Trapped!

It’s December 23rd, the day before Christmas. I wake up around 7am in beautiful Vang Vieng, Laos, excited to go kayaking and cave exploring in about 90 minutes’ time. I get out of bed and walk into the bathroom. I’m travelling alone, but I close the door behind me - I don’t want any bathroom smells getting into the bedroom. My bathroom business done, I wash my hands and grab the door handle to go back to the room, get dressed, and get some breakfast.

Except the door won’t open. What the heck? I hadn’t even locked it! I try again and again, but it won’t budge. I try locking and unlocking (which seems to work - the button moves in and pops out) - but it makes no difference; the door won’t open.

My first reaction is amusement. OK, it would be kind of funny to get stuck in the bathroom. But surely there’s a quick way to get out that I’m missing?

No, there isn’t. My phone is in the bedroom, as is my Leatherman. Either of them would probably make for a quick solution to this problem, but neither is accessible.

Is there a window? Not really. Only some thick glass tiles and a small fan. Speaking of which… and does it feel like it’s getting hot and stuffy in here? I’m trapped! I give the door a few hard shoves, and it changes absolutely nothing. It’s a heavy, wooden door.

The bathroom door, window, and fan
The bathroom door, window, and fan

Panic tries to grip me, and I have just enough sense to notice it. OK, panic helps nothing. Let’s calm down. I need to let go of my plans - I am not going kayaking and cave exploring today. Getting out of the bathroom is the big adventure of the day.

I name some things I’m grateful for: my girlfriend, my family, my dog and cats, the fact that I can travel like this, the nice dinner I had yesterday… you know, I have it pretty good. I can figure this out.

I take a couple of deep breaths, smile, and assess the situation.

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Two Weeks in Cambodia

Two Weeks in Cambodia

I spent about two weeks of this December in Cambodia - let me tell you about it!

The Khmer Empire was born in the early 9th century and flourished until the 15th century. At its zenith in the 13th century, its capital, Angkor, was the largest pre-industrial urban centre in the world. Angkor today contains more than 1,000 temples, the greatest of which is Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world… but more on that later.

After the fall of the Khmer Empire, Cambodia was ruled as a vassal state of its neighbours, until it became a French protectorate (at the request of the Cambodian King) in 1863. It was occupied by the Japanese in World War II, gained independence from France in 1953.

After that the situation gets very, very messy. “Following the Cambodian coup of 1970 which installed the right-wing pro-US Khmer Republic, the deposed king gave his support to his former enemies, the [Marxist-Leninist] Khmer Rouge.” (wikipedia) The Khmer Rouge committed the Cambodian Genocide, during which about 1.5 to 2 million people were killed - a quarter of Cambodia’s population.

The Khmer Rouge were finally ousted by Vietnam in 1979, putting an end to the genocide. Peace between rival factions came officially in 1991, with free elections held in 1993 with the support of the UN, though nowadays Cambodia is effectively a one-party state.

Cambodia Today

  • GDP per capita is $4,322 (at Purchasing Power Parity PPP) - 148th in the world
  • GDP is growing at 6.8%. This is stretching the country’s electrical grid - they experienced rolling blackouts in 2019. Energy prices are among the highest in the region.
  • HDI is 0.582 - “medium” - 146th in the world
  • 95% buddhist
  • Hun Sen, the Prime Minister, is the longest serving non-royal leader in Southeast Asia, ruling Cambodia since 1985

I like Cambodia. The place is lively and the people are friendly, but everything also seems cleaner and quieter than The Philippines. I don’t think it’s just a function of city size - I remember even tiny Coron Town in The Philippines as terribly loud and polluted, while Siem Reap feels pleasant by comparison.

Angkor and a Thousand Temples

The biggest draw to Cambodia is Angkor Wat - the massive Hindu complex from the 12th Century that is the largest religious monument in the world. It’s so important to the country that it’s even on Cambodia’s flag!

Angkor Wat at Sunrise
Angkor Wat at Sunrise

Walking around Angkor Wat is an amazing experience. I especially enjoyed going there for the sunrise - while everyone else getting the classic photo from across the lake from the west, I walked inside the temple complex from the eastern entrance. For some time I had courtyards and rooms all to myself - a magnificent experience.

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30 Days in The Philippines

30 Days in The Philippines

I spent most of November in The Philippines with my girlfriend - let me tell you all about it!

The Philippines are composed of 7,641 islands, of which we visited five large ones (Cebu, Bohol, Busuanga, Linapacan, and Palawan) and about nine small ones.

By the 1300s, there was a number of large coastal settlements that had substantial trade ties with other societies in the region.

