Monday to Wednesday were spent visiting the ActionAid projects on the Andaman Coast of Thailan - see seperate post.
On Thursday we left Khuraburi and drove down to Khao Sok national park, hoping to get a glimpse of the worlds largest flower - the Rafflesia Arnoldii. This parasitic plant attaches itself to a host plant to obtain water and nutrients and when in bloom, emits a repulsive odour, similar to that of rotting meat to attract pollinating insects. Unfortunately, the plant was only just beginning to bloom so we didn’t see it. We’ll have another chance when we get to Sumatra in Indonesia though. We spent the day hiking through the national park and were mightily amused when a monkey defecated on a fellow walker just ahead of us. It was a fairly long hike of 14Km and brutally sweaty. Afterwards, we drove down to Krabi and then the beach town of Ao Nang.
The next day we bummed around the beach and generally did nothing useful. On Saturday we undertook the long drive to the border town of Pedang Besar and crossed with surprising ease at 9pm. We were in Malaysia at long last! We made it to the nearest town of Kangar just in time to see Malaysia lose to Singapore in penalties before having some dinner and finding a quiet residential area to park up in for the night.
On Sunday we drove to Kuala Perlis were we parked the landy before taking the ferry over to Langkawi island. There we hired a rubbish but dirt cheap Proton car and motored around to the crocodile farm. This was pretty cool - there were hundreds of the beasties lazing around looking menacing. The theme show consisted of some handlers seemingly hypnotising a huge croc, sitting on it and sticking their hands in its mouth. Not my idea of a fun job. After this, we took the disturbingly high cable car up to one of the mountain peaks for great views of the island. We got the last ferry back and were forced to endure Home Alone 2 until we reached the mainland again. It was getting late now so we drove a few Km towards Alor Setar before finding a deserted car park to stop in for the night.
In the next few days we will make our lumbering way to George town and then on to Kuala Lumpur.
Projects in Tsunami Affected Areas, Andaman Coast, Thailand
Locations: Ko Muk Island - Trang Province, Tab Tawan - Phang-gna Province, Ko Lao Island - Ranong Province, Khuraburi - Phang-gna Province, Thailand.
Date: 22nd January 2007 - 24th January 2007.
We are so used to things going wrong now that it has long since ceased to be a surprise. So when the engine wouldn’t start on Monday morning it was just a matter of course. Richard got a taxi to Trang airport while I tinkered with the engine before coming to the conclusion that all it needed was a good dose of start pilot and sure enough it soon spluttered back into action after an application. But it didn’t end there. Turning the car around to head out of the city to go to the pier, I got forced down some one way streets and into a warren of smaller ones so Richard got left behind. I was assured that he’d get a lift with the ActionAid staff in their van. Unfortunately not, so the nightmare of trying to get to the pier began for Richard. As it turned out, there was no need to rush because the boat was having trouble too so we had to wait for a few hours for it to show up. Eventually though, we arrived on Ko Muk island. This island was heavily affected by the December 2004 Tsunami which destroyed all its buildings and infrastructure. The huge amount of work undertaken by charitable organisations and NGOs since then has gone a long way towards rectifying things. Boats have been repaired and fishing equipment donated and housing and public buildings have been reconstructed. ActionAid continues to work in the area through partner organisations Save Andaman Network (SAN) and Sustainable Development Foundation (SDF) to help ensure long-term rehabilitation.
Arriving on Ko Muk we were struck by the beauty of the location. An upmarket bungalow resort was located on the beach and several tourists were strolling along the beach. Further along the island though, the local people are living in very small, basic structures and are heavily reliant on the fishing trade.
One of the projects on the island is Disaster Management and Risk Education. This project has local teachers working on creating a detailed curriculum and lesson plans on disaster awareness. The completed curriculum will be presented to the government as a basis for the subject to be introduced into schools at a national level so that the risk of another natural disaster causing such huge loss of life is mitigated.
