November Report from Asia
From Thomas H. Greco, Jr.
Wednesday, November 7, 2007
“Contrast and compare,” that’s a standard academic exercise. It’s also
something that comes naturally when one travels in foreign lands.
The superficial differences in culture, of course, are easy, but
understanding the values, attitudes, beliefs and other motivations that
underlie the behavior patterns of a people can be a daunting task for even
devoted anthropologists and sociologists much less for the casual traveler.
The legendary inscrutability of the Chinese seems well matched in other
parts of Asia that I’ve explored. This seems to be particularly true in
areas that have become popular tourist destinations. I suppose one would
need to spend a lot of time in a diversity of such places to get any useful
sense of how indigenous cultures have adapted to and taken advantage of the
onslaught of foreign visitors. What does it do to a people’s way of life
when there is a steady stream of strangers who inevitably come to be seen as
a natural resource to be “mined” by the indigenous population.
“Taxi, sir?” “Hello, where you go?” “Come in, sir, have a look.” CD, Rolex,
nice batik shirt?” “Massage?” “Hello, sir, do you have a lady booking?”
These are just a few of the common verbal volleys one must fend off as one
walks down the streets. There are, of course, local variations. In my
experience, pimping, for example, was most prevalent in Hat Yai (Thailand),
there was some of it in certain sections of Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), and
none in Ubud (Bali). Everyone, it seems, is selling something or running
some kind of scam. The scams are usually pretty mild but can turn out to be
costly. I’m ashamed to admit that I paid four dollars one day for a
newspaper. Hawkers take advantage of the fact that currency exchange rates
can be confusing. Bali is part of Indonesia. The Indonesian currency is the
“rupia” and the current exchange rate with the dollar is roughly 10,000 to
one. I should have paid about 4,000 rupia for the paper, but a temporary
confusion caused me to hand over 40,000 instead. I came to realize my
mistake as the hawker walked quickly away giggling with a broad grin on his
Bali is probably one of the most democratically governed places in the
world. It also has a very tight-knit social structure that centers on family
ties and the local “Banjar” (pronounced, ban-yar). A Banjar is a local
neighborhood or village organization that is administered through a
democratic structure. These banjars, which are small and numerous, have
social, political and religious significance. There can be many banjars
within a village or town. Virtually everyone belongs to a banjar, which
provides a person with a large measure of his/her identity.
One of the most popular tourist destinations in Bali is the community of
Ubud, the upland area that is supposed to be the cultural center of the
island. After staying a couple days in the heart of Ubud, I felt harassed
and a bit sad. Despite their efforts to maintain their culture and way of
life, it seems to me that the people of Ubud have become far too dependent
upon foreign visitors. The competition for the tourist dollar, euro and yen
is intense. A leisurely, peaceful walk down the street is all but
impossible. I was continually pressured to engage taxis I did not need and
to buy stuff I did not want. I felt like I was the object of some predatory
entity that keeps manifesting in slightly different form. That situation is
not unique to Bali, of course, it’s one that is common to virtually all
popular destinations that cannot help but degenerate into “tourist traps.”
I’ve had a similar experience in other places, including Goa (India), which
was even worse.
But everywhere I go there is something interesting to be discovered and
something to be appreciated. In Ubud I appreciated the wonderful body
pampering and massages that can be had at any of the numerous spas for fees
that are ridiculously low. A one hour traditional Balinese massage can be
had for 40,000 to 50,000 rupia (around 5 dollars US). On one occasion I
splurged and paid an additional three dollars to follow up with a body
scrub, yogurt mask, and bathtub soak complete with flower petals floating in
What you won’t find in Ubud is discotheques or western fast food chains.
With the object of maintaining the cultural authenticity of the place, all
of the banjars that comprise Ubud have agreed that such disruptive
influences and manifestations of foreign cultures will not be allowed. Their
avowed intention is to avoid becoming like Kuta, the main tourist
destination in Bali, which I did not visit. One can imagine that the
pressures to include the KFC’s and McDonalds’s must be intense but it seems
the banjars still have enough power to call the shots. Still, one wonders
how long they will be able to resist the pressures that large corporations
typically assert through central governments.
