"Four very different nations
border Thailand: Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), Laos, and Cambodia.
Without having to journey very far, you can experience moderate Islam,
dictatorial police state communism, socialist republican-style
communism, and burgeoning inept parliamentary-flavored democracy -- and
eat well, too! "
Whoever said Southeast Asia was boring? You can do drugs at a Full
Moon Party at a beach in Thailand -- just never admit that you did --
and yet less than 500 kilometers away, face the death penalty for being
in possession. Thailand and its neighbors don't 'differ' like the US
and Canada do. Or like Australia and New Zealand. These neighbors are
almost schizophrenically different from Thailand.
So near to
Thailand, yet as different as an adopted brother
A lot of you are just trying to check
countries off a list, to say you've been there, even if you
just set foot there for an hour, in the far reaching hopes
that this will earn you respect and the kind of street cred
that may land you a high-paying job. Hey, it worked
for rap artists.
Thailand is the focus of this section of Doug's Republic.
As such we will focus on the four neighbors in their role as
neighbors and how they compare to Thailand. Remember
the 1990's show Home Improvement about Tim "the
Toolman" Taylor, starring Tim Allen. This show was
about him, his life, and his family. It didn't go into
great depth about his neighbor Wilson.
bersekutu bertambah mutu
is not the first word you'd use to describe Thailand.
Thailand has one official language and one official
religion. Malaysia has one official language, too,
Bahasa Malaysia, but only 50% of the population is Malay and
speaks the language amongst each other at home. A
quarter of the people are Chinese and seven percent are
Indian. It has religions, foods, smells, and sounds
galore. Just witness
Doug's trip to Melaka, a top drawer Malaysian tourist
destination, and your jaw will drop at how astoundingly
different Malaysia is from Thailand and even within its
What's a most pleasant surprise arriving in Malaysia is the
simply amazing architecture in all the key cities.
Melaka, Kuala Lumpur, and Penang boast a fascinating array
of British, Dutch, Chinese, Indian, and what I call
"Neo-Islamic" buildings. Even modern buildings
incorporate this unique design. In Thailand, the
architecture is functional, if nothing more. You see
skyscrapers but they're as generic as skyscrapers you'd see
in any other country. The appealing architecture takes
a back seat in Malaysian Borneo, although the capitals of
the Borneo states of Sarawak (Kuching) and Saba (Kota
Kinabalu) boast some attractive buildings.
The food's phenomenal, varied, and in some ways, a better
deal than Thailand. Back in Thailand, Thai food is
cheap, anything else is a premium. In Malaysia, Malay,
Indian, and Chinese foods are all considered local and
available at steal-of-a-deal prices.
Alcohol is where you get taken for a ride. Allah
doesn't smile on alcohol consumption, so the Malaysian
authorities, in the name of Mohammed and all things Islam,
have got to tax you. Expect to pay more than double
compared to Thailand for the bottle of mediocre Tiger Beer.
Trains or planes are your cheapest and easiest way in.
more similarities between Cambodia and Thailand than
you will between Malaysia and Thailand. India
had a great influence on Cambodia and these influences were
then passed on to Thailand. Theravada Buddhism has had
a great impact on them both. Some words in Thai are
borrowed from old Khmer. Today, the scripts bear no
resemblance. While not easy to learn, it's easier to
learn than Thai in that it has no tones.
The food shares similarities with Thai, but the accents are
different. For example, Khmer and Thai cuisine
both have papaya salads and red/green curries.
However, you'll notice the difference in the Khmer versions
immediately. They're not as spicy and use slightly
different ingredients. I had a superb Khmer papaya
salad outside Batambang -- it had basil leaves added.
Khmer cuisine has also been influenced by large neighboring
Vietnam. Vietnam and Cambodia were both pushed around
by France for decades, and baguettes are still readily
Cambodia in recent times has been through hell and back.
Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge, became the country's
largest sponsor --- of executions! 20-30% of the
population were handed a one-way ticket to the morgue.
It's only been in the last 20 years the country has started
picking up the pieces.
I had originally considered going to Cambodia back in 1994,
the year I first visited Thailand. Cambodia had just
opened to tourism. Back then, the only way in was a
relatively expensive flight. As I recall, a Frenchman
I met booked such a flight which took him into and out of Siem Riep to see the famous temples of Angkor Wat. Years later, Siem Riep continues to be the most popular point
of entry and departure for foreigners. Indeed, the majority of foreigners only come to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat and then
get out of Cambodia pronto.
The country is still evolving and remains an anything goes Wild West sort of place, particularly Phnom Penh. Traffic is supposed to run on the
right side, but who's checking? A popular travel book written in the late 1990's documents the normalcy of insanity of life in Phnom Penh. Teachers
slot in a quick $2 screw at a local brothel as if it were coffee before they begin the day's teaching gigs. Cambodia officially has cleaned up much
of its act since then. In reality, it's still all out there. Rock pervert Gary Glitter made Cambodia his underaged pervert paradise until his deportation in 2002.
Had he not been famous and been more discreet with his
pre-teen pickups, Cambodia would not have been in a
rush to kick him out.
Some people say Cambodia today is like Thailand 30-40 years
back over an old Bangkok
entertainment magazine from 1967, one can see that Thailand's capital was quite cosmopolitan in
a way that Cambodia's capital certainly is striving to be today. Cambodia's GDP per capita today may
be on a level Thailand's was several decades ago. But in countries like these, where wealth is not evenly distributed, GDP per capita is a misleading indicator. Where
the parallels do not hold is in economic development. Thailand in the 1960's served as an R & R center for American soldiers passing
through as they did duty in Vietnam. It also functioned as a large anchoring economy in a region wracked by war. Cambodia does not serve this purpose and nor is it as cheap as Thailand today, let alone
30-40 years back. Accommodation in Phnom Penh will cost at least as much and probably more than equivalent accommodation in Bangkok. The manufacturing base is small, too, so many items
are imported -- from Thailand and elsewhere. Cambodia remains a dollar-based economy and prices reflect a lack of faith in the local authorities. ATM machines dispense crisp U.S. dollar notes.
