TRANSIT: TRAVELS IN SOUTH-EASTERN ASIA
Amid increasing anxiety across the world over race, religion, economic dislocation, and the costs of ‘openness’, David Fettling travelled south-eastern Asia to observe how people from disparate cultures, both locals and visitors, were meeting each other, seeing each other, and engaging each other. He also wanted to observe himself: his instinctive-reactions, how he tried to connect with people, and whether his preconceived notions changed with his experience.
For centuries, south-eastern Asia has been an international meeting-point, with trade, work, education, religion and leisure bringing people into the region: today this is more true than ever. South-eastern Asia’s popularity as a tourist destination has brought large numbers of visitors from Europe, the Americas, China, Japan, India, the Middle-East and Russia. For many of them, travel in the region will be their first (for some, their only) contact with other cultures. For locals, this influx offers both opportunities and challenges. Here, as in many other parts of the world, what happens along ‘tourist trails’ plays a major role in shaping how people perceive and interact with the wider world.
Travelling through seven countries in the region, Fettling meets a succession of tourists and locals who sit, comfortably and uncomfortably, at various points on an ‘open-closed’, ‘globalist-nationalist’ spectrum – people who will challenge your thought-patterns, prompt your admiration, irritate you, and make you laugh, often out loud.
Transit: Travels in south-eastern Asia will appeal to visitors to the region who want a perceptive and entertaining account by a fellow-traveller, and to those who want to reflect on how people are meeting each other in our connected yet fractious contemporary world.
- At Changi
Part 1: Vietnam
- Trying to ‘see the real Saigon’
- Sleeper trains to the north
- Learning curves in Hanoi
- Halong Bay and Sapa
- The real Saigon – thwarted by Laura from Munich
Part 2: Singapore and Malaysia
- Which Singapore is the real one?
- What KL have I chosen to see?
- On the set of Avatar?
- Hameed and Lawrence
- Eating my way to cultural connection in Penang
- Meeting the Muslim world
Part 3: Cambodia
- Phnom Penh welcomes me
- Mourning the dead
- Angkor, Glorious Capital of Selfies
- Meeting Huot: or, how I came to fall upon David Letterman YouTube clips
Part 4: Thailand
- Hua Hin, my first Thai town
- Bangkok days
- Chiang Mai and the ‘natural world’
- Land of smiles, indeed
Part 5: Sri Lanka
- Open and closed
- Thirty-one in Mirissa
Part 6: Indonesia
- More unknowns
- Into the language, word-by-word
- Not serious
- ‘Saya belum mengerti’
INTRODUCTION: AT CHANGI
From behind the glass pane she was standing and watching me as I walked past. She was early-twenties, bespectacled, her blue jeans carefully-ripped at the knees, holding her passport plus a Chinese-language Lonely Planet guide to Australia. I was holding my own passport as I walked up the gangway from my plane to the terminal, and had turned my head to the right on some impulse to see this gate’s departure lounge, to see who was boarding tonight’s return flight back to where I’d come from. Her passport was maroon-red, mine navy-blue. I wanted to stop and remove my cardigan, having just arrived at the equator; the girl had, resting on top of the wheelie suitcase parked beside her, a red coat with large black buttons, to put on in the southern hemispheric dawn awaiting her. Outside I could see – we could see – wet tarmac, blue-black rainclouds, in the distance a high barbed-wire fence. It was twilight, a time for homesickness and pensiveness, although I didn’t feel it, just now, and she didn’t look like she felt it, either. Where was she from? What did she do? Why did she want to go where she was going? I caught her eye; one, one-and-a-half, two seconds passed; I thought I saw a wry half-smile just begin to break on her face, at the same time as one built on my own – but then I was off the gangway, past the window, into the terminal, another connection cut.
I felt a brief, faint breath of heat, somehow penetrating Changi Airport’s defences from the equatorial night outside. Then the air-conditioning moved in to snuffle it. The terminal was ice-cool, antiseptically clean. In transit: all of us between flights, all of us between nations. If anywhere in the world is a ‘global village’ it’s Changi Airport – but the place appeared to me less a dynamic melange of all the multifaceted international influences touching it and more of an anodyne breakdown of them into a single, low, common denominator. Representatives of every member-state of the United Nations, seemingly, were in line for a Whopper at Burger King and paying for it with VISA. Bland elevator music played. Dozens of shops sold jeans. An eatery hawked generic ‘Asian Food’: it was grey-looking, defanged of spice. Wreaths hung from the ceilings in some neutral, generic celebration. If this was our integrated world in microcosm, if this was global engagement, it looked, in crucial ways, decidedly skin-deep.
