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”

The Sympathizer- book review

Lots of books have been written about the Vietnam War but those mostly are about the US experience. The Sympathizer is a novel about the war from a Vietnamese perspective, but even this is a little complicated. The protagonist is a South Vietnamese captain and aide of a special police general, both of whom flee to the US after the fall of Saigon to the victorious North Vietnamese. But he is also a long-time mole who reports on the general and other South Vietnamese in the US for the North Vietnamese. This makes for a very intriguing novel that blends a war story with an immigrant’s tale and a suspense thriller with a bit of history and politics as well. This potent mix is why the Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2016 as well as several other major book prizes.

However, the story doesn’t end in the US but surprisingly returns to Vietnam, which was unified after the North defeated and overran the South, in an agonizing finale. Since I don’t want to disclose the ending, I’m being intentionally vague. I will say the conclusion comes after the general and other South Vietnamese refugees in the US plot a covert invasion of their home country, which the captain struggles to decide whether to take part in.

The book is starkly fascinating, starting in Saigon during its last days as the capital of South Vietnam, with the desperation of people to flee being especially palpable, mixed with the despair and defiance of soldiers like the general and the captain’s comrade as they contemplate futile resistance. After the captain and the general make it to the US, they struggle to make a living in vastly humbler circumstances, a common experience of many immigrants. During this whole period, readers discover the captain’s origins, being the illegitimate love child of a French Catholic priest and a local village woman, which makes him a bastard, a Eurasian and scorned by many of his compatriots. Yet it is never clear why he chooses to serve the North, other than that his village was in the north.
There is a strange interlude in the middle of the novel where the captain serves as an advisor during the filming of a Hollywood movie about the war, which bears similarities to Apocalypse Now.

Vietnam, to me, is an intriguing country whose history (both recent and past), culture, and society are often overlooked and underrepresented in Western media. The Vietnam War was a significant tragedy for the US, which can be seen in American movies, TV series and novels about the war, but this obscures the fact that the Vietnamese suffered the most, even if they were the ultimate victors. The Sympathizer can only portray a bit of the effect of the war and its aftermath on the Vietnamese, but this is more than enough to present the trauma and tensions vividly.

I found the book a little too dark and tragic to be truly enjoyable, but it is highly captivating.

Asia’s Cauldron- book review

The South China Sea has been the biggest flash point in Asia for the past few years, even though North Korea has stolen the thunder with its provocative missile tests in the last few weeks. Surrounded by multiple nations, but heavily contested by one that is furthest away from it, the sea is a vital conduit for regional trade with over $5 trillion worth of shipping passing through it each year. It is also rich in underground petroleum deposits. The nation that I am referring to above is China, which has expended a lot of effort in claiming and occupying islets and reefs in the sea that even extend into other countries’ waters. Asia’s Cauldron – The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific looks at this potential theater of war and the geopolitics surrounding it.

Kaplan outlines China’s rising military strength and capabilities, which last week’s news of China launching its home-built and second aircraft carrier provided a reminder of. China claims over the majority of the sea, using a dubious nine-dash map (first issued by the ROC in the mid-20th century) that supposedly shows that China historically had control of many islets in the sea. While this flimsy evidence does not have much ground in contemporary international norms or laws, China has disregarded this and continues to stand by its claims.

But yet, international conventions be damned, as other than economic collapse or a significant decline, China is set to dominate the region. However, while nations like Vietnam and Malaysia are obviously too small to confront China by themselves, the US support and cooperation among those countries can ensure a balance of power. Because to ensure stability and relative peace, balance of power rather than US domination is necessary. In other words, China’s rise must be tolerated and even given some breathing space, though the US needs to remain involved.

Kaplan also says that the South China Sea is potentially to China what the Caribbean is to the US, basically its maritime backyard over which which it has total domination. The US did this in the early 20th century and China is trying to do something similar. Of course, one difference is that rather than being filled with mostly tiny Caribbean countries, the South China Sea is surrounded by larger, older countries that do not readily accept Chinese domination.

So in addition to China, Kaplan also devotes a chapter each to key countries including Vietnam, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia and Philippines, all of which he visited. He provides interesting and insightful observations of each country on their geopolitical situation,history, military, and society. Vietnam is the one most at threat from China, but despite its small size, it is a feisty country with a long history of resistance to Chinese occupiers and attackers from imperial times, not to mention its fight with the US in the Vietnam War.  Meanwhile, Kaplan surprisingly rates Malaysia highly, seeing it as a model Islamic nation that is also democratic and diverse. The chapter on Philippines makes for somewhat surprising and amusing reading, as Kaplan likens it more to a failing Latin American country than an Asian one, a result of its inefficient Spanish colonialism. In these country chapters, he provides a complete picture combining interviews, history and observations, as opposed to some writers who visit a country and use a few anecdotes or statistics to come to conclusions.