The islands were named Las Islas Filipinas in honor of Philip II of Spain in the 16th century. This is something that President Rodrigo Duterte publicly pondered recently. Why the heck should the islands still be called the Philippines in honor of a long-dead king of a faraway former colonial nation? Not even Duterte had a suggestion for a new name, though, so here we are.

The Philippines were ceded by the Spanish to the US in 1898 following the Spanish-American war, and became a self-governing commonwealth in 1935. The country was occupied by Japan in 1942. US forces and Filipinos fought alongside to regain control, and the Republic of Philippines attained its independence in 1946. There was 21-year dictatorship that ended in a “people power” movement in 1986, and the country has been a democracy since.

The Philippines

  • Population: 100,000,000
  • Overwhelmingly Catholic
  • Human Development Index (HDI): 0.7 (113th in the world)
  • GDP per capita (at Purchasing Power Parity - PPP): $9,538 - 119th in the world; growing at 6.2%

The Drug War

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the President, Rodrigo Duterte, and his drug war. Both the president and the drug war are controversial and divisive.

From Wikipedia:

  • “the policy is aimed at ‘the neutralization of illegal drug personalities nationwide.”
  • “Duterte has urged members of the public to kill suspected criminals and drug addicts.”
  • Research by media organizations and human rights groups has shown that police routinely execute unarmed drug suspects and then plant guns and drugs as evidence
  • death toll estimates vary between 5,104 to 12,000+ as of January 2019

The drug war didn’t come up except when I asked people about it, and then opinions on it varied widely. Some 82% of Filipinos support it in the name of progress against drug use and drug criminals.

On the other hand, some people said that drug use is getting worse, as is corruption, and that Duterte uses the killings to suppress opposition. They are concerned that the extra-judicial killings will create a bitter, angry, violent generation that grows up through this - there are reports of people unarmed people being executed by police inside their homes, in front of their children. What does seeing that do to the life of the child?

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30 Hours in Singapore

Singapore airport is a major hub, so I suppose I was bound to end up there sooner or later. It’s also a small country, so when you do end up at the airport, why not take an extra day and see the city?

Singapore Collage

According to Malay legend, Singapore was founded in the 14th century, though it was apparently mostly destroyed by the Portuguese in the 16th century, sending the island into obscurity for the next two centuries.

That obscurity ended in 1819, when Sir Stamford Raffles decided that Britain should replace the Netherlands as the dominant power in the region, and that Singapore was an ideal place to build a new center of trade and influence.

The British established a new free port in Singapore - meaning any vessel of any nation could come in to trade without tariffs - and the boom began. Singapore attracted immigrants from all over, and grew rapidly. The trade volume went from $400,000 Spanish dollars in 1819 to $22,000,000 by 1824, with the city’s population growing rapidly during this time. The British resolved their dispute with the Dutch in 1824, and cemented Singapore as British territory, with Britain giving up influence in modern-day Indonesia. The city continued to boom and expand on the strength of its trade.

Singapore was occupied by Japan during 1942-1945, and after a brief 2-year union with Malaysia that did not go well became an independent state in 1965.

Since independence, Singapore has rapidly modernized and remains a trade hub, with per capita GDP of some $66,000 (7th in the world - just ahead of the US), with a Gini coefficient of about 46 (indicating medium inequality; about the same as the US) and Human Development Index (HDI) of 0.932 (9th in the world). Population is about 6 million, made up ethnic Chinese, Malays, Indians, and others, who all seem to get along fine.

Singapore

A lot of this was achieved under Lee Kuan Yew, aka LKY, who was the country’s first Prime Minister, serving from 1959 to 1990. LKY “is recognised as the nation’s founding father, with the country described as transitioning from the “third world country to first world country in a single generation” under his leadership.” wikipedia

The amazing story of Singapore is well-told by the National Museum - go there if you’re in town.

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30 Days in Australia

30 Days in Australia

I spent most of October in Australia - good fun!

Collage of photos from Australia

By the time the first Europeans arrived in the 17th century, indigenous Australians had inhabited the continent for some 65,000 years. Australia’s eastern half was claimed by Britain in 1770, and initially settled by the relocation of criminals and undesirables.

That was a long time ago, though. Today, Australia has the 10th highest per-capita income, and “the third-highest human development index and the eighth-highest ranked democracy globally, the country ranks highly in quality of life, health, education, economic freedom, civil liberties and political rights, with all its major cities faring well in global comparative livability surveys.” Australia’s Human Development Index (HDI) is 0.939 - “very high”, and third in the world (behind Norway and Switzerland). wikipedia

Queensland

Queensland covers the northeast corner of Australia, and provides great access to what drew me here most: the Great Barrier Reef.

The reef is amazing - it just seems to go on and on forever. I saw a reef shark, a stingray, and a whole lot of fish.

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