Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Jinghong to Quangzhou via Kunming by Bus and High Speed Train

It has long been an ambition of mine to travel on a high speed train, but to this date I have always missed out, so I was eager to sample the High Speed train between Kunming and Guangzhou.

To start, I had to get to Kunming and, I am happy to say, my departure from Jinghong was about as uneventful as it can get. I purchased my ticket the day before. The only real problem was the lack of English at the southern bus station (where one buys a ticket for the journey north), however, armed with the city name “Kunming" written in Chinese in my notebook by my hotel manager I quickly purchased a ticket from the helpful lady behind the glass divider. 

The next morning, awakening at 06.00, packing, girding my mental loins for the 24+ hour trip, I set of at 07.00 to walk with my two bags to the bus station. An early arrival, sitting, the centre of some attention (not many foreigners in this nest of the woods), then bus boarding. In China boarding a bus or train requires a bag and body scan. Great fun. On the bus and of we went.

I was fortunate to have two seats to myself. A comfy trip. One checkpoint where I had to show my passport to a young soldier, then to Kunming, with several pit stops and one lunch stop. The trip was around 9 hours for the 500+ kilometre trip, on a half full bus, over smooth roads with green scenery.

Then, Kunming. The city of eternal spring. One thing to keep in mind about Kunming, its altitude. At 2,000 metres it is high. On my first visit in 2013 I found myself winded when moving quickly. 

I arrived as expected at the Kunming Southern Bus Station. From here I took the subway, which departs from a station directly outside the entrance to the bus station, to the Kunming Southern Train Station, where the trains to Guangzhou depart. Lots of scans and tickets, but no drama.

At the railway station I was disappointed to learn that there were no high speed trains until the morning. Upon a moments reflection I decided to wait overnight at the station and take the 07.10 train. Unfortunately, and surprisingly, there are no real waiting facilities for passengers. When I tried to enter the departure area, 12 hours early, the day before, I was told “No”. Well, “no” indeed!

There is a small, very small it seems to me, for the size of the station, “High Speed Train Restaurant”, but that sold only meaty foods and did not appeal. I finally found myself in a KFC! Fries, a coffee, a out-of-his-way helpful English speaking manager, a table with lots of power plugs, and I was a happy camper, however the KFC closed at 23.00. Eight hours of waiting! The life on the road. Waiting is inescapable. 

Just in case you are interested, I passed the time of my travel reading two books. One is “Anansi Boys” by Neil Gaiman. This is the second novel in the “American Gods” series of novels. I was prompted to read this after watching the TV series “American Gods”, which is based on the first novel. Gaiman is an excellent writer. He crafts a subtle and complex world of surprises and imagination, while moving the story along. So far he prefers a happy ending to his novels. This, no matter had radical he may be in his writing, his denouement is the most conventional.

The second book is “The Magus” by John Fowles. This novel was published a half century back. It was suggested to me by my friend Tony—thanks Tony. I am half way through this novel, and I am still not sure what it is about, but it is an engrossing read. The story (not the plot), concerns a young dandy English chap, down from Oxford, who takes a job at a Greek island teaching English in a snobby school. He befriends a wealthy French chap who lives on the island, and from here a series of psychological games take place. I will tell you what I think of the story after I finish reading.

The train! First, entering the embarkation area. A serious Chinese government greeting, bags scanned, myself hand scanned and felt up by a (female) security guard, very welcoming. Inside, a huge waiting area. All painfully efficient, and tediously well organised. A complete lack of humanity. The antithesis of a noisy, humanity drenched Thai railway station.

The trip, well it was not as fast as I hoped. The train was not an express, lots of stops. From 07.00 to 16.00, nine hours, 1400 kilometres. An average speed of 150 kph. Not bad, but not the 300 I was promised :(. The trip itself was ok. Second class was a little crowded, seats just a little narrow, but sufficiently comfy, much like a economy class plane seat.

On arrival in Guangzhou I manoeuvred my way out of the station down to the subway and took two lines to reach my stop (during crowded rush hour)—thanks to the lady behind me in the subway due who helped me with the Chinese language only ticket machine. Followed by a short hike to my guest house, of the Chinese Youth Hostel group. haha. I decided to try a different style of accommodation this trip. I think they were surprised to see me.