While on the island we met with one of the women’s groups set up by ActionAid to help develop long-term sustainable livelihoods. The groups now operate small businesses in a variety of areas including coconuts, chili paste and deserts. These groups have been created to help diversify the trades that the community work in and reduced their dependence on the fishing trade which was severely damaged by the Tsunami and has resulted in lower fish yields throughout the region.
After staying overnight on the island, we had a long drive to Tab Tawan the next day where we visited a project run by Foundation for Children. Aside from the obvious physical destruction caused by the Tsunami, many people especially children suffered psychological trauma. The project has been running for 2 years and mainly focused on afterschool activities for children. The focus was on team building and helping children to come to terms with the disaster. Activities undertaken at the FFC centre included sports, painting, fishing, gardening, additional education etc. The project has been a success with around 70 children attending activities and has led to the children having a better social community. From here, we had another few hours drive north to Ranong where we stayed the night.
On Wednesday morning we had a short trip to the pier to take a boat to Lao Island. The pier was crammed with fishermen, many of them Burmese migrants who operate here illegally rather than have nearly all their profit taken by the Burmese military regime. The 20 minute boat trip deposited us on Lao Island where there is a sizable Moken community. Commonly known as Sea Gypsys, the Moken are a diverse ethnic group from either Burmese or Thai and are stateless people - not having citizenship or citizens rights in any country. They commonly spend alot of time at sea but have villages on many islands around the Andaman coast. Many of these villages and their fishing boats were destroyed by the Tsunami. While on the island we visited the Moken village and the school which now educates both Moken and Thai children on the island.
ActionAid and Foundation for Children have been working with the Moken on Lao island for over 2 years and have achieved many successes. Emergency help in the form of drinking water and medical aid to treat malaria and cholera outbreaks were provided initially along with housing and boat repair. The village now has an electricity generator provided by ActionAid. As in other areas, local groups have been set up to receive education and build capacity in various trades. The Moken have been issued with identity cards that name them as Moken so they no longer fear being arrested as suspected Burmese illegal workers when visiting the main land. This card can also be used to recieve medical treatment from Thai hospitals. Moken children are now being educated in the same school as the Thai children who live on the island and the relationship between the two groups has improved.
However, there is still progress to be made. The living conditions of the Moken on the island are not very good and they are still reluctant to integrate into Thai society. Their lack of citizenship allows them to be exploited by the people who own the land that their villages are built on. While other NGOs have been and gone (one leaving an unused christian church in the village) ActionAid continue to operate in the area to help with long-term issues.
After departing from Lao island, we made our way to Bann Hinlard in Khuarburi where we visited a community of Burmese migrant workers. ActionAid has been working with partner organisation Thai Action Committe for Democracy in Burma (TACDB) to set up community centres to encourage learning, skills development and to educate migrant workers on their human rights. The problems faced by Burmese migrants are complex and will take a long time to overcome. Issues surrounding work permits, legal status, land ownership and language difficulties can only be resolved through long-term planning. ActionAid is working in the communities to help with day to day issues concerning livelihood and education while simultaneously campaigning for change in both Thai and Burmese government policies to help ensure that the human rights of Burmese migrant workers are not abused.
The projects that we saw on the Andaman coast are only a small sample of a large and numerous range of projects that ActionAid is involved in. Other issues are prominent in the portfolio, especially land rights and womens rights. ActionAid is working both at on the ground and through political channels to attempt to improve the living conditions of poor and marginalised groups of people in Thailand and to ensure that they can claim their rights. As with all the other ActionAid projects that we have visited in various countries, we have been impressed by the commitment and dedication shown by the staff of ActionAid Thailand. We would like to extend our gratitude to the following people who accompanied us on our visit and were exceptional hosts.