You can get here overland or by boat, but flying is quite
is the most similar to Thailand. 15 to 20 million Thais living in the Northeastern region of Isaan speak what is essentially the same
language as that spoken in Laos. However, in
Isaan, that script is written with the Thai alphabet; in Laos, with the Lao script. The scripts aren't all that different. In some cases, words are written identically and pronounced
almost the same. Perhaps a good analogy is Spanish and Italian. Words between those two languages can be similar or identical, too, and there are some difference in alphabet.
Foods overlap, too. The Laos like to boast that
the famous dish laab originated in their kitchens. Did it? Who knows? Whoever first came up with dish did so before Laos and Thailand were known as the separate countries
they are today. Culturally, Laos and Northeastern Thailand could be one nation. There are other food similarities, in salads and curries, but the Lao versions is less spicy. Lao cuisine has also
been influenced by the French.
Laos is extremely undeveloped. Its capital, Vientiane, is a tiny cowtown, hardly what one thinks of us as a Southeast Asian capital. That said, it's got wonderful cafes and restaurants and
is easily the most laid back capital in Southeast Asia. Luang Prabang is Laos' other showpiece and has undergone rapid development and price hikes since 2005 when I last visited. In between
is Vang Vieng, a place where backpackers predominantly in their mid-twenties come to go intertubing and kayaking. Many visitors don't even hit these three key areas. The majority may
shoot across the border from Thailand to secure a new visa and the more affluent book flights directly to Luang Prabang.
North of Luang Prabang are plenty of undeveloped villages. I spent a few nights up there and did an overnight trek. It was an experience to be sure, but I can readily see how most
visitors wouldn't be interested in 'roughing it.' Laos has a small population for a Southeast Asian nation and, to date, wide areas of unspoiled and undeveloped nature. And though small, transport isn't very good, and it will take you
longer to reach an area than you'd think based on the kilometers alone.
Overland from Thailand is how most visitors end up here.
life like in a police state? Go to Burma and find out!
Officially, I've been to Burma a lot. Nearly every time I've done a visa run, I travel to Ranong and take a boat across
to Victoria Point, which is officially in Burma. Another time I motorbiked a few hundred kilometers from Kanchanaburi and visited the Burmese border town. Yes, I was physically in Burma
for these trips, but only for hours; and as these were border towns, the locals were conditioned to seeing transient traffic. Goods were priced in Thai baht, and I was not permitted to journey
beyond a tiny fraction of the city limits.
But I have really been to Burma. I spent 3 weeks there in December 1994 on my way to Bangladesh, and it definitely made an impression.
Back then, it was an old school police state. The corrupt government completely controlled the media, the access of goods in and out of the country, and travel. Upon arrival,
one had to swap USD 200 into the equivalent of 200 FEC. These were foreign exchange certificates, Mickey Mouse money that said "This is worth $5." It was a system modeled directly on the
Chinese one of the 1980's. I happened to avoid this restriction upon arrival at the airport by saying I was there for a meditation course and skirting past a crowd who were forced to make the exchange.
One could only pay for hotels and (officially) train tickets with these FEC's. Being forced to change $200 wasn't really a bad thing. I eventually wound up changing around this much money
into FEC's through a local bank, and the FEC's could, in turn, be swapped on the black market for the local currency, the kyat, at fifteen times the official exchange rate.
You could not travel where you wanted, when you wanted. Travel was restricted to four areas: Inle Lake, Bagan, Mandalay, and the capital of Rangoon. I tried to venture outside this
prescribed area through a combination of trains and buses from obscure towns outside Mandalay, with the intent of traveling to Burma's far northern town of Myitkyina.
Police accosted me when I went to the train station to
purchase a ticket. They were quite friendly about it all. I
was escorted back to a hotel and told to return to Mandalay
the next day. The hotel proprietor was also very cordial but
never let me out of his sight until I was on the bus back to
Back then Burma was not well touristed. In 1994, one was permitted to stay up to a month. Only a few years earlier, the maximum permitted stay was a week. This was Burma's bid to
attract more tourists. Backpackers trickled in. Affluent tourists, even though they could afford the relatively expensive accommodation prices, couldn't be troubled with having to get their visa in advance.
And the press wasn't very nice in their writeups.
In '94, Burma was anticipating 1m tourists by the year 2000 and had a tourist slogan promotion already in place. It was laughable then.
The country couldn't handle 1m tourists with the tight restrictions the government had in place. By the year 2000, only 208,000 had visited, mostly from Asia. This only creeped
up to 248,000 by 2008.
In mid-2010, the Burmese government announced a visa-on-arrival scheme. By September, the system had been pulled. The government fluctuates between crackdowns and reform. In November 2010,
they finally freed pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest since 1989. In 1994, I never would've thought the government would have held on this long. A lesson to would-be-dictators:
as long as your country contains no natural resources the world depends on and you keep your dictatorial activities to yourself, you can stay in power forever!
Burma offers Asian landscapes that seem like they were drawn out of the collective imagination of what Asia is supposed to look like. The Schwedagon Pagoda, the temples of Bagan, the royal capital of
Mandalay -- in my memories, they seem like artificially created Hollywood backdrops meant to convey Asia to those who've never been here.
It may have all changed since '94, but I doubt it. This place hasn't industrialized or capitalized on anything amazing since then. Flying in to Mandalay from Thailand is the usual way
to come in, but it's now become possible to travel in overland via selected routes and stay several nights with a visitor permit.