2018 roundup

Taipei, Taiwan
As we come closer to the end of the year, I’ve got several things on my mind. First is that 2018 turned out to be a rough year for the world. While 2017 wasn’t so great, it seems like 2018 saw the world become more troubled. Donald Trump continues to baffle ad mismanage his own country, the UK can’t figure out Brexit, while civil wars in Yemen and Syria continue.

Taiwan had a decent year, though there was a shocking train crash in October that took 18 lives and injured almost 200 (train accidents are rare in Taiwan). However, the November local elections and referendum stunned and disappointed a lot of people. The ruling DPP party suffered huge defeats and lost many of Taiwan’s counties and cities, while the referendums showed Taiwan isn’t as progressive as many people had thought.

The bigger concern for me is the DPP lost big to the KMT, which is pro-China and openly intends to expand ties with China. As you know, China still claims Taiwan belongs to it, and continually launches provocative military flights, bars Taiwan from participating in international multilateral organizations (hence Taiwan is not a member of the UN), and even threatens invasion. It does not make sense to me for Taiwan to become more economically dependent on China and look to it as some kind of savior.

I still feel that Taiwan has several things that are going well such as increased investment from major international tech firms, a growing reputation for civic and political freedoms, and a president who is not afraid to stand firm against China. That said, President Tsai Ing-wen took a lot of blame after November’s election results, and was forced to step down as chairman of her party. Hopefully this will help her focus more on her presidency as she is freed from having to oversee the DPP.

China is going down a dark road, exemplified by its recent seizure of 3 Canadians on nebulous or made-up charges as revenge for the arrest of the Huawei CFO and founder’s daughter. China has also imprisoned over a million Uyghurs in Xinjiang in concentration camps or “reeducation centers,” for no reason other than to “re-educate” them. This was shocking when it was first reported, and China kept denying it. However, as more news and evidence came out about these mass detentions, China was forced to admit it though they still claimed that there was no sinister reason. China has also continued to threaten Taiwan with military planes flying close to and around Taiwan.

For me personally, the year was a bit mixed. I worked at a Taiwan company in a field that was new to me and things didn’t work out for various reasons. What was good is that I got to do more writing and was published in several major outlets. I wrote about China’s “victimhood” status which it exploits in international disputes such as against Canada over the Meng arrest, Hong Kong and the “Greater Bay Area“, about China’s state media’s global push, and the “disappearance” of yet another Chinese due to Chinese authorities. I also wrote about museums and arts attractions in Southern Taiwan, which I visited for the first time in many years. I also reviewed several books including a novel about Taiwan when its southern part was ruled by the Dutch and a travel book/memoir about a couple traveling around Taiwan.

I also did a little traveling. I hiked a mountain and visited ancient city ruins in Thailand, and I wandered through two superb Malaysian cities filled with historic buildings and street art. I also went to Kaohsiung and Tainan (first time in many years for both cities) in southern Taiwan, and I visited Hong Kong as well.

I do hope that 2019 will be better, but I feel it might be even more turbulent than 2018.

Ayutthaya, Thailand
One of the major temple ruins in Ayutthaya, the capital of Thailand before Bangkok
Penang, Malaysia
Penang’s oldest Chinese temple
Hiking in Hong Kong
Hiking in east Hong Kong, near Tseung Kwan O
Tainan, Taiwan
Tainan’s restored Hayashi Department Store, just as classy as it was 80 years ago
Ipoh, Malaysia
Mural of tin miners on the wall of the Hakka Miners’ Club museum, Ipoh
Lanyang Museum, Yilan, Taiwan
Lanyang Museum, Yilan, Taiwan’s northeast coast
Krabi, Thailand
View from Khao Ngon Nak, Krabi, Thailand

Thailand travel- the ancient capital of Ayutthaya

Ayutthaya, Thailand
I’ve been to Thailand numerous times, but it took me five visits before I visited anywhere other than Bangkok. This was Ayutthaya, which was the capital of Thailand before Bangkok. More specifically, Ayutthaya was the capital of the Thai kingdom of the same name from the mid-14th century to 1767, when it was sacked by the invading Burmese, which then led to the capital being moved to Thonburi (now part of Bangkok). Ayutthaya is actually quite close to Bangkok, being about one hour away by train, so I went there on a daytrip.