- Rungtip Imrungruang: Tsunami Program consultant
- Kulachart Daengdej: Tsunami Policy Officer
- Piyanut Kotsan: Impact Assessment
For more information:
ActionAid Thailand http://www.actionaid.org/thailand/
Save Andaman Network http://www.saape.org.np/news_events/post_tsunami/Presentation6-Thailand.pdf
Sustainable Development Foundation http://www.sdfthai.org/
Thai Action Committee for Democracy in Burma (TACDB) http://www.tacdb.org/en/
Foundation for Children http://www.ffc.or.th/htmleng/engpage1/page.htm
My sight-seeing in Hiroshima was finished off with a free tour of the Mazda factory. There is a museum showing all their old models, a rake of information on the manufacturing process and a visit to the working factory line. The tour was very interesting but unfortunately the guide was non-technical so I couldn’t ask any intersting questions like: “Why does your rotary engine burn so much oil?” and “why do Rob’s RX-8 alloys corrode so quickly in the winter?” Still it was fun and like clever guys they’d built the factory in one long straight line 1Km long, had highly trained operators and some good design touches unlike some industrial plants I know of. Afterwards I headed back to Tokyo and arrived at the hostel at 9.30pm only to find they’d closed the reception at 9. “This is outrageous”, I blustered, while pondering the dilemma. I had the option of wandering around in the dark and cold trying to find another hotel or of checking myself in. So I stood around for a bit looking like I was supposed to be there, followed some guys in, followed some other guys into the dorm I’d been in before and checked myself into an empty bed. Happy days. All was sweet and I was fast asleep feeling smug until I was shaken awake at 3.30 in the morning. Oh no, my slowly waking mind thought, I’ve been rumbled. But no, it was just an earthquake. Hold on - an earthquake! The whole building shook violently for a good 25 seconds while I cowered under the covers and had vague thoughts of making a run for it and then it was all quiet again except for the snores of the stinking gap year students who’d slept through it in a drunken stupor. I found out later that it measured 5.7 on the Richter scale so it wasn’t huge but still not what I would call a pleasant experience.
The next day I took a train to the second biggest city in Japan - Yogohawa. My destination was the Mitshubishi Heavy Industries museum which had lots of displays bigging themselves up on all the different engineering branches they work in. The museum was pretty cool and interesting for an engineer like me but the highlight was definately the helicopter flight simulator. This was a real simulator used to train helicopter pilots and it proved very easy to take off and fly. Cruising around above the simulated city was cool. Unfortunately, it wasn’t so easy to land and after missing the landing spot by about 10m and coming periously close to crashing into a building the simulator cheerfully told me I was a failure which I repaid with much swearing and uttering of heinous insults.
On Wednesday I got a flight out of Japan and back to sunny Thailand where I met back up with Rich who’d been lazing around on islands and taking a gazillion photos of Angkor Wat while I was suffering earthquakes in Japan. We got ourselves ready for an iminent departure from Bangkok and sorted out a list of things we had to see before leaving. So the next day, we went down to the snake farm where they milk several of the most venemous snakes in the world. After enjoying a slide show by the man with the creepiest voice in the world (think several degrees creepier than Gary Oldman in Dracula) and seeing a live handling demonstration by a guy with one finder missing (necrosis from a king cobra bite) we got to hold one of the cuddly creatures for the obligatory photo. Afterwards, we roamed the streets eating locusts, cockroaches, and fried frogs before having something truly disgusting - Durian. This huge, green, knobbly fuit smells absolutely revolting and tastes like really bad cheese, I mean seriously - what kind of fruit tastes like cheese? Worse than kiwi fruit it is and I don’t say that lightly because as we all know there are precious few things in this world more bile-inducing than kiwi. We couldn’t leave without experiencing some sleeze but a trip through a few go-go bars proved disappointing. They’re pretty much like strip bars anywhere except they don’t seem to actually be bothered about employing attractive girls and they were pretty deserted. It was funny watching one huge muscle-bound ladyboy (whom we nicknamed Conan) take a shine to Rich though but the smile on my face was short-lived because the hideous looking bar owner took a shine to me shortly after and we had no option but to leg it muttering piously about how awful it all was.
On Friday we went to the ActionAid office to get a route together before picking up the Landy and heading south. We made it to Hua Hin before camping up for the night in a field. Back to the good old days of constant sweating and grubbiness at last!
