Sunday, January 17, 2016

And finally, a woman president!

So the Taiwanese people have just elected a woman president.

The only time China was ruled by a woman during its two and a half millennia of imperial rule was with empress Wu Zetian, who ruled from 690 to 705 AD. The famous (and infamous) Empress Dowager Cixi, who was the de facto ruler of China from 1867 to her death in 1908, was never officially made empress.

In modern times, none of the countries which could be termed the "Chinese cultural sphere" had ever had a woman leader until a couple of days ago. Not the PRC, not Taiwan, not even Singapore. In fact, before Park Geun-hye's election in South Korea in 2012, there hadn't been a single woman leader in any East Asian country, including Korea and Japan.

It is interesting to note that by contrast, many countries in other parts of Asia have had important women leaders, from Indira Gandhi in India and Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan to Corazon Aquino in the Philippines (the first two were of course the daughters of celebrated male heads of state). Many of these countries might come across as more sexist than China, but in this particular area they fare better. Even though in a Chinese context it is perfectly normal for women to work and quite possible for them to be respected and reach the top tiers in business, they have found it much harder to rise to the top in politics.

Taiwan has now become the first Chinese-speaking society to break the spell and choose a woman leader (although many of her followers reject the "Chinese" label altogether). Appropriately, she represents a party which was born out of a popular uprising against an authoritarian state, and which has overwhelmingly won the youth vote. These elections only confirm that, in this as in other areas, Taiwan is the most progressive society in the Chinese world.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Five great China expat memoirs

Many foreigners who have spent time in China feel compelled to write a memoir about their experiences in this big, mysterious country. Unfortunately many of these books turn out not to be especially entertaining or interesting. Just because you've lived in China, it doesn't mean you have either good writing skills or anything insightful to say about the place. Every now and again though, a book comes out which really manages to capture the essence of the foreign experience in China. Here are a few of the best ones I have read so far.

River Town, by Peter Hessler

This classic remains the standard for the "foreigner in China" genre. In 1997 young American literature graduate Peter Hessler ends up on a two year stint teaching english in Fuling, a small town near Chongqing, in the proverbial middle of nowhere. New to China and not knowing a word of Chinese, he has to figure everything out for himself. His book is a superbly crafted description of his experiences, and what he comes to understand about China and his own culture in the process.

The book doesn't gloss over some of the less savoury aspects of the society which Hessler finds himself immersed in, but he always does his best to find poetry and beauty where he can. Hessler's students, young adults from the Sichuanese countryside training to be teachers, really come alive in his description. The challenges and the fun of teaching English literature in the middle of China are also described quite vividly.

After writing this book Hessler moved to Beijing, where he wrote another two books about China and became well known for his ability to describe the country to American audiences. He has now moved to Cairo, where he is trying to learn Arabic and write about the Middle East.

Mr. China, by Tim Clissold

A memoir by Tim Clissold, an englishman who set up shop in Beijing in the early nineties as a young, starry-eyed businessman with dreams of making it big in China's new market economy.

After a year of studying Chinese in Beijing, Tim was hired by a Wall Street banker referred to only as "Pat" (in actuality Jack Perkowski), who needed someone to oversee how the millions of dollars he was pouring into Chinese factories were being put to use. Inevitably all sorts of unforseen problems arose, from factory bosses escaping to Las Vegas with 58 million in cash, to other bosses transferring land to rival factories personally owned by their associates. Tim had to run around China from one end to the other, trying to deal with all the mishaps and explain them to incomprehending American investors.

The book is certainly entertaining, and does its best to be culturally sensitive. At the same time, it reads a bit like an expose' of the kind of business ventures which unprepared, amateurish Westerners would throw themselves into in the China of the nineties. Apparently Jack Perkowski now blames Tim Clissold for many of the problems the book describes, and has refused to read it. Perhaps he should have thought it through before hiring a clueless young man with one year's experience in China to oversee 418,000,000 dollars in investment?

The Forbidden Door (La Porta Proibita), by Tiziano Terzani

Tiziano Terzani was an Italian writer, journalist and adventurer who spent decades living all across Asia. He was well known in Italy for his deep knowledge of Asian languages and cultures, and for his fascinating travel books.