Where I’ve Been and What I’ve Been Doing
You may be wondering why it’s been such a long time between my last report
and this one. The reason is that between September 14 and November 5, I was
traveling in Malaysia, Thailand, and Bali and was either too busy or not
feeling motivated to write. There’s far too much to tell about so I’ll just
mention places visited and a few highlights.
Kuala Lumpur has become my favorite jumping-off point because I like the
city and one can easily get from there to most Asian destinations at low
cost. There are coaches that will take you comfortably to other places
inside Malaysia and numerous flights to virtually everywhere from KL’s
modern award-winning airport.
Penang and Langkawi are two islands in the north just off the west coast of
the Malay peninsula. I enjoyed a few days on each of them. Langkawi is the
more beautiful and scenic of the two, but Penang has Georgetown, a charming
old town that bustles with life and has managed to retain its old colonial
character. It also has a national park, which appears to be an undiscovered
treasure that’s just a half-hour away from Georgetown by city bus (U101). It
has great hiking trails and beaches and a variety of wildlife. The beaches
and water are very clean and are reachable by hiking trails, or a boat can
be hired to take you by sea. I hiked a half hour to one of the closest
beaches and had the place virtually to myself. Next time I’ll take my
bathing suit and a picnic lunch.
To go from Langkawi to Thailand, there are a number of options. I chose to
take the one hour ferry boat ride to Satun. From Satun, I took a minivan to
Hat Yai where I spent two nights in quite a nice hotel for 500 Bhat per
night (about 16 dollars US). What does Hat Yai have to recommend it? Mainly,
it’s the point of departure for buses to the islands of Koh Samui, Koh
Phangan, and Koh Tau. Other than that, it draws tourists, many from
Malaysia, for shopping and sex.
Getting from Hat Yai to Koh Phangan involves a five hour bus ride, a 2 hour
wait, and a 3 hour ferry boat ride. The bus ride itself was not terribly
uncomfortable but the “entertainment” provided by the onboard TV was
annoying. Even with my ever ready earplugs, I could not fully escape the
assault. The programming was a relentless sequence of inane onstage banter
in which every comment was punctuated by a drum beat or clash of cymbals and
canned laughter. I could not understand a word of it, of course, but none of
my fellow passengers seemed to be amused either.
Kho Phangan island is one of my favorite places so far. It provides a great
variety of beautiful scenery, lovely beaches, great food, opportunities for
socializing, the usual amenities like internet access, and interesting
things to do. It will eventually be spoiled as it becomes an increasingly
popular tourist destination (as I’ve heard of Koh Samui), but for now it’s
pretty ideal. This would be a great place to come on a yacht. It has some of
the nicest beaches anywhere, the best of which are accessible only by boat.
It’s the kind of place where I could easily become a beach bum and get
seriously into retirement living.
On Sunday I’ll leave Auroville and head for the airport at Chennai (Madras)
where I’ll catch my flight to London early Monday morning. I’m in the
process of making my itinerary for visits and meetings in the UK during my
two week stopover. Then, on the 26th of November I’ll fly back to San
Francisco. After that, I just don’t know. The expatriate lifestyle seems to
suit me so I may want to return to Asia fairly soon. I’ve found a few places
that I like where I can live pretty well on my small retirement income.
I’m feeling motivated to complete some writing projects that I’ve had on the
back burner for the past few years. I can do that most anywhere so I might
as well do it in a place that is pleasant and provides me with some comfort.
Once I’ve managed to get a good grip on completing the next book, I’d like
to secure further opportunities to lecture and teach.
Thomas H. Greco, Jr.
P.O. Box 42663, Tucson, AZ 85733
Blogs: Beyond Money: http://beyondmoney.wordpress.com;
Tom’s News and Views: http://tomazgreco.wordpress.com