Saturday and Sunday were spent cruising down towards Trang via some beaches where we are due to meet the ActionAid team on Monday morning before heading up the Andaman coast to see some projects involving the Tsunami affected areas and the enigmatic Moken people (commonly known as Sea Gypsies). This should prove really interesting because very few people ever get the chance to meet the Moken as they spend over 6 months of the year living on their boats and rarely associate with people from the mainland. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moken.
Luckily the Sumo Stadium was only a 20 minute walk from the hostel and it was easy to get a ticket in the morning. The ticket gets you all day access but the more experienced fighters didn`t arrive until 2pm so I headed down to the imperial palace to have a squiz. The palace itself is only open for 2 days around New Year so I couldn`t get in (or even see it over the trees) but some of the extensive grounds and gardens were open for a wander. The modern Ginza area was the backdrop to the palace and had some of the better looking architechure in Tokyo. I made my way back to the Sumo Stadium in time for Chanko serving at 2pm. Chanko is the stew that Sumos eat and it proved to be pretty good. The atmosphere was pretty relaxed in the stadium with Sumos wandering around in the hallways getting much kudos from the punters. They`re big feckers but it was a struggle not to point out how silly they looked wearing tight kimonos and wooden shoes which meant they had to shuffle along at a snails pace. For those of you unacquainted with the art of Sumo - you get a maximum of 4 minutes to physc out your opponent (mainly by performing bizarre legs akimbo squats and clapping at them) before launching your huge bulk at him and forcing him out of the ring or on to the floor. This usually takes about 20 seconds and the result is almost always funny. Watching fat men slap each other and try to hurl each other about by grabbing what is essentially an oversized jock-strap is difficult to take too seriously.
The next day I wandered around some other areas of Tokyo. The view from the 50th floor of the government buildings in West Shinjuko suddenly makes clear just how vast an urban jungle Tokyo is. A huge expanse of concrete as far as the eye can see in every direction. It`s not pretty. A trip to Roppongi hills proved a let dwon - billed as an ultra modern shopping and entertainment development it was in fact a much smaller version of the Manchester Trafford Centre.
On Wednesday I checked out and began the procedure to get to Kyoto. I had to trade in my Exchange Order (which I had bought in Bangkok) to get my Railpass. This could only be done in a certain office in Tokyo station so I had to get a train there from Ueno station which of course I had to pay for since I hadn`t got my Railpass yet. Genius eh? Once that was done I was free to get any train to Kyoto. Hooray. I jumped on the Shinkansen Hikari. This is what Japan is famous for. The trains arrive on the minute, have quality seats with a shedload of leg room, go amazingly quickly and don`t make that stupid ba-dum ba-dum noise that they do in other countries. Also, there`s loads of them and the notice boards are in English too. So there I was in Kyoto - the home of Japanese culture. My first impression was - what a dump. Unfortunately, this was also my second and third impression and continued to be so. If Tokyo was London without the historic buildings, Kyoto is Bradford, with some historic buildings. The place is laid out like a typical small grid town with a bundle of temples scattered around the outskirts. Admittedly, the temples are nice (much better than those in Tokyo) but the town itself doesn`t have much to offer. Having to wait until 3pm to check into a hostel, I made my way to the closest temple - Kiyomizu Dera - constructed in 1633. The temple itself is an attractive building but the setting is spoiled by the plethora of tat stalls that surround it. Back at the hostel I met some people who were interested in getting a fugu dinner. Fugu is the highly poisonous puffer fish which is considered a delicacy in Japan when prepared by specially trained chefs who can safely remove the poison). After wandering around town for ages we eventually found a restuarant willing to serve us the jumped up kipper. A whole 5 course fugu dinner was in the order of 50 quid so I opted for a smaller version just to try the beastie. The verdict? - minging.