Terzani and his wife eating with some Chinese friends
Terzani was fluent in Chinese, a language he learnt in Stanford in the late sixties, and always curious about China. As soon as the country opened up slightly to the outside world in the early eighties, he moved to Beijing as a correspondent for a German magazine. Terzani arrived in the Chinese capital in 1980, when foreigners where still extremely rare. He immediately did his best to integrate and learn about his new home, refusing to remain confined within the diplomatic compound where foreigners were forced to live at the time. He rode a bike, sent his children to a local school (which they hated), travelled around the country hard class, and got to know as many people as possible. In the end the authorities got fed up with this man who just wouldn't stick to the script; in 1984, Terzani was arrested on the fabricated accusation of smuggling artistic treasures out of the country, "re-educated" for a month (which mainly consisted in him having to write nonsense confessions), and then kicked out of China.

The book he wrote on his years in China (called La porta Proibita in Italian) is a fascinating portrayal of the country in the early eighties: in some ways so different from now, and in some ways exactly the same. It also offers something different from the Anglo-Saxon perspective of many foreign authors who have written about China. Although Terzani was enthralled by Maoism as a young man, he became highly critical of the Chinese system after moving there. At the same time he discovered the real, human side of China, which he found much more interesting and exciting than the faultless facade which the authorities attempted to show the outside world.

Unfortunately Terzani died of cancer in 2004, after spending his last few months in the hills of his native Tuscany. No other Italian has since written about China as insightfully as he did.

Foreign Babes in Beijing, by Rachel DeWoskin

Rachel DeWoskin, the daughter of an American Sinologist, arrived in Beijing in 1994, aged 23, to work in an American PR firm. Before long Rachel, who had no acting experience and shaky Chinese, was offered the starring part in a TV soap on a foreign lady who falls in love with a Chinese man. The show was hugely successful, gaining over 600 million viewers, and Rachel turned into a celebrity and a sex symbol overnight.

Her memoir is a sensitive, amusing description of her five years in the Chinese capital, during which Rachel delved into the city's emerging alternative arts and rock music scene and met all sorts of curious characters, while holding down a variety of jobs. China was an exciting and bewildering place to be at the time, and Rachel always did her best to keep an open mind on what she experienced.

The book is a great portrayal of what expat life was like in Beijing in the nineties, a time when you could receive an offer to appear on TV just for having a foreign face and being able to put three words of Chinese together, everyone was curious about Westerners and their culture, foreigners were only allowed to live in certain neighbourhoods but would happily flout the law, and the traffic and pollution were still at bearable levels.

Why China will Never Rule the World, by Troy Parfitt

After a decade spent living in Taiwan as an anonymous English teacher, Canadian Troy Parfitt got fed up with hearing supposed experts back in the West go on about how China was going to become the next superpower and a dominant influence throughout the world. This just didn't chime with his experience. So armed with his ability to speak Chinese and his first-hand knowledge of Chinese culture, Parfitt decided to embark on a long journey through Mainland China and Taiwan, and craft it into a travelogue with an agenda.

The first part is a bitter and sometimes hilarious description of his travels through the Mainland, which are replete with the sort of of misadventures any old China-hand will be familiar with: revolting restrooms, rude, unresponsive or just plain idiotic staff, dismal accomodation, tacky "ancient ruins" rebuilt 20 years ago, scams and touts etc.... Parfitt finds almost nothing to like in China, and he is not afraid to say it like he sees it. His descriptions of his travels are replete with historical and cultural digressions, during which he dismisses Chinese culture and all it stands for. In the end, Parfitt concludes that China is condemned to remain authoritarian forever, and has no hope of gaining any kind of real global influence any time soon. Although he has no love for China's current rulers, he sees the roots of the problem as lying even deeper, in Confucianism and the country's basic cultural identity.

In the second part of the book, Parfitt tours his adopted homeland of Taiwan, and meanwhile tells us his impressions of Taiwanese society which he gained from his years of living there. He describes Taiwan as being a better place than the Mainland in almost every way, but he still finds Taiwanese society to be lacking in many important respects, and he blames Chinese culture and education for the lack of critical thinking, ignorance and obtuseness which he perceives all around him.

Obviously Parfitt's conclusions are highly provocative and debatable, and not everything he claims about China is true. It is not true, for instance, that you never see people exercise outdoors. (Has he ever been to a Chinese park?) I don't find it to be the case that nobody ever knows the way to anywhere, a constant theme throughout the book. Parfitt's historical anecdotes are interesting and informative, but often biased, and dismissing the whole of Chinese history as nothing but war and chaos is highly simplistic. At the same time, I think anyone who knows China properly will find themselves secretly agreeing with him every once in a while.