Robert D Kaplan is one of my favorite authors, due to his keen geopolitical views and insights on regions and conflicts around the world in Africa, Central Asia and the Balkans. He is famous for The Coming Anarchy, a 1994 essay that painted a very bleak picture of the world due to overcrowding, tribalism and environmental issues. But his writing is measured as opposed to alarmist or emotional. Even if you don’t agree with him, you will still learn something.

Asia’s Cauldron was published in 2014, but its topic and views are still just as relevant and vital now.

Taipei links – plane crash, mayor’s controversial interview, city ranking

Taiwan suffered one of the world’s most memorable plane crashes this past week when a plane went down in Taipei soon after takeoff and plunged into a river. There were only 15 survivors, with 36 confirmed dead and the rest missing as of today (Saturday Taiwan time).
However, what was amazing is that the turboprop plane went down and chipped a bridge, which was captured by the dashcams of several cars that were ON the bridge, before it flew into the river. The pilot had enough presence of mind to manuever the diving plane away from the bridge and nearby apartment buildings and into the river, avoiding a high number of casualties in the buildings and allowing several lucky passengers on the plane to survive. However, an investigation has shown that a “professional error” might have been made as one engine had stopped working after takeoff but that the other engine was shut off instead.

This was yet another disaster for the airline TransAsia Airways, which also suffered a deadly plane crash last July landing on Penghu. The airline TransAsia Airways flies mainly short routes from Taiwan to outlying islands, mainland China, Japan and a few destinations in Southeast Asia. To have two deadly crashes with one year, and six accidents in the last years, is far too much for such an airline and I wonder if it may soon cease to exist.
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Taipei’s new mayor Ko Wen-je caused some controversy in an interview when he stated that colonization made Singapore, HK, and Taiwan better than each other and China. In a quite blunt interview, while some of his remarks were a bit politically-incorrect, some of them also made sense. He spoke about much more than just culture and colonialism, as he talked about Taiwan, relations with the mainland, the Chinese Communist party.

Regarding his comment on how colonization made Singapore better than HK (both British colonies), HK better than Taiwan, and Taiwan (which was a Japanese colony during the early 20th century up until the mid-1940s) better than China, I think his point is not about colonization being good but more about the possible problems with Chinese society. Nevertheless there are some who have perceived Ko’s comments as supporting colonization and critiqued his interview. However, it is important that Ko was speaking about specifically the four Chinese-speaking places – China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. Ko never said colonization was good for African nations or India, Burma or the Philippines.
Now one can argue HK and Singapore are both city-states while Taiwan is a small island, so it stands that the mainland would certainly be more disorganized and less developed. Also, Taiwan may have been colonized by the Japanese, who built highways and institutions such as its best university National Taiwan University, but the other good aspects of its society – democracy, free media, independent judiciary, universal health insurance system – were devised and undertaken by the Taiwanese themselves. However, one can also counter-argue that Taiwan is not as efficiently run as Singapore or Hong Kong, and that some of its much vaunted democracy have been eroded in recent times, such as corruption and the local media, whose poor quality is sneered at by both Taiwanese and expats.
Even so, there is no question that society in those three places are much more open, free, and “civilized” than the mainland’s.  Answering another question, he made a hearty endorsement of the US, where he lived for one year, and its freedom.

He also said Vietnam had a better culture than China despite being much poorer. While I only have 10 days’ experience of being in Vietnam, I’d say society there seems much more laid-back, pleasant and less materialistic than China’s. Vietnam also seemed to have a more traditional society, which is not surprising given it is much smaller and more importantly, did not go through a Cultural Revolution, the period of madness when mainlanders were manipulated by the party into attacking each other and destroying many facets of Chinese culture. Of course, Vietnam also has similar problems like China – censored media, corruption and a fair share of hustlers.
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Taipei, as much as I can criticize it, is a very decent city to live in, as confirmed by its placing 7th on this list of livable Asian cities done by a British consulting firm. Singapore is number one, followed by Osaka, Nagoya, Tokyo and Yokohama. Hong Kong is in 6th place, while Seoul is 10th. Shanghai is 13th while Beijing is 18th. Globally, Taipei is 65th which is still alright given the firm looked at over 450 cities (Shanghai is 110th globally).

Photo roundup – airports and views from up high

I have to admit I have a few strange habits and one of them is taking pictures of certain things or places that most people probably don’t. I especially indulge in this habit whenever I fly as I take photos of airports, the skies or the places below from the plane, and even planes from time to time.