Thusday was spent visiting Nijo castle and palace. Now I`m no housing expert but making walls out of paper may look pretty but it does not seem to me to be a good way of keeping the heat in - as proved by the blue-faced tourists that were swearing their way around the palace in an average temperature of 7 degrees. This lack of any heat lagging unfortunatley applies to all Japanese buildings - no double glazing, no cavity walls, no nothing. Oh, and they don`t have any central heating either. This means that it`s actually colder inside the buildings than it is outside. Families huddle around small gas heaters in one room in the winter and the heated toilet seats are the only thing that stops your arse sticking to the bog when you go for a dump. While I`m on that subject - the heated toilet seats are brilliant. And they have all manner of other buttons that spray water and hot air. Quality. Despite this, the palace is an attractive building and the gardens aren`t bad. From there I walked 5km to one of Japan`s most famous temples Kinkaku-ji - the golden pavillion. Originally built in 1397 it was burned down by a lunatic monk in 1950 and reconstructed 5 years later. It`s basically a small 3-story building covered in gold leaf and looks fairly tacky. I couldn`t see what all the fuss was about. Later in the evening we headed into downtown Kyoto to try and find some nightlife but the streets and bars were empty so we gave up. This convinved me to sling hook so the next morning I hit the railway again towards Hiroshma.
On the way I stopped in the city of Okayama to see one of the best gardens in Japan. Was it better than any garden in England or Ireland? No. It certainly wasn`t on a par with Muncaster gardens in Cumbria. The overly manicured laws and miniscule trees that have been shaved to wtihin an inch of their life just doesn`t fill me full of Zen I`m afraid. Let a tree be a tree instead of trying to prune it into some sort of abominable midget tree of death. That`s always been my motto anyhow. Back on the train to Hiroshima with Japanese gardens filed under R for Rum.
On Saturday I explored Hiroshima`s Peace Park and was very impressed. There are two large museums dedicated to explaining the facts behind the world`s first nuclear bomb attack on the 6th of August 1945. The museums are excellent and don`t pull any punches or seek to gloss over Japan`s role in WWII. Also in the park are a number of cenotaphs and memorials and the remains of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, now known as the A-bomb Dome, which was one of the few structures which, though badly damaged, was left standing after the attack. The whole place is a superb monument to peace and the campaing for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Hiroshima itself is a much more attractive city than Kyoto and has a good buzz about it. Back at the hostel I met some Swiss guys and they kindly cooked octopus balls (that`s balls made out of octopus, not the balls of an octopus) for dinner.
I had to stay in Hiroshima until Monday becasue I wanted to do the Mazda factory tour but I found out there was an archery festival in Kyoto on Sunday. Due to the fact that trains were free I decided to head to that on Sunday. It was a big affair with huge numbers of young kimono cald girls carrying huge bows and taking turns to compete shooting arrows 40 metres into targets. The spectacle would no doubt have been even better if I could have actually seen any archery but the organisers had set up an immensely small platform which held about 5% of the spectators. After trying to elbow my way in for 20 minutes and getting nowhere I made do with wandering around taking photos of posing groups of archers before training it back to Hiroshima.
So what can I say about Japan?
1. Heated toilet seats - there ought to be a law inforcing their use.
2. The trains and public transport in general.
3. They do make an outstanding effort to understand what you want when you can`t speak Japanese.
1. The word “gaijin” which means you`ll always be labelled as an outsider.
2. The lack of building insulation or heating.
3. The cost - bare minimum 20 quid a day just for food and bed.
For the first few days of the new year I bummed about with Jasmine and Rich trying to decide what to do for the next 2 weeks. Richard`s mates Austin, James and Roxanna were over and he was going to bring them to the North of Thailand, into Cambodia and then to an island. Since I had already been to Cambodia and Ko Chang island and was pretty sick of Thailand by now I decided to use another passport page and swan off to a different country. My options were Burma, Japan or the Philippines. Richard claimed Burma wasn`t that big a departure from the other South East Asian countries and the Philippines could be easier got to from Malaysia. Also I was tired of the constant heat and my hands had an uncomfortable heat rash developing. Japan was the clear winner - I booked a flight for Friday.