Ayutthaya’s massive centuries-old temple and monastery ruins and monuments lie scattered within a sprawling historical park next to a modern town, making it different from Angkor in Cambodia or Bagan in Myanmar, both of which exist in rural areas. There are well over a dozen large temples. Most of these sites, all red or white, were heavily damaged by the Burmese so you can see a lot of destroyed Buddha statues and walls. I visited the following sites below (each site has a separate admission fee).

Wat Ratchaburana has a towering prang (temple spire) and is one of the most impressive sites. It was built by King Boromaraja II in 1424 to hold the ashes of his two brothers who died fighting each other in a duel on elephant-back for the throne. You can climb inside the prang and go up for a higher view of the surroundings. Wat Phra Sri Sanphet (first photo at the top of this post) is another impressive site, featuring three distinctive white chedis (Buddhist domes) that contain the ashes of three kings.
Ayutthaya, Thailand
Wat Ratchaburana
Ayutthaya, Thailand
Wat Mahathat’s famous and eerie smiling Buddha head
Ayutthaya, Thailand
Wat Lokaya Sutha

Wat Mahathat was one of Ayutthaya’s most important temples but it was sacked by Burmese invaders and is full of damaged prangs, headless statues and broken walls. Ironically, this gives it a certain attractiveness. It is most famous for a smiling Buddha head, chopped off from a statue by Burmese soldiers, stuck in a giant clump of tree roots. Wat Thammikarat is an interesting temple complex, with an indoor reclining Buddha, the outdoor ruin of a hall missing its roof, and a quirky hall devoted to chickens in the form of dozens of green and black rooster statues. Wat Lokaya Sutha features a giant white reclining Buddha outdoors as well as a solitary leaning prang. Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon is an monastery complex that features a chedi and dozens of Buddha statues.

There are many other temples as well as several former European and Japanese settlements (where foreigners of those countries resided when Ayutthaya was a flourishing city) to check out, but I didn’t have time to do so.

I went to Ayutthaya by train from north Bangkok, but you can also take the train from Hua Lamphong, the city’s main station. When I arrived, I ignored the tuktuk drivers at the station and crossed the river via a short boat ride, then walked to the main sites in the historical part of Ayutthaya. However, it was very, very hot and after visiting three sites, I gave in and hailed a tuktuk to drive me to the other sites.

If you find yourself in Bangkok and have time, make sure to visit Ayutthaya. A couple of good online resources about Ayutthaya to check out are this website and this blog.
Ayutthaya, Thailand
Wat Mahathat (above and below)
Ayutthaya, Thailand
Ayutthaya, Thailand
Wat Phra Sri Sanphet
Ayutthaya, Thailand
One of Wat Mahathat’s Buddhas

Ayutthaya, Thailand
Chicken shrine at Wat Thammikarat
Ayutthaya, Thailand
Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon
Ayutthaya, Thailand
It’s a sad sight because of the immense strain on the elephants.
Train station, Thailand
Northern Bangkok train station, the most casual train station I’ve ever been to

Blood and Silk- book review

Southeast Asia is a region that’s often linked with travel and economic growth, but Blood and Silk- Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia takes readers on a different tour covering political, religious, and social turmoil. Despite the optimistic economic forecasts and the sunny image of countries like Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia as places to travel, eat and party; the region is beset with significant problems that can threaten to unravel significantly in the future.

Author Michael Vatikiotis, a mediator and a former editor of the Far East Economic Review with decades of experience in SE Asia, has written a compelling book about these political and religious tensions as well as societal cleavages. From the ongoing military junta rule in Thailand to corrupt and feudal politics in Philippines to gradual radicalization of Islam in Indonesia and Malaysia, almost all countries in SE Asia suffer serious problems.