If this book deserves to be read, it is mainly because it gives vent to some of the negative attitudes and frustration which many long-term foreign residents develop towards Chinese culture. At the end of the book Parfitt describes how he decided to move back to Canada, finally fed up with Taiwan and Chinese society as a whole. This was clearly a long overdue decision.

Monday, December 7, 2015

"Red Alert" over smog in Beijing

The Chinese government has issued its first ever "red alert" over Beijing's air pollution. The entire population of Beijing, myself include, received text messages both yesterday and on Sunday warning about the upcoming pollution. The first message warned about severe pollution from Monday to Wednesday, and said that schools should suspend outdoor activities, and vehicles which transport earth from constuction sites should suspend their operations.

The second message spoke about terrible pollution from Tuesday to Thursday at midday (when strong winds are predicted), and warned that cars will only be allowed on the roads on alternate days. It also suggested (the Chinese term used was 建议) that Middle and Primary schools suspend classes, and that enterprises consider "flexible working arrangements". My company is actually allowing everyone to work from home tomorrow.

The funny thing is that the pollution is nowhere near as bad as it was on Monday and Tuesday last week, when the PM 2.5 index reached 600, a level which hadn't been seen since the first "airpocalypse" in 2013. And yet because of the lack of an official government alert, people seemed to be less concerned than they are now, when the PM 2.5 still hasn't gone above 300. The difference is apparently that the heavy pollution has to be forecast to last over three days in a row for there to be a "red alert". Go figure.

If you don't live in China or another place with dreadful air pollution, you are probably unaware of the significance of the PM 2.5 index. In order to give you an idea, the WHO considers safe levels to be below 25. In no major European city does it usually go beyond 100 even on the worst of days. Once you get past a level of 150-200, the pollution becomes visible to the naked eye. Especially in the winter, this is a common occurence in Beijing. Like most Beijingers, I can eyeball the PM 2.5 level based on how far I can see out of my window. If I can make out the high rises in the next neighbourhood, I know it can't be too bad.

The air quality may not be improving, but what has changed enourmously since I first came to Beijing is the level of public awareness. Just a few years ago, most people here had no idea about PM 2.5 levels, and did not give the air quality too much thought, or even distinguish between smog and natural fog. Only very few wealthy people and foreigners possessed air purifiers, and almost no one wore a face mask.

Especially since 2013, awareness has increased exponentially. Air purifiers have appeared in many households of ordinary means, and those who can't afford the expensive ones buy cheaper and less reliable ones. Although you can still hear people say that it's better not to use a purifier at home in order to for your body to "get used to the pollution", such attitudes are on the decrease.

More and more people also wear masks on smoggy days, and not just the useless little surgical masks they used to wear, but the imported masks with a filter which you can buy in 7-11 (25 yuan for a packet of five). Recently, a small but increasing number of people are actually going around with a mask connected by a tube to a little oxygen tank strapped to their arm. Below is a photo a friend of mine took today on the Beijing subway. Underneath it is an advertisment for such a contraption.


The extraordinary measures that ensured clean air during last year's APEC summit and this year's military parade have shown the people that smog in China's capital is not actually unvanquishable. Now that they've understood that air pollution is bad for them, I wonder how long it will take for them to start considering such dreadful air quality to be unacceptable on principle, rather than an annoyance which you just have to bear.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

New bout of dreadful air pollution in Beijing

Over the last couple of days, Beijing has been struck by one of the most dreadful spells of pollution of the last few years. PM 2.5 levels have soared to 600, and the entire city has been covered by a thick, grey blanket of smog of the kind which smells bad and makes it dark and gloomy even in the middle of the day. This morning however strong winds finally arrived and blew it all away, allowing us to see the sky again.

Here's a couple of photos taken by a friend of mine from inside Beijing's famous CCTV tower. The first one shows the view out of his window this morning, and the second one shows the same view yesterday. Scary stuff.

People were beginning to hope things were looking up for Beijing' air quality, after a comparatively smog-free 2015, but the last few days has brought everyone back down to earth. At least this time most of the people out on the streets wore face masks. It seems like awareness of the ill health-effects of smog is increasing.