I had to fly to Taiwan last week, just months after my last visit due to the need to get a minor but important medical operation. It’s kind of a hassle to fly when it’s not for a vacation such go through security and transfer flights but it gave me a chance to take a few interesting photos. And of course, going to Taiwan regardless of the reason lets me be in a more healthier and polite society. And enjoy faster and uncensored Internet and a very open media environment.

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Taiwan’s Taoyuan Airport
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Sunset flying over the strait, the best view of the skies I’ve even had from a plane

These photos below are from last year.
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The roof of the terminal, not the lady, is what I took a photo of, though she’s a fine addition to the picture of Hong Kong Airport.
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This photo of Hong Kong might look like it was taken two decades ago, but this was actually last October. You can see Kowloon on the top in the middle, and Hong Kong Island’s business districts opposite Kowloon on the other side of the channel, especially the IFC tower jutting out amid HK’s other skyscrapers (it’s also my favorite HK tower). The Occupy street protests were going on so I was even trying to see if I could spot it from the plane (I couldn’t).
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Beijing airport with its distinctive red-lined ceiling
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Vietnamese countryside seen on a flight to Hanoi
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Northern Vietnamese mountains seen on a flight to Hanoi
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View over the ocean on a flight to Johannesburg from Hong Kong
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Victoria Falls seen from a plane from Livingstone, Zambia (the town next to the falls), back to Johannesburg
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The Angkor Air turpoprop plane I flew on to get from Siem Reap to Bangkok

Asia links – Taiwan’s super elections, China’s latest crackdown, and Vietnam dog trade

It was a murky day outside today in Beijing, making this probably the seventh or eight straight week with terrible smog days (minus the week APEC was in town) where the skies are dark gray, there’s a faint smoky smell in the air, and the air quality index is over 400.

First off, it might be just another smoggy day in Beijing but over in Taiwan, it’s a momentous occasion as the biggest local elections took place (11,000 city, district and village posts up for grabs!). In a major result, the capital Taipei will have an independent, a respected surgeon at a top hospital, become its new mayor. It might be an upset, but it wasn’t totally unexpected since the KMT candidate Sean Lien was rather mediocre and seen as out-of-touch due to his being the wealthy son of former premier Lien Chan, a sort of Taiwanese version of the “princelings” that you have in China.
Speaking of China, the loss of key cities such as Taipei and Taichung for the KMT will have an impact on cross-strait relations indirectly. The KMT will be weakened and this will have an impact on the next presidential election in 2016. This will make Beijing a bit nervous since the KMT is the party with the pro-mainland stance and has been facilitating increased relations with the mainland since 2008.

One stupid thing about the KMT’s campaign is this ad which showed South Korea coming out ahead of Taiwan in cards, alluding to South Korea’s signing of a free-trade agreement with China recently. The point of the ad was to claim that the DPP supports South Korea, which many Taiwanese see as their main competitor, due to its opposition against Taiwan signing an economic services agreement (which the Sunflower movement quashed by occupying the legislation back in April this year). The ad is an example of the anti-Korean sentiment and paranoia among some Taiwanese, which can be silly and unreasonable, and it’s gotten criticized in South Korea and even Japan.

Meanwhile, in the latest crackdown on the mainland, puns have become the latest thing to be banned. It joins foreign TV shows, pornography, selected Western media outlets and even inauspicious horoscope forecasts of the first lady’s zodiac sign as targets of recent crackdowns and censorship. Never mind that wordplay is a part of the Chinese language and popular, as the use of tones means a word’s meaning changes when it’s pronounced differently, but, according to the authorities, puns “breach the law” plus can mislead children. Of course, the real reason for this ridiculous seeming order is that regular Chinese sometimes use puns to allude to problems in the country, especially things that are banned such as the Tiananmen protest in 1989 or even censorship itself. For example, “hexie” literally means river crab but is a way of alluding to official censorship because it sounds similar to the word for harmony, which the authorities use to justify censorship.

I liked Vietnam a lot when I went there last year, but I got to say it’s got major issues with animal treatment, such as its dog meat trade. I know it’s a cultural tradition for some Asians, such as China or Korea, to eat dogs, but the problem is the dog meat trade involves stealing dogs, fuelling lucrative black market smuggling, and mistreatment in how the dogs are kept before slaughter and the slaughter process itself, in which dogs may not be fully dead before they’re cooked. A person quoted in the article also says that Vietnam actually doesn’t have a history of eating dogs but that it started a few decades ago during famine after Chinese advisers suggested it. However, there are many Vietnamese who like owning dogs as pets, and the article mentions a couple of instances of dog thieves getting beaten and killed.