The book first looks at how power is manifested throughout the region, whether through military junta rule or democratically elected governments. This is the more fascinating part of the book as Vatikiotis delves into the politics of countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand to provide a more in-depth look at how those countries are run. We get detailed riveting and sometimes bloody accounts of riots, insurrections, coups, and insurgencies, some of which was hardly covered by international media.

Vatikiotis makes a really interesting point about the issue with pluralism in countries like Myanmar and Malaysia. These countries have several ethnic groups who live alongside each other but only really mix in “the marketplace in buying and selling,” according to a former British colonial officer. This was perpetuated by the colonizing British to their benefit and the result was enforced racial division and political conflict after independence. Personally I think this is true in a broader sense when looking at many Asian countries, but I won’t digress. For Myanmar and its Rohingya crisis (in which the Rohingya minority have been killed and forced out by the Burmese army, a move that is actually popular within the country), Vatikiotis sees this as a factor.

The second and final part of the book looks at the conflicts in various countries. However, while making very sound points, this part is more academic and rhetorical than the first part, which makes it less interesting. There are interesting chapters on the growing role of China as a partner and threat, as well as Islamic fundamentalism which has afflicted politics, such as the downfall of Jakarta’s then-mayor in 2017 on blasphemy charges for allegedly insulting Islam, and caused terrorist attacks such as in Indonesia and Thailand.

Vatikiotis believes that while Southeast Asia has undoubtedly prospered economically, at some point this will be inadequate to cover up the socioeconomic and political problems and conflicts. Ultimately, Blood and Silk is a forceful piece of work that provides readers a more in-depth look into a very fascinating region that is not as idyllic as it sometimes appears.

Tribute to train travel

The first time I ever took a train was in my 20s when I visited East Asia before my final year of university. Since then, I’ve taken trains across China, Japan, Taiwan, and several other countries in Asia, as well as Western Europe. Taking the train, whether high-speed or regular or sleeper, is to me an essential part of travel. While taking a plane might be faster, it’s also too easy and too convenient. Riding a train lets you see more of the land, people, and scenery, and it can also be comfortable and pleasant. Of course, it can also be noisy and jarring if your train is one of those antique ones that shake with every turn of the train wheels and give off a loud racket incessantly. Whatever the case, I’ve come to appreciate and enjoy this form of transport that was alien to me during my childhood and adolescence.
Here, I’ve listed trains I took in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka
I took trains along the West coast (Wellagama to Colombo), then into the central highlands from Colombo to Kandy and Kandy to Nuwara Eliya. The trains were either very old or relatively new but modest in speed and appearance. Finally, I took an overnight train from Eliya Nuya back to Colombo, but on a seat, not a bunk. That last ride was quite rough because the train was several decades old and provided a turbulent and noisy ride that prevented me from getting any sleep. Thankfully, it was the only bad train trip I had in Sri Lanka. All the other train rides gave me the best views I’ve ever had from a train, and the one from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya was amazing as it went up mountains and along a ridge overlooking deep valleys and tea plantations.


Malaysia
I took the train from Kuala Lumpur to Ipoh, then from that city to Penang (actually to Butterworth station then ferry). The trains were modern and clean, and the rides were smooth. They weren’t particularly fast but as the duration of both of my trips were only a couple of hours, that was ok. While Kuala Lumpur’s train station was quite large and busy, most train stations in the rural areas between KL and Ipoh were small structures that were basically platforms and covered roofs. Ipoh’s stately colonial station, built in 1917, is the most attractive train station I’ve seen. Continue reading “Tribute to train travel”

Some rare positives in the news

It’s not easy to feel positive these days, with so many bad developments in the world and all around us, but at least this week there have been a few good news. First, the missing youth Thai footballers and their coach have all been rescued from the deep cave where they had been stuck for over two weeks. Far from straightforward, the rescue took three days and involved Thai and foreign divers accompanying the youngsters and coach one by one through over three kilometers of dark, narrow, flooded cave tunnels. The sheer magnitude and complexity of the search and rescue campaign was a heartening example of international cooperation involving Thais and Australians, Americans, British, Japanese and others.

