Having gotten used to the modern madness of motorised south-east Asian cities, it was a bit of a shock to wind through the streets of Mataram, the largest town on the island of Lombok, with a taxi driver who not only dodged the motorbikes and trucks but also horses and carts as well as traders and vendors in huge crowds on foot around the central market. The place was congested since everybody in this part of the world seems to be rushing from a to b and back again, but there was a distinctly “under-developed” feeling on the edge of the town, where disappearing rural ways of life meet dirty drains and half-built shacks in the slums. I would like to have visited Mataram 20 years ago to have an idea of the pace of change.
A little over 20 years ago I came to this region for the first time. Reporting to the delegation of the European Commission in Bangkok, I spent two weeks in Cambodia as a member of a team responsible for assessing progress in the delivery of assistance for “rehabilitation and reconstruction” following the Paris Peace Accords ending the Indo-Chinese wars. The agreed withdrawal of Vietnamese forces from Cambodia, repatriation of refugees from border camps just inside Thailand and the promise of “free and fair elections” – more or less – ended around 25 years of destruction and misery that began when the United States bombed the country at the end of the 1960s. Cambodia was a shock too. I wrote a long essay at the end of the assignment, in an attempt to summarise my “memories from the minefields.”
It has been interesting to re-visit Cambodia on a couple of later assignments and also to gain some impressions of the development and environment challenges in several other countries in the region, notably Indonesia, Thailand and Viet Nam. I have also spent a few days in the urban jungle of Manila, attending meetings at the headquarters of the Asian Development Bank, plus a brief stopover as a tourist in Singapore (where I enjoyed taking photos of fantastic orchids in the botanic gardens). But I have yet to find opportunities to travel to Brunei, Laos, Malaysia and Myanmar… Maybe I’ll run out of time…
Arriving in the buzz of Bangkok or Singapore airports after the 11-12 hour flight from Europe never fails to stimulate my senses. I’m in another world. The exotic orient beckons. However, it’s not easy to pinpoint the core of the magic attraction that south-east Asia seems to exert on visitors and has exerted for hundreds of years. I guess it is a combination of factors: the confrontation with the sounds of strange languages, the tastes of colourful fruits and vegetables, large crowds of smiling people (the biggest cliché of all…), incense in the golden temples, minarets on the mosques and soaring palaces, the dawn light revealing palms and paddies, dense forests, rocky coastlines and sandy beaches. There are over 17,000 islands in Indonesia, so a lifetime isn’t enough to explore the whole. Culture and nature overflow!
Kids in a village on the slopes of Mount Rinjani
Woman washing clothes by the pump in the village
Rural and urban contrasts have provided many insights during my (all too limited) exploration of the region since 1993. I have been fascinated by gazing at the landscapes of paddy fields, mountains and forests during numerous drives: to the Mekong valley wetlands and the national parks in northern Thailand; along the Andaman coast in the south; across the hills in eastern Cambodia where the “Ho Chi Minh” wartime supply trail wound southwards along the border with Viet Nam in the 1960s and early 1970s; from Bukittinggi on Sumatra down the slopes around the crater lake of Maninjau and from Makassar to the mangroves on the beaches of southern Sulawesi; across the deltas of the Red and Mekong rivers in Viet Nam… I have also been enthralled by hours wandering the streets of sweaty, noisy cities including Battambang, Bogor, Chang Mai, Ha Noi, HCM City (Saigon), Padang, Phnom Penh and Semarang. With over ten million inhabitants, Jakarta stands out as the ultimate urban sprawl, approached each time with uneasy anticipation of the hours to be spent in vast queues on the multi-lane highways and maneuvering through narrow shortcuts which only the tried and tested drivers know between the towering buildings.
Tourism has transformed the region in a few decades, along with high-tech, cheap-labour-based manufacturing. Another of the many stereotypes is the widespread use of young female fingers in the assembly processes and factories of south-east Asia. When Bangkok suffered massive flooding in 2011, the world’s IT companies felt the shock of disrupted supplies of processors. I have stayed in some of the smartest resorts and hotels in the world during my trips to the region; crowded with the new middle classes as well as traditional European and Australian packaged groups.