We had, thousands of us, just arrived on the continent of Asia: and the chief way this fact was immediately manifesting itself was in the buying of entirely familiar products. Currency exchanges pockmarked Changi. A TV screen behind one counter showed Hong Kong harbour at night. There was a lit-up dragon boat, all varnished wood and red flags, moving across the water in front of the city skyline. Then, today’s deal on HKD flashed. All around, brilliantly-lit stores were cluttered with whiskey, sunglasses, stacks of Toblerone – morsels of internationalism which could be wrapped in translucent plastic and tied with a ribbon.
Even if we didn’t buy new things here, we already had the capacity to keep a foot well within our old comfort zones. I saw a woman making a beeline for a power station, hurriedly ripping black and white cords from her pack like the entrails of some postmodern electronic monster. When her cord went into the socket she all but gasped in relief, and I saw Facebook, Gmail and Booking.com already open on the tablet that now blipped triumphantly to itself. A man had white earplugs stuck into his MacBook and was playing a Hollywood film: Rachel McAdams and Jake Gyllenhaal were hanging out by a swimming pool, palpably an Act One prelude to some Act Two catastrophe. Briefly, I thought about the island we were perched upon tonight: an independent city-state that had modernised its economy with blistering speed, a pivotal piece of an Overseas Chinese community spread across south-eastern Asia. Then, I got a latte, and went to check out the in-terminal butterfly house.
Here at Changi an exuberance at and a wariness of the wider world blended together ambivalently. Security guards by each gate stoically watched hand-luggage exoskeletons on their screens. I looked out a window, saw a plane being loaded. Padlocks gleamed on suitcases; one bag was wrapped in plastic, like an embryo. An ad for a bank on one of the trucks, meanwhile, said: ‘THE WORLD IS JUST THERE. WAITING FOR YOU’.
At a newsagent, I picked up the Economist magazine and read snippets of strikingly-assured global predictions and advice. Every country in the world, apparently, required an identical course of microeconomic reform. The nation of Egypt amounted to a stagnating GDP figure; the nation of Ecuador amounted to an investment red-flag. A corporate-type walked in, picked up a copy robotically, folded it under his arm. A shelf of books had been devoted to Southeast Asian authors. A European browsed them briefly, then selected a Snickers bar instead. We rummaged for last-minute knowledge about other places and a chance at empathy for other lives; trade at the Starbucks opposite was noticeably brisker. I’d had a Pico Iyer book with me on the plane, and the last sentence I’d read before we had disembarked had been: ‘The internationalism that’s coming to birth may reflect too roaming and undefined a sense of belonging’.
An outward-facing shelf of blue-spined tomes, like a Smurf’s library – Lonely Planet’s. Their covers conveyed a world of garish pleasure, the Earth as a realm of guesthouses, restaurants, ‘things to do’. The cover for Italy showed blue sky and sea and white houses. California was a couple walking through redwoods, East Africa a yawning lioness and her cub. A city guide to Rio featured Copacabana at sunrise, New York City the Chrysler Building. The business magazines were only a couple of shelfs away, but here was a radically different, though equally reductive, angle from which to view the world. Here it was easy to start thinking of Ecuador as a place of hummingbirds and haciendas, Egypt as the country with the pyramids. Among the Lonely Planets, the economic and immigration and geopolitical crises currently roiling world news faded from my mind, and I was left with a child’s fantasy of the Earth: Africa as animals, Europe as cobblestones, Australia as beaches. I wondered about the planned itinerary of the girl behind the glass.