Second is the World Cup, which has been running for the past three weeks and is now at the semifinal stage. It’s been a great tournament, with a lot of shocks and big teams getting knocked out. My favorite team Germany suffered the humiliation of failing to advance from the group stage, the first time since 1938 but the way they were playing, it was actually deserved. The tournament, which is held in Russia this year, has also been relatively free of violence and racism, which many feared would happen, though there were some reporters who got sexually harassed while doing their jobs.

Third is that Liu Xia, the widow of the late Chinese Nobel laureate and activist Liu Xiabo, was finally freed from eight years of house arrest in Beijing and able to leave for Germany. What makes Liu Xia’s imprisonment vile is that she was never accused or charged of any crime.
Hopefully being in a free and democratic country will help her recover from her serious mental and emotional trauma in China. The photo of her in that article I linked to basically says it all. China had been under pressure from the West to release Liu, which is probably why they finally did. However, China promptly sentenced another democracy and human rights activist to another 13 years of prison. Qin Yongmin had spent over two decades in jail and had most recently been arrested in 2015 but only tried in May this year.


Taipei on a very good day

Bangkok revisited- live Muay Thai in a TV studio


One of the things Thailand is most famous for is Muay Thai or Thai boxing or kickboxing. Known as the art of eight limbs, Muay Thai fighters use their elbows and knees to strike in addition to fists and feet so it is a violent and exciting martial art. I became fascinated by the sport after seeing it in movies like Kickboxer and the Quest, both with Jean Claude Van Damme, as well as online videos of Muay Thai fights.

When I first went to Bangkok in 2013, I was finally able to watch it live at the fabled old Lumpinee Stadium. When I went to Bangkok earlier this year, I decided to go watch Muay Thai live again, but at a different venue – the Channel 7 studio. Less high-profile than the Lumpinee fights, the Channel 7 fights take place on Sunday afternoons, is free to attend, and is broadcast live on TV. The venue is a large indoor space that seats around 500 (I may be off by a quite a bit) and is kind of near Chatuchak Market. It is a very raucous environment, especially if you happen to be in the stands where locals are shouting out or offering bets during each fights. The fights were mostly eventful, though I remember one that went the distance but I was puzzled by who the win was awarded to. There were a couple of TKOs but no outright knockouts. During a fight, the most exciting moment is not kicks or punches but when the fightrs clinch and exchange knees.

The venue is situated inside a compound in a residential neighbourhood is across the main road from the Chatuchak Market and subway station, about a 15 minutes’ walk. Because I hadn’t been to the venue before, I actually arrived about 45 minutes early. I took a peek inside the venue, saw a lot of empty seats, so I took a walk around the block and came back. This time, the stands were packed so I went to the side where there were some empty seats. It turned out this was where a lot of bookies were operating, and I jostled with an older man who demanded I give up my seat. I didn’t and he eventually squeezed in next to me, and we spent the whole event side by side. This old guy was one of the main bookies who kept shouting out bets and taking in money throughout the fight. As I don’t know Thai, I couldn’t understand exactly what was going on but I know that the betting would be especially frenetic when people though a knockout would happen.

The more prestigious fights take place at the new Lumpinee Stadium and Rajadamnern Stadium several evenings a week but cost quite a lot for foreigners (around $40 for the standing area, the seats cost much more). But the cards at these stadiums feature more fights and sometimes, there are title fights. For some reason, these stadiums are located in northern Bangkok and are not close to the subway so you need to take a taxi to get to it. It’s not that convenient to go to (if you are a non-local and don’t know your way around) since fights end at after 9.30 pm. The old Lumpinee Stadium was very close to the Lumpinee subway station.

  
Prefight preparation with the fighters outside the entrance. The facilities are rather sparse here.


The TV cameras at the back as well as the live broadcast on the screen to the right.