I spent the next few days pouring over the LP guide and researching on the internet. Japan wasn`t a country I just wanted to breeze into expecting everything to be easy. Luckily, the research paid off. You can get a Japan Rail Pass which gives you virtually unlimited rail travel in Japan for 7 days and saves you a good deal of cash if you`re going a long way. The catch is you can only get it outside of Japan. Ingenious. On Friday I headed down to Silom road to buy one from an airline company, traded in some books, packed my bags and got the bus to the airport. The flight was due to leave at midnight but of course was delayed until 3am, also the goons at the airport were holding everyone up by asking them if they really had enough cash to go to Japan - I convinced them by waving a huge wad of dollars and 5 credit cards at them while exclaiming loudly that I wasn`t a stinking gap year student (despite my appearance).
I arrived into Narita airport at 11am local time on Saturday morning and got my visa without problem while the jolly customs official had a great laugh at the lack of luggage I was carrying. “Just that for 10 days!” he exclaimed. There wasn`t much defense except that I`m a greebo and happy to be so if it means I don`t have to lug ridiculous 50Kg backpacks around with me. Especially when I was planning on visiting at least 4 separate cities. I got loaded up on local currency from the ATM and got my first Japanese train into town. I made my way to the Asasuka area in the icy rain and checked into a youth hostel. The temperature was about 3 degrees and since all my warm clothes were in the Landy, I was having a whale of a time. I was determined to suck it up though and refused to buy a hat or gloves. We`ll see how long that lasts.
After checking in to a dorm full of stinking gap year students with ridiculously big rucksacks, I headed out to check out the metro system. It is disappointingly easy and bears more than a passing resemblance to London underground. I came up in the Shinjuko area which is supposed to be where the life is. Unfortunately it was pretty dead. I found one bar (one of the few which don`t charge 3 quid entry) and had an expensive beer (3.40). Japan it not a cheap country to drink in. The barman explained that it was holiday period and that alot of people were away for the weekend. This was later confirmed to me in an email from Jasmine who claimed there was a vast number of Japanese tourists at Angkor Wat. Didn`t help my Tokyo night life experience though so I headed back to the hostel for some well-earned kip.
The next day I walked up to the Senso-Ji temple for my first experience of Japanese religious life. It`s not quite what I expected. People were there in droves, filed in, threw some coins down a pit in front of the icons and legged it. I reckon the average time spent in the temple was about 20 seconds. Maybe I`m jaded after seeing the wonderous temples in Bangkok and Angkor but to my eyes the temple itself was pretty rum - a simple wooden structure with no delicate ornamentation. I`d have to try a few more before I condemn the Japanese temple experience altogether but this wasn`t a promising start. I hit the metro with an all day pass and headed to the Akihabara area. This is where people go to buy electronics and there are a vast number of gadget shops. Being a gadget fan, I was happy pootering about here but most of the stuff is Japanese only and prices are not much different from the UK. From here, I metroed to Yoyogi-koen park. The was another temple here so I had a brief look at Meiji-Jingu (Tokyo`s most splendid shrine according to LP). More of the same I`m afraid. This however, wasn`t the reason I came here. The park on Sundays becomes home to those famous kids who dress up to freak out the norms and sure enough there were quite a few of them scattered around in various freaky manga type outfits. More entertaining though was the group of dancing Elvis` who jived away to a pumping Elvis live album. In any other country these people would be ridiculed but the Japanese are just too polite so they get away with it.
Hungry now, I tubed to Shibuya which is where all the young rich kids come to be seen spending huge wads of cash. I discovered the joy of travelling in Japan is that restaurants have plastic versions of a good number of dishes in display windows and you can just point at one. They do insist in babbling polite platitudes at you though even though its clear you have no idea what they`re saying. The rich kids were out in force, immaculately dressed and made up. It wasn`t expecting it but nearly every Japanese girl wears makeup. Aside from department stores there wasn`t much to see so I legged it to the Ginza area. This is the Kensington of Tokyo, filled with expensive boutiques and designer outlets. I spent some time in the Sony building checking out the new devices. They had a good split-screen display showing the difference between DVD and Blu-Ray and I`ve got to admit there is a sizable difference in quality. That done, I wandered around a bit until I concluded that the place was only good if you wanted some expensive curtains or an Armani suit. Tired, I tubed back to the hostel and made plans for catching a sumo match and departing from Tokyo in the next few days.