The Syrian conflict

The Syrian conflict seems to have become the defining issue in world politics. Much recent front-page news, from the refugee crisis engulfing Europe to the terrorist attacks in Paris to the shooting down of a Russian fighter jet by Turkey, involve what is going on in Syria in one way or another.                                  
The fact is that the fighting in Syria is increasingly coming to resemble the Spanish Civil War: a conflict which not only tears a country apart, but also becomes a battleground for a global struggle between foreign powers with competing interests and ideologies. The narratives being peddled by the international supporters of the two sides at war are very different, but they both share a disconnect from what is actually happening on the ground. It is ideology and wishful thinking which seems to guide most of the commentary on Syria, rather than a hard look at the facts.

Basically there are two main international narratives concerning the conflict in Syria. One we could call the mainstream Western narrative: an oppressed people rise up against an oppressive dictatorship in power for decades, inspired by the "Arab Spring" revolutions in neighbouring countries. The regime fights back, and it turns into a bloody civil war. Although Western governments consider the emergence of the Islamic State to be a huge threat, they maintain that Assad is a bloody dictator who has massacred his own people and has to renounce power if there is to be a solution for Syria. The so-called "moderate rebels" are considered to be the good guys worthy of support, fighting against both Assad and the Islamic State fanatics.

The other narrative is the one being peddled strongly by Russia, more quietly by China and other allied countries, and increasingly by the Western left-wing and others who have a bone to pick with US foreign policy. According to this camp, the secular regime led by Assad maintained Syria's stability and prosperity for decades and acted as a bulwark against religion fundamentalism. Then one day, using the excuse of the Arab Spring, the US and its regional allies (Saudi Arabia above all) fomented rebellion against Assad, and funded Muslim fundamentalists and terrorist groups to fight against Syria's legitimate government. What followed was the destruction of what used to be a peaceful country, and the emergence of the plague known as the Islamic State. Assad deserves support in his fight against the foreign-backed terrorists, and the Russian airforce is providing it.

Both these narratives respond to the worldviews and to the geopolitical interests of those who spread them. There is some truth to both of them, and also much simplification. The Syrian conflict started when popular demonstrations against Assad, inspired by what was happening in Egypt and Tunisia, were met with gunfire by the regime. That the US somehow pulled the strings is unlikely. It is much more logical to presume that Syrians took to the streets for the same reason that people did in other Arab countries: because they were fed up with living for decades on end under the same corrupt, inefficient and brutal regime. When they were met with violence, they responded with violence.

On the other hand, over four years after the civil war began, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that it would have been better if nobody had challenged Assad in the first place: Syria has not moved towards becoming a better country, it has simply been devastated by war, turning into a place from which people are escaping in droves. All its ethnic and religious faultlines have exploded, and Syria has become a battleground on which Iran on the one side and Saudi Arabia and Turkey on the other battle for power and influence. Even if eventually a better alternative to Assad emerges, Syrians will have paid a huge price in the process.

And then there is the composition of the rebel forces: it is an undeniable fact that Muslim fundamentalists now constitute a large part of them. The Islamic State's caliphate, spread out between what used to be Syria and Iraq, is attracting lunatics from all over the world. Syria's ancient non-Muslim minorities are being threatened and driven out. And then there are the other Islamist organizations operating in Syria, like Al-Nusra, Sunni fundamentalists who have pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda.

The Baath Party held onto power in Syria through brutality, as such regimes have always done in the Arab world (just look at the infamous massacre which Assad Sr.'s troops carried out at Hama in 1982). At the same time, it probably did prevent the country from descending into ethnic and religious warfare, while maintaining a relatively "secular' public culture. If the regime goes, there is no saying what could replace it. All this does lead some credence to the narrative of what we might call "the authoritarian camp": sometimes stable regimes had best not be toppled, regardless of how bad their human rights record might be, because the only alternative is chaos and ethnic conflict.

At the same time, the view that we can only choose between Assad and religious fundamentalism is simplistic as well: for one thing the Syrian rebels are not made up entirely of Muslim fundamentalists. There are other rebel factions which are more moderate, including the Free Syrian Army, which fights both the regime and the Islamic State at the same time. Then there are the Kurds, who fight for their independence as they always have done, and have become one of the main sources of resistance to the Islamic State. The self-governing Kurdish enclave of Rojava, which sprung up after Assad's forces withdrew from the region, is said to be an amazing experiment in secularism, grassroots democracy and women's rights in the Middle East.