I looked at a newspaper. It was fretting: about integration in France, about the upcoming Brexit referendum, about Donald Trump’s surprise win in the New Hampshire primary. Everywhere anger was building, directed at exactly the type of connected world which Changi Airport so epitomised. On a TV screen, a female announcer of ambiguous ethnicity gave a global weather forecast. A man next to me rubbed his eyes, emitted a tired hybrid of a grunt and a sigh. There was rain in Istanbul, unseasonable warmth in Chicago, chilliness across northern India. A man in a blue blazer and with a Japanese accent punched in his five-digit code for Wi-Fi, then gazed at the hiragana, kanji and katakana appearing seamlessly on his screen.
All around me, to and from Asia and Europe, North America and the Middle-East, goods were moving, ideas were moving, capital was moving – and people were moving. Grey-suited businessmen off to Hong Kong and London strode past. Foreign students – I saw their institution’s logos on their jackets, shirts or packs – were headed to or from temporary homecomings. Families with expansive supporting casts, Indian grandmothers, Chinese cousins, ambled along in communal processions. Here at Changi, and at LAX, and Shanghai Pudong, and Frankfurt and Suvarnabhumi and Kingsford-Smith, people were having their passports stamped in foreign nations in vast numbers. They did so as international tensions rose. The apparently endless 9/11 wars, and their poisonous stereotypes and finger-pointing, rumbled on. An economically sclerotic West voiced increasing resentment at ascendant Asian ‘tigers’. Few who logged into Changi’s Wi-Fi could tap and swipe for long without seeing the cross-cultural accusations flying back and forth – of racism, of destructive backwardness, of rule-breaking and unfair play, of neo-colonialism, double-standards, free-riding, cultural hegemony. Here in transit at Changi, air-traffic controllers waved plane after plane in to land.
A huge part of the global movement of people, a huge part of our contemporary connected world, is tourism – ‘tourist trails’ are, for better or for worse, key places where people of different countries and cultures meet. For many, an international tourist trip is the first way they experience a foreign society. For some, it’s the only way they experience a foreign society. Tourism, in other words, plays a major role in shaping how people see and engage with the world.
Here in transit at Changi I watched my contemporaries. A couple silently busied themselves on their respective iPhones, each with one hand on their respective baggage. A guy in his 60s, with bruises on his legs, tattoos on his arms, and deep wrinkles around his eyes, stared impassively ahead. Two men with cockatoo-yellow hair swapped football banalities. A woman in a tank-top was reading something shortlisted for the National Book Award. It was casual dress all the way, a plurality of us wearing thongs, a majority T-shirts and shorts.
Beneath surface self-deprecations, we’re actually accustomed to thinking about tourism (we usually give it the more glamorous moniker ‘travel’) in strikingly idealistic terms. There’s a broad consensus, nowadays, that travel ‘opens the mind’, that travel teaches people what the world is ‘really’ like. During the Iraq War it even became common to point to George W. Bush’s lack of foreign travel as a reason he okayed the invasion: had he learnt more about the world by experiencing it, the argument went, the entire thing might not have gone down. Additionally, the encounters between ‘locals’ and ‘visitors’ which happen when people travel are said to have the potential to bridge international divides and build goodwill. In one expression hackneyed from overuse, such meetings supposedly ‘break down barriers’: stereotypes apparently dissipate, we see people, whether Americans, French, Japanese or Indians, as they ‘really’ are, and realise as a result that people are not so very different after all.
It sounds awesome. To what extent is it true? Next to me, a Singaporean woman got up from her seat to refill her water bottle and an American clomped heavily down in her place. She came back and looked at him, startled. ‘You shoulda left somethin’ heer’, he scolded her. ‘Ya gatta comoon-icate’.
Those twin hypotheses, that international travel equals insight and that intercultural contact equals goodwill, became commonplace after World War Two. So did travel itself, in fact – the postwar years marked the beginning of mass tourism. Writers, journalists, intellectuals and politicians implored people not only to ‘see the world’ but to do so with particular objectives: to educate themselves about the politics and culture of the places they visited, and to make connections with people they met. Such ideas were part of a broader effort, after the Great Depression, Nazism, and world war, to replace narrow nationalism and insularity with a more globalist way of thinking – to replace ideas of the world as defined by racial or national hierarchies, zero-sum competition and antagonism with ideas of a world defined by cooperation, empathy, and positive people-to-people links. Idealistic ideas of travel and of cross-cultural connections were one component of a transition the world had made – or had attempted to make, anyway. It had always been incomplete; nowadays, it appeared to be freshly wobbling. It was easy for me to wonder, tonight, whether the years between 1945 and now would soon be seen as a mere transit between epochs of nationalism and conflict.
