power is as lifeless as a monoculture of agriculture. Both mislead with the outward appearance of health and prosperity.
We spend just over a day in Brunei. The next morning we visit the sultan's regalia museum, and finally get a peek inside a mosque (Brunei's is beautiful). We miss some touristy things- the water taxi, a visit to a wildlife sanctuary- but that's really more of the same as the rest of Borneo.
It would have been worth staying one more day. But probably not two.