According to most reports, Russian airstrikes are not aimed only or even mainly at the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, but also at more moderate rebel factions which want to overthrow Assad. What's more, Russian missiles have been killing Syrian civilians in droves. People who berate the US for propping up friendly dictators and engaging in bombing campaigns which kill civilians in the Middle East, but then support Russia for doing the same thing, might wish to consider whether there isn't a certain hypocrisy in this.

What remains clear is that the real losers are the ordinary people of Syria, who see no end to their suffering in sight. Further bombings by Russia, the US, France or Britain are not going to provide a viable or just solution.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Martin Jacques is at it again

Martin Jacques is at it again.

The ex-Marxist intellectual has jumped on the occasion of the Chinese president's controversial visit to Britain to pen an article for the Guardian, in which he lauds David Cameron's cosying up to China as "the boldest change in British foreign policy since the Second World War". Apparently it shows that "Britain can prosper in the Asian-oriented and Sino-centric world rapidly unfolding before us".

For the record, I have no problem with the British government cultivating a good relationship with China. Engagement with other countries will only change China for the best. Still it's funny to see a leftist intellectual congratulating a conservative prime minister for his courage in grovelling for money and investment at the feet of a government whose prime ideological mover is basically raw nationalism, but China does strange things to people.

I have already claimed on this blog that if you want to gain a real understanding of China, the last person you should turn to is Martin Jacques. To anyone who has lived in China long-term and/or knows the country properly, his views appear superficial and uninformed. Jacques speaks no Chinese, and the only time he actually lived in Mainland China was when he spent a term teaching in Renmin University, Beijing. If someone who had only spent a few months living in San Paulo and spoke no Portuguese claimed to be an expert on Brazil, most would be skeptical. When it comes to China though, people are a little more gullible.

Judging from Jacques' bestselling book, "When China Rules the World", he seems to be entirely unaware of China's massive problems, and in any case has never offered any explanation of how they could be solved within the country's current system. His arguments are based on pseudo-Confucian mythologizing and the simple fact, known to all, that China's GDP is very large and getting larger. He claims that the world of the future is going to be a "Sino-centric" one, even though China's cultural and ideological influence on the rest of the world remains close to nil, something that fawning Sinophiles like him are quite unable to explain. He seems to be entirely oblivious to the increasingly strident nationalism in China, and its tensions with its neighbours.

In his new article Jacques makes the claim, which is always trotted out in any pro-Beijing polemic, that over the last three decades China has lifted 600 million people out of poverty, which has been "the single biggest contribution to human rights over the last three decades". Although China's economic growth has indeed been impressive, I think that calling the creation of wealth by any means necessary a contribution to human rights is a very debatable proposition. Let's also remember that other countries in Asia have seen huge economic growth as well, and it's only because of their smaller populations that the total number of people lifted out of poverty looks less impressive.

He also claims that China has become a much freer society over the same period. This is true if you compare the situation today with 1980, but it ignores the fact that China has not been getting any freer over the last ten to fifteen years, and in fact over the last three years it has actually got decidedly less free. Inevitably, Jacques claims that we have to resign ourselves to the fact that China will never be like the West, and understand it on its own terms. I think everyone agrees that China, just like Japan, Korea or India, will always be very different from the West. The problem with understanding China "on its own terms" is when this comes to mean blindly accepting the self-serving narrative of its ruling class.

Of course, the article doesn't make any reference to the obvious slowdown in China's economic growth, or to the recent stock market crash, instead just repeating the prediction that China's economy will be twice the size of the US economy by 2030, and that the whole world depends on China for growth and capital. Be it as it may, it is clear that Beijing's huge reserves of cash just waiting to be spent are still appetizing enough for the Chinese president to get the red-carpet treatment on his state-visit to London. It is hardly surprising that Martin Jacques should be pleased.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Holiday in Thailand

I've just got back from a holiday in Thailand.

Last August I was wondering where to go for China's one week national holiday in October. I considered going to visit a friend in Bangladesh, but he couldn't guarantee he would be there. I considered an extremely adventurous Central Asian trip spanning China's Xinjiang province and Kyrgyzstan, but then I realized that we would have to spend most of the holiday traveling through the deserts and steppes on long-distance buses. Finally I looked at options for South-East Asia, and came across some cheap tickets to Bangkok.