I rummaged in my backpack, found Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia On A Shoestring. I marvelled at its inside-cover map. Thick arrows pointed to beaches, waterfalls, historic old towns. Before I’d left home I had found a large map of mainland and island Southeast Asia. It was dense with concentric circles for mountains and winding blue lines for rivers; large and small dots demarked large and small cities, sometimes clustered densely together, sometimes jarringly alone amid unbroken shaded green. The map was, above all else, hopelessly full. I’d thought – wow: Asia. Looking at Lonely Planet’s map now, I felt no such thing. Their map was clean and simple, vaguely reminiscent of gaudy McDonalds placemats. The Asian features it showed were entirely different from the Asia I’d read about in newspapers. The Asia of newspapers was an Asia of socioeconomic flux, entrenched corruption, emergent civil society, tense ambassadorial exchanges, environmental catastrophe, rampant entrepreneurialism. Southeast Asia On A Shoestring made the region into a snakes-and-ladders game, with temples and tigers and other potential selfies set against mostly tourist-specific ‘Dangers & Annoyances’, like touts at bus stops or overcharging on island chains. Lonely Planet’s eye went overwhelmingly to relics and old traditions, despite Asia today being uber-capitalistic and relentlessly modernising. It urged its readers to visit long-marginal royal cities, while fast-growing metropolises received far less effusive praise. There was something commanding about those board-game arrows of the Lonely Planet map pointing out a mere handful of destinations between Dili and Hanoi, and the scientific precision of their ‘Top 20’ attractions lists. I found an odd finality to Lonely Planet’s recommendations: even when I wanted to not conform, they seemed to suck me in anyway. My father had questioned my plan to go to Langkawi in Malaysia, asking whether it quite meshed with my interests. I tried to explain that some elemental force had made me circle it: I was headed to Malaysia, I’d consulted Lonely Planet, it had simply seemed like something that needed to happen.
Here in transit at Changi I saw, by a gate, a cardboard cutout of an Asian airline stewardess with a flower in her hair. It was the same exoticised representation of Asia presented in colonial times, with a simple updating of uniform. A man, and a woman wearing a chador, walked together with their boarding passes in their hands – a young European gave them a contemptuous stare. Tourist journeys often work to simply reinforce what we already think, give our pre-existing views added ballast. Bad experiences abroad, meanwhile, actively foment ill-will. I thought of dinner-party travel-talk: it suggested distinctly that travelling actually makes it easier rather than harder to stereotype. People gripe – in this-or-that country people are dishonest, rude, lazy. Nations are summed up in fast, sweeping judgments, in one-line thumbs-up-or-down responses. ‘I didn’t like Brunei’. ‘I really loved Korea’. ‘I hated India’. ‘We thought Japan was fantastic, but we couldn’t stand China’.
Here in transit at Changi an Australian voice asked, ‘Hey – which one is Laos?’ I scoffed at the guy – but I wasn’t substantively better. This, apparently, is our world – we rub together just enough to know only the barest superficialities about other places and cultures; we vaguely want to engage more deeply with the world, but don’t quite know how, or balk at the linguistic and cultural effort involved. Many of us here tonight had surely read the classic travel writers, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Colin Thubron and the rest, even as we knew their adventures would bear little relation to our own. So we sat at Changi, clutching our Lonely Planets, in a protracted, possibly never-ending transit between unfamiliarity and understanding.
Perhaps it was more that people’s engagement with foreign countries was uneven – that there was a lopsidedness to what parts of the world we got to know. On another laptop screen near me was another piece of Hollywood: a sitcom, everyone blonde, witty or both, every home or workplace gleaming and glamorous. Here in the middle of Southeast Asia, a disproportionate number of globetrotters sat wrapped in a cultural comfort blanket of Americana. For so many of us, even those of us whose passports are well-worn, one corner of the globe looms disproportionately. I was a case in point – my overseas travel had consisted, more than anywhere else, of trips to America. The sight of this show made my thoughts wander: of flying to LAX, of landing into smog and palm trees, of a connecting flight east over snow mountains. I’d gone back and forth like that for a girl, for awhile. Out the window a plane rocketed past, took off, flew away; but through the thick glass windows we heard not a sound.
