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.

Bangkok revisited


Bangkok is a city I didn’t like much the first time I went there several years ago. But after going there a couple of times again in the last two years, for brief stays while transiting to other places, I confess I’ve had a change of heart. Not only does Bangkok not seem so noisy, ugly and stifling, I think I might even like it a bit.

Once you go beyond the famous attractions like the Royal Palace, Wat Pho, Wat Arun, and the mega-malls, there are a number of interesting places to check out.
There is the Big Swing, a giant swing over 15 meters high from which people used to swing on it to try to retrieve something from the post during religious ceremonies (it sounds dangerous and indeed it was banned in 1935 due to a number of deaths), and the elaborate Wat Suthat temple next to it.

There are the many English-language bookstores ranging from Asia Books, a local bookstore chain, to Dasa, a multi-level second-hand bookstore, to Kikokuniya, a large Japanese regional bookstore chain. Compare this with Hong Kong where Dymocks and Page One have both shut down in recent years, leaving only local chain Bookazine for English-language books.

Then, there is Jim Thompson House, the former residence of silk magnate Jim Thompson. The small, but spacious and pleasant compound consists of several red houses, built from teak in the traditional style and brought over from other parts of Thailand, and a garden. The houses are attractive and comfortable, though you can only enter them as part of a tour (which is included as part of the entrance fee). Of course, the houses may be traditional but they are probably much bigger and fancier than the ones regular Thais lived in.
Thompson was an American businessman and intelligence operative (he served in the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA, during World War II) who settled in Bangkok and built up a silk export business, and disappeared in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands. His disappearance remains a mystery even now though his silk brand is still thriving.
There are more, but that will be for another post.


Another form of public transport in Bangkok, which I took to get to the Giant Swing.
These boat taxis run on the narrow canals (klangs) and are different from the Chao Phraya river taxis and not as pleasant. The canal is not very hygienic and the boats are completely enfolded in tarpaulin, which are let down when passengers get on and off, as you can see in this photo. Try it for the experience, but I wouldn’t recommend taking it more than once.


Erawan Shrine, a Hindu shrine located at the corner of a busy intersection surrounded by offices and shopping centers. This was the site of a bombing in August 2015 that killed 20 people and injured over 100. I took this photo in 2016.


   

Asia Books is a local English-language bookstore chain that has a wide selection. This outlet is in Siam Paragon.

Bangkok’s colorful traffic

The Giant Swing


Wat Suthat, another of Bangkok’s beautiful temples, located next to the Giant Swing

It has a massive golden Buddha inside and walls and columns covered from floor to ceiling in intriguing black mosaics.

Bangkok travel – Grand Palace

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The final full day in Bangkok was reserved for the most famous attraction – the Grand Palace. A large complex full of impressive stately buildings built with a blend of traditional and European styles, it does live up to its name.

The complex features several temples, pavilions, buildings and a museum. However, when you look at the complex from a distance on the north side, you can’t miss a massive golden dome looming over the walls.

This is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha or Wat Phra Kaew. The Emerald Buddha is a seated Buddha indeed made from green jasper and cloaked in gold. It was actually taken from the Cambodians when Thailand captured Angkor Wat in 1432. However it was made long before that, supposedly having been created in India in 43 BC!
The temple has very beautiful buildings as well, with fine towering domes and spires and exquisite figures and wall decor, as well as the massive gold stupa that can be seen from outside.
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Emerald Buddha
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Though inside the palace complex, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha is separated from the other palace buildings so you only enter the palace proper after leaving the temple. There are a lot of traditional Thai-style buildings, pavilions and shrines, as well as a large outdoor model of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, which was occupied by Thailand for a time in the past (this sense of ownership from the Thais over such a famous historical site that is clearly another country’s shocked me a little). The palace was built in the late 18th century but there are also some European-style buildings that were constructed during the 19th century and later.

The centerpiece of the complex is the Chakri Maha Prasat, a large stately hall that combines a European facade with Thai-style roofs. Besides the fact it looks impressive (see the photo at the top of this post), it was surprising to come upon such a large European-style structure, which kind of gives off the effect of suddenly being somewhere in Europe. The open space and landscaped garden in front of it adds to the feeling. As magnificent as it is, it’s too bad tourists cannot go inside. The place is walled off and guarded by stern sentries.

As the royal family doesn’t actually live here anymore (they moved out in 1925 to another palace in Bangkok), the Grand Palace is actually a symbolic site that may sometimes receive foreign dignitaries.

This is one touristy place that is definitely worth enduring the crowds for. The palace is located near the Chao Phraya riverbank and across from Wat Pho.
After leaving the Grand Palace, I took a river-taxi, then transferred to a subway and to a mall, my one and only mall visit in Southeast Asia. Later that evening, I went to check out one of the city’s “notorious” areas which was indeed eye-opening (though not the extreme kind).
And that was it for me in Thailand and Southeast Asia as I left the next day to go back to Taiwan.

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Main hall that houses the Emerald Buddha 
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A kinnara, half-bird, half man figures who are lovers and musicians and are featured in both Buddhism and Hindu mythology. I’d seen this in Cambodia as well.
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Large model of Angkor Wat, which is in Cambodia but was occupied by Thailand in the past
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Chakri Maha Prasat
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Museums, above and below
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Exit of the palace