One Beerlao for the road

There’s still more Laos back-filling to do on this blog, not to speak of Thailand and even Myanmar, but for now I want to look forward to our next stop.

Tonight’s our last night in Laos. We’re currently at pretty much the southern most point in the country, a cluster of islands on the Mekong river called Si Phan Don (the four thousand islands).

We’ve had a lovely day and a half here, enjoying Laos up to the last moment our visa remains valid. Bike and boat tours have brought us even closer to, a figurative arm’s reach away from, our next destination: Cambodia.

Tomorrow morning we’ll board a bus that will take us across the border and on to Kratie, our first stop in the new country.

Travel homework

I’ve always tried to do a bit of reading ahead about where we’re going to next, at the very least picking my way through the introductory chapters of the Lonely Planet. But I knew just enough about Cambodia’s recent history to realize I needed to know more before we got there. I wanted to be an informed visitor, but, having heard about people’s impressions of places like the genocide museum and killing fields, I also wanted to know how much I might need to brace myself.

I’ve been reading Cambodia’s Curse by Joel Brinkley.

(Side “gear” note – most books I read are on my iPhone – although it will never be the same as reading a physical book, you just can’t beat that for portability! The other downside – the limited selection and not always being able to preview books in Apple’s online store. There may be better books on Cambodia out there, but this seemed to be one of the most recent, and most relevant to what I wanted to learn about.)

I’m well more than three-fourths of the way through at this point. So far it’s provided an overview of the country’s history – ancient, the events leading up to and during Khmer Rouge times and, foremost, what’s been happening since then. One of the book’s main thrusts seems to be that the massively corrupt government has been and continues to be enabled and condoned by the international community for multiple reasons. Throughout the chapters runs a litany of horrific crimes committed against the Cambodian people – post the Khmer Rouge regime. I’m more or less up to 2008 in the chronology and I’m beginning to give up my hopes for some sort of “happy” ending to the book.

Homework round 2

I know though it’s always best to take everything with a grain of salt (just take a look at all the comments about Cambodia’s Curse in the link), and reading all this has only made me more curious to see the country and its people for myself. Brinkley makes comparisons between Cambodia and Myanmar (a country with an even worse rap than Cambodia that we are SO glad we visited) and Thailand and Vietnam feature regularly in the book, but Laos is hardly ever mentioned.

Laos has had its own share of hardships – it’s been eye-opening to learn about the bombings that took place here during the Vietnam war (apparently it is the most bombed country in the entire world. See some quick facts here.) – yet most of the Laotians we met have been among the most welcoming, easy-going folks we’ve encountered on our trip so far and while there is no doubt it’s a poor country, it has felt, to us at least, safe and not without its dignity, despite the poverty.

So, I wanted to get some additional context beyond the utterly bleak picture painted in the book. Statistics may be flat compared to the stories Brinkley recounted – and I don’t in any way discount the suffering he describes – but it was still interesting to learn that in terms of figures, Laos and Cambodia seem to be running a tight race.

Just the facts

Both countries have a very young population (a median age of 22.9 in Cambodia, compared to 21 in Laos) with a similar life expectancy of around 62.5 years – the lowest among all their neighbors, including Myanmar. Both countries also have higher infant mortality rates than their neighbors (Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam).

In fact both countries are by and large markedly worse off than those neighbors, except in certain areas where Myanmar is in similar or worse shape (i.e. unemployment – 5.7% in Myanmar versus 3.5% in Cambodia and 2.5% in Laos. Myanmar also tops the list of the largest chunk of the population under the poverty line – 32.7%. No wonder since their GDP per capita is also the lowest, at USD 1,400 per year. In Cambodia it’s USD 2,100, in Thailand USD 8,700).

Literacy in both places is the lowest of the five countries at around 73% (the neighbors are at around 90% or higher). Cambodia provides safe drinking water to more of its population than Laos; Laos has got Cambodia firmly beat for sanitation facility access however. Around 87% of Laos’ roads are unpaved; in Cambodia it’s around 92%.

(PS – thanks to the CIA World Factbook for all those figures.)

So what

I am no statistician and can’t and don’t want to read too much into those figures. But I’m glad I’m aware of them if only for the reason that they are reminding me to keep my eyes and heart open. If the figures for Laos are so poor and yet this country and the people we’ve met here have been so beautiful and uplifting, what can expect of Cambodia? We’ll see how it goes once we’re there, but I suppose the (informed) answer for now is: nothing and everything.