Thailand is probably Asia's most popular tourist destination, but for various reasons, which are quite unconnected to the country itself, I had never been particularly interested in going there. I've never been a fan of holidaying in "tropical paradises", and in fact I have no habit of going to the beach at all. I don't swim very well, and lying on a deckchair relaxing all day is hardly my idea of a holiday well-spent. I like my holidays to contain a certain amount of excitement and adventure, and I try to avoid tourist hotspots, which Thailand clearly is.

The more I looked into it however, the more the idea of going to Thailand grew on me. Away from the notorious tourist haunts like Pattaya and Pukhet, Thailand is actually host to one of Asia's most fascinating cultures. What's more it's warm, relaxed and easy to get around (none of which would have been true of Kyrgyzstan).

At last I snapped up the tickets for Bangkok, and set off on the 28th of September with my girlfriend, a few days before China's national holiday actually begins. Our journey started off in Macau, where we changed planes and spent a night. Macau was the last constituent part of China which I hadn't yet been to (Hong Kong and the Mainland being the other two), so it was good to go there. The city is a mixture of glitzy casinos and old cobbled streets from the Portuguese era. What is striking is the Portuguese writing still to be seen all over the place, even though I doubt many people speak much Portuguese.

We then flew on to Bangkok. As I took the train into the city, what struck me most were the amazingly colorful and beautiful Thai temples sticking out from the grim buildings around them. Thai Buddhist temples truly are some of the most cheerful and attractive religious buildings out there. Bangkok definitely came across as more modern and prosperous than Hanoi, the only other South-East Asian capital I have visited up to now.

Central Bangkok

We stayed in a nice hotel in the new city centre, and in the evening we took the boat down the river to the historic centre of Rattanakosin. While wondering around I noticed a roadside stall selling bags of fried grasshoppers and assorted bugs, so I decided to try them. They were crispy, but pretty tasteless. After a while we made our way to Kao San Road, Bangkok's notorious backpacker haunt. I immediately felt relieved I hadn't chosen to stay there, as it is messy, noisy and entirely removed from the local culture.

Bugs on sale as a snack in Rattanakosin

Next morning we visited Bangkok's Great Palace, the palace where the kings of Thailand resided from 1792 until 1925. It turned out to be truly one of the most amazing royal palaces I have ever seen. It was both majestic and tantalizingly exotic, the walls adorned with murals showing scenes from the Hindu epic Ramayana, in which an army of monkeys fights against one of demons. The grounds were packed with tourists, about 80% of whom were Chinese. When you travel to any of the countries surrounding China, especially during a Chinese public holiday, the sites are almost as packed with Chinese visitors as the Forbidden City would be. Luckily I didn't witness any of the bad behaviour which has made Chinese tourists in Thailand sadly famous.

A man meditating in his store in Bangkok

After that we embarked on the eight hour journey to Kho Chang (Elephant Island), an island in the far east of Thailand, near the border with Cambodia. Although it has now become a holiday destination, it is not nearly as packed with people as some of the more famous islands in Thailand's South. We stayed at a fancy resort on the island's coast, which only cost about a third of what it might have done in China. The island is quite large and ringed with little settlements, all of which are touristy. Most of the tourists seemed to be either Chinese or Russian, interspersed with some Western backpackers.

The island of Koh Chang as seen from the boat approaching it

We spent a lazy first day on a tropical beach. Even though I don't usually go to the beach, I can see why people travel thousands of miles to relax on beaches like these. It certainly beats Brighton or Qingdao. On our second day we went on a snorkeling tour. I had never been snorkeling before, and seeing all the tropical fish and coral up close was quite amazing. Our third day on the island it started to pour with rain.

Although October is the tail end of the rainy season in Thailand, most days you only get brief tropical downpours, after which the sun comes out again. This time however it just poured and poured for about two days straight, with only brief interruptions. The locals seem to just ignore the rain, and ride around on their scooters even during torrential downpours. After spending most of the day holed up in our room, we decided to do the same: we donned our raincoats and rode our rented scooter around the island anyway. The hot weather meant that getting soaked wasn't too bad. When the rain got really heavy we would quickly stop and dash into a restaurant for cover.