I had decided on an Asian travelling strategy which was, at first glimpse, gratuitously counter-intuitive. I had decided to purposefully keep to the tourist trail – to veritably embrace the tourist trail. I was interested in the ways people from different countries and cultures – tourists and locals, and tourists and other tourists – were meeting each other and seeing each other on the tourist trail. When there was goodwill, or a perception of commonality, what caused it – and when there was tension, or a perception of cultural difference, what caused that? Yes, tourism as a form of international engagement has sharply obvious limitations. But the tourist’s practice of skimming across the surface of another society is – Changi Airport tonight well-demonstrated – not at all unrepresentative of global sojourning in our current age. To examine those limitations I suspected could be revelatory about just what kind of global community we were currently living in. I would follow the ‘trail’ not of single-minded beach-bums, but only of people who sought to engage with the places they were visiting – people who, like me, either did believe or wanted to believe in those postwar tropes of travel as a means of insight and of contact as a means to goodwill. I planned to watch others. I also planned to watch myself.
South-eastern Asia struck me as a good place for it. The region has been a meeting-place of different peoples and cultures for a long time: China, India, Arabia and Europe had all left imprints, and continued to do so. Tourism was a big part of the region’s business, but it did not dominate the region’s affairs – governments here had cultivated a tourist industry at the same time as they had cultivated a suite of other industries for a fairly successful economic modernisation. There were a diverse mix of people in south-eastern Asia, both the region’s citizens and those who visited – Westerners, East Asians, South Asians, Middle-Easterners and Russians all holidayed here in numbers. And much of what threatened world comity was present in south-eastern Asia: the legacy of colonialism and racism, religious difference, abrupt shifts in economic power. Here in transit at Changi, more planes were coming in to land.
I’d managed to find a Malaysian café chain. Sitting down, I found myself drinking a coffee with sugar and condensed milk and eating nasi lemak – rice, peanuts, anchovies, sliced cucumber and sambal chilli paste, with a small accompanying serve of chicken curry. I stirred the coffee, mixed the curry into the rice. Above me, on a board, flights were boarding to Kota Kinabalu, Seoul, Chennai, Yangon. And I thought, abruptly: but I like this. Planes going everywhere, people going everywhere, a sensation of the entire world being tangibly close, of everybody crossing paths. Superficial or not, illusory or not, I like this, and that fact, in itself, must mean something – the type of sojourning for which Changi is a hub is surely, at some level, useful, meaningful, desirable.
On my laptop I was browsing through Airbnb.com. Its pitch was obvious – the site was selling immersion. Stay in a real home, in a real neighbourhood, with real ‘locals’. One image showed the door of a London terrace being opened, a host with hand outstretched. In another a woman sat at an apartment window holding a mug of coffee, the Eiffel Tower in the background. I trawled through pictures of bedrooms, lounge-rooms, sunny balconies, of leafy surrounding streets, cafes, restaurants, parks. I perused listing descriptions. There were, intruding on this cyber-idyll, snotty reviews, often pointing out falsities in the ‘immersion’ offered; and I’d read enough else on the web to know that Airbnb was far from perfect. Yet still, I thought, it says much about our century that so many people are so attracted to this particular type of accommodation – that this particular business model is such a worldwide draw. ‘Belong anywhere’ was Airbnb’s slogan: I would see soon how much truth there was to it.
An Emirates jet trundled across the tarmac. Indonesians hurried to their gate for Medan. A Korean family walked past me, arms loaded with souvenirs. My flight, AirAsia to Ho Chi Minh City, was boarding. I joined the milling crowd. Now a renewed fillip of excitement – south-eastern Asia. I looked through the boarding ramp’s glass; saw, on the tarmac, three staff in orange vests, one Chinese, one Indian, one Malay. The latter carried a long baton of light. As I watched, he looked into the distance, then raised it high into the air. Before entering the plane, its nose already pointing towards a darkened South China Sea, I felt another faint, fleeting breath of equatorial heat.