In the mean time, farewell for now Laos, and thanks for all the beer! 😉

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Our last Beerlao in Laos!

A weekend in Mumbai – part one

Some quick Wikipedia facts on Mumbai for you:

– Not only is it the most populous city in India, it is the 2nd most populated city in the entire world (it’s topped by Shanghai)

– Its population is estimated at nearly 14 million people as of this year

– Dharavi, the largest slum in Mumbai, is home to approximately 800,000 people and has the highest literacy rate of any slum in India at nearly 70%

– It’s per-capita income is three times India’s national average at Rs. 128,000 (USD 2,910)

– Over 16 major Indian languages are spoken in Mumbai

– According to Lonely Planet, 2.5 million people pass through its main train station, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, per day

With all these impressive figures floating around my head, I was expecting Mumbai to be fast moving, crowded and chaotic. We’d thought a weekend would be enough to get a taste of India’s largest city. We followed Lonely Planet’s lead and decided to concentrate our efforts on the Southern most part of ‘Island City’, booking a hotel in the Churchgate neighborhood.

First impressions

As huge as Mumbai is and as short as our stay was, there is clearly so much that we didn’t see, so I feel I need to caveat my impressions. However, based on the time we did spend… Mumbai is just different! While it’s undeniably Indian, it has an international feeling to it that isn’t present in Delhi. The city has a real vibe to it, and its relative affluence is definitely seen and felt.

One of the first differences we noticed even during the cab ride from the airport to our hotel was that there were advertising billboards everywhere. Like, real ones. Massive, professional, commercially slick, all lit up. This is versus the simple hand-painted advertisements on the sides of buildings and shops that are to be seen everywhere in the north. What struck me especially was the number of billboards selling mutual funds and IPOs. Clearly there is disposable income, for some at least, in this city.

Another big difference in south Mumbai from other Indian cities – it’s pedestrian friendly. I loved our stay in Delhi, but did find it frustrating at times how limited my movement was. We had short walks to the local market for our daily coffee fix, but to get anywhere else, a car or rickshaw was necessary. Even in the quiet residential neighborhood we were staying in, the roads were narrow, dirty, potholed and crowded and we were constantly shooed to move onto the dirt piles on the sides of the road (construction was going on everywhere) by honking bikes, rickshaws and cars. In Mumbai, there were actual sidewalks. Wide, clean, spacious sidewalks. We could and did walk everywhere and it felt great! I wonder how much Mumbai had to do to achieve this – we noticed also that both rickshaws (man and gas propelled both) and cows are banned from the city. Amazing too was that after a day of walking around, I was noticeably cleaner than after even a quarter of an hour being out and about – as evidenced clearly by the state of my face wipes at the end of the day! 😉

For all these signs of a healthy city, it felt like there were a lot more homeless beggars on the streets. Although the amount of ground we covered on foot may have meant that we had more opportunity to witness this than in other cities we’ve been to.

Things to love

After those initial impressions, what I noticed and just loved about the city was its incredible architecture and beautiful flora.

Mumbai is remarkable in India for its modern, urban skyline – it’s home to India’s 43 tallest buildings. But it is also known for its colonial era Victorian and Gothic architecture which was just gorgeous. Because of this, it’s the place in India that for me where I have most felt the influence of the British reign. There were so many beautiful sites but what I loved the most was the High Court building. Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera with me when we went to look at it!

It’s also a city just full of trees. There are lots of palms, but what I couldn’t get enough of was the massive, gnarled, gorgeous banyans that were absolutely everywhere.

Beautiful buildings
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Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly known as Victoria Terminus) was incredible; it looked more like a church than a transportation hub.
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Inside the station
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One of many animals carved on the outside of the station
My Banyan obsession
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Banyans can grow to be massive! This one was nearly wide as the car parked in front of it
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Banyan and a black Mumbaikar cab
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For reasons unbeknownst to me, the base of many trees in Mumbai are painted in white and brick-colored paint
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I love how the trees in India aren’t just for looking at. Often small shops or roadside businesses are set up under trees
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This banyan is doubling as someone’s tie rack
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Ganesh in a banyan