A Koh Chang beach
Our last day on the island we did a classic tourist in Thailand activity, in other words riding on the back of an elephant. We booked a tour at one of the local elephant parks, and then we rode on the back of a huge Asian elephant for about an hour, which was fun in spite of the rain. Apparently these highly intelligent animals could be found as far as Turkey and Shandong province in China only a hundred years ago, but now their habitat has been drastically reduced. If I had read articles like this one before going to Thailand, I might have thought twice about the ethical implications of elephant riding. Then again, the elephants at the camp which organized our ride seemed pretty cheerful and well looked after, but still what would I know?

  A trainer riding an elephant on Koh Chang

That afternoon we left the island and took the ship back to the Thai mainland. After spending a few days on Koh Chang I totally understand why people will spend weeks wiling away their time on Thailand's coast and islands. It's cheap, the locals are always friendly and helpful, the food is good, and you can just kick back and relax. There are probably few countries which can match Thailand in these terms. There is certainly nowhere in China, including China's own tropical island of Hainan, which can even begin to compare.

After leaving Koh Chang we decided to stop at a town called Chanthaburi on the way back to Bangkok. Although it is mentioned in guidebooks and has a couple of attractions, the town is by no means a tourist destination, so it gave us a chance to see something of the real Thailand. We stayed at a cheap local hotel which turned out to be a bit like a low-end Chinese hotel you might find next to a train station. It was extremely scruffy, and there was no hot water in the showers (in tropical countries this is often considered to be a luxury). To be fair, a double room only cost the equivalent of 5 euros a night.

Chanthaburi has the distinction of being an important center for the trade of precious gems. Bizarrely there is a small community of Africans living there, mostly involved in the gem trade. We walked down one street which was entirely filled with African men hanging around chatting. The town looked rather similar to a Chinese town of the same size, with similarly run down blocks of flats. On the other hand it seemed a lot more empty and sleepy then a Chinese town would ever be. We could find virtually no restaurants, only street-stalls, and most of the shops seemed to be shuttered even though it was a Monday. All the same, the people were almost all cheerful and helpful in the typical Thai way.

A monk walking in front of a temple in Chanthaburi

Few people spoke any English, so I had a chance to try out my phrasebook Thai. Learning Thai is basically like learning Chinese, but with a phonetic alphabet replacing the characters. The language has five tones, and the way in which sentences are strung together is very much similar to Chinese. In fact, I can't help thinking that the linguists who classify Chinese and Thai (as well as Vietnamese) as belonging to entirely unrelated language families are clearly mistaken. The similarities between these languages, all of which use tonal systems and have similar ways of constructing the phrase, are too striking to be coincidental, and probably point to a common origin at some earlier stage.

In any case we rented a scooter (this seems to be the simplest way to get around in most of Thailand, with private taxis very rare), and went to visit a waterfall just outside the town. Next to the waterfall there was a path which ran through a thick tropical forest, replete with hanging lianas which luckily never turned out to be poisonous snakes. After going back to the town, we visited the biggest local temple, in which there was a huge golden statue of a reclining Buddha. Thailand's profound popular devotion to Buddhism is one of the country's most striking aspects. There are shrines everywhere, and most passers-by will automatically put their palms together in a Wai gesture when they pass one. Saffron robed monks can be seen on every corner. In Chanthaburi even a local government building displayed quotations from the Buddha in both Thai and English on its walls.

While my old pre-China self would have rejected all this piousness as superstition and as a way of controlling the minds of the downtrodden, my new post-China self  sees it more as an admirable preservation of tradition and as a way of providing people with a set of values which go beyond mere materialism. It is funny how China can change your perspective on things. Of course I know very little about Thai society, and how Buddhism ties in to the personality cult of the king and the social injustice which certainly exists in the country. Perhaps if I lived in Thailand for a while and spoke the language, my perspective might change yet again. Certainly South-East Asian Buddhists can also be religiously intolerant, as one can see in neighbouring Burma today.

That night we took a five-hour bus ride back to Bangkok, and the next morning we got on a plane headed back to China. After this first taste of Thailand, I can't wait to get the chance to go back and see more of the country. Then again, neighbouring Cambodia and Laos are also enticing destinations. And I still want to see Kyrgyzstan one of these days. 

Posters like this one, in English and Chinese, are quite common in Thai temples