There are downsides of course; south-east Asia isn’t all peace and light. Drainage difficulties and flooding are serious problems in the coastal agglomerations. Transport is a nightmare. The Jakarta Post had a fantastic front page ‘photo of a giant gridlock at one of the city’s junctions with the caption: “How long must we live like this?!” Factories are rapidly upgrading their facilities for pollution control, but there are still horrendous deposits of waste in and around the urban areas.
The problems of forest management and greenhouse gas emissions have been particularly in focus during several of my recent trips to the region. Thus, it was a great pleasure to drive from the hotel at Senggigi beach on Lombok, along the coast and into the national park that surrounds the second highest active volcano in Indonesia, Mount Rinjani (around 3500 meters). Although degraded, the forest on the slopes of the mountain reveals the beautiful diversity of plant and animal life in the topics, the trees towering into the stormy sky as a huge downpour interrupted a walk down a path to a spectacular waterfall (which I have understood is often considered as the essential symbol of healthy nature in south-east Asia).
Meanwhile on the island of Sumatra clearance of land for palm oil plantations has resulted in much controversy, not least due to the recurrence of uncontrolled forest fires. A week before I left for Lombok, I learnt that the problem of air pollution was out of control again, as smoky haze accumulated across Singapore and southern Malaysia, just across the Strait of Moluccas from Sumatra. The Indonesian Minister of Forestry was supposed to open the meeting I attended on Lombok, but didn’t turn up as he was embroiled in the efforts by the government to deal with both the fires and international criticism of the weaknesses of environmental management that allow the drivers of deforestation to accelerate.
Behind the scenes lurks the all-powerful northern neighbour, the People’s Republic of China. Many of the commercial activities in south-east Asia are in the hands of influential Chinese companies and business is booming. Apparently, an increasing number of young Indonesians are as keen to learn Mandarin as English; I guess they know which way the winds of opportunity are blowing. Watching the young crowds at the shopping malls there’s a tangible sense of the technological progress and economic development with widespread wealth generation and accumulation across the whole region.
Rooftop garden on skyscrapers in Singapore
The punters say that sooner or later Lombok will overtake Bali as a popular destination, although the Hindu dimension is much less evident on the less well known island. I hope that such a transition can be managed without destroying the natural beauty or the people’s apparent attachment to their “Sasak” (Lombok) culture. Young forestry students we met in the national park were good examples of the way forward, intent on learning how to improve the practices of sustainable forest management that will increase carbon stocks while encouraging “eco-tourism” as a valuable source of income.
As I go for a morning walk on the beach I contemplate the new dawn. Birds are singing and I can hear prayers being chanted from the nearby mosque. The people I pass on the beach smile and I mumble a greeting, one of the few Indonesian phrases I know: “Selamat pagi” (good morning)!
Morning scene on a beach looking towards Bali
Lunch at the Lotus Bayview restaurant on the beach
 As a European traveling in Asia I carry heavy baggage of stereotypes that are hard to leave aside. The classic analysis of Europeans and “the East” is Edward Said’s “Orientalism” (Vintage, 1979). Jon Swain’s memoires of the Indo-Chinese wars in the “River of Time” (Heinemann, 1996) are perfect examples of the tendency to romanticize the region, the people and the landscapes, not to mention the wars! Swain was one of the Europeans trapped in the French Embassy in Phnom Penh after the fall of the city to the Khmer Rouge in 1975; as depicted in “the Killing Fields.” More critical assessments and perspectives on east-west relations can be found in a collection of essays by Ian Buruma: “The Missionary and the Libertine” – Love and War in East and West (Faber and Faber, 1996). In reverse, in “Occidentalism” (Penguin, 2004) Ian Buruma & Avishai Margalit examine views of “the West” that underpin the wave of rebellion led by Osama Bin Laden and early 21st Century jihadists. But despite the differences between east and west, a common denominator of mass consumerism seems to have bought us all closer together in the globalised pursuit of happiness.