Oh, I did finish the Fowles novel. I can see its rep. The young English chap is completely bamboozled by the mysterious group of psychological game players, and he never knows why. He is given many reasons, but every time he attempts to confirm he finds a lie or misdirection. The girl he loves, or thinks he does, is she for real? We will never know.

Now, lets see what fun Guangzhou has to offer.

PS apols for no photos: I will add later, but I cannot upload photos from China to my blog.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Jinghong, China.

A name that promises more than it delivers. The small city (half a million, tiny by Chinese standards), is located in southern China, near the Laos border.

I arrived here ready to spend a day or two then head further into China to explore the Yunnan province, however, the fate of travellers intervened. My Thai debit card, which I had intended to use as my primary fund delivery system, was found not to operate in the Middle Kingdom (even though I had been assured that it would). Yikes! My aussie card did apparently work, but I had no money on the card. I immediately transferred $ into the aussie card, but then had to wait 4-5 working days for the $ to appear. Yikes. The things that happen. Apparently the problem was caused by a conflict between Visa and the Chinese Union Pay (UP), who are trying to capitalistically carve up the financial world between themselves.

Back to the story. Jihngon. Jinhong is pleasant small city. Apparently it has the rep in China of being a party town, but nothing can be further. This assessment of Jinghong is perhaps a reflection of what a serious and non-party nation China is. I was told that there are bars with 'people' you can meet. I suspect that wild women are intimated. Not really. I checked a few bars, compared to Pattaya—nothing. Jinghon is essentially the aforesaid pleasant town, with a diverse cultural background—which is to say it is on the cross-roads of centuries of migration and re-migration, with several languages spoken, a mix of Thai and Burmesse, with local variants.

The city in on the Mekong River. The 'new' part of town is on the east bank. This is where a huge new Buddhist temple is being built and the bars, restaurants, and such, that give the city the reputation, are to be found. Good food, but that is about it.

Things to see? Not a huge quantity. There is a park, Manting Park worth a look, several Buddhist temples, a museum, and so forth. If you are here yes, but not if you are not. Around the city are several ethnic villages, but you can see far more ethnic, and realistic villages in neighbouring Laos. I did discover a vegetarian restaurant on the north-west side of town. Great food, 15 rmb ($2) buffet! (22.0095 100.7825)

I stayed at the Travel Demo International Youth Hostel (21.9964 100.7925). 108 yuan a night for a pleasant, large room. Wifi was ok, though a tad slow sometimes, however I would recommend. I booked this through Hostelword.com—my first time doing so. Worked well. Of course, this was my first re-experience with the dreaded 'Great Firewall'. Not a fun experience. Worse than before.

From here I plan to travel to Kunming and from their to the megalopolis of Guangzhou. If I can organise, I will take the 'bullet train'—300 kms an hour. Great fun. I visited GZ one time before, in 2013. If anything I expect it to be bigger and nosier. There I will meet a few friends and scout out the lie of the land as regards teaching opportunities. Also Hong Kong!

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Travelling — Luang Prabang, Laos to Jinghong, Xishubanna, China by Bus

My next destination was Jinghong City. Jjinghong is the capital of the southern area of Yunnan Province. Yunnan Province borders Laos (and Myanmar and Vietnam). This southern area is named Xishuangbanna ('she-shung-ban-ar', nicknamed Banna), and is an autonomous region in the province. Banna culture reflects its Thai history and association. This region was once a Thai kingdom that eventually fell under the sway of China. The city is tiny by Chinese standards “only” half a million people! My first view of the city and the word “delightful” comes to mind. At night neon lights illuminate the streets and eating areas of the city. There is a great stretch of cafes and small restaurants in the city centre.

The journey from Luang to Jinghong City (as it is nicknamed) is a 12 hour bus ride (07.00-19.00). Not the worst, but certainly not the most comfortable bus ride you will ever experience. Essentially, a long and winding, and bumpy road., but with beautiful and lush, green scenery. If you are prone to motion sickness you will find the journey up and down, from bump to bump, not fun at all. One woman on my trip had to sit in the front of the bus in the jumpseat, and she asked for frequent stops—some of which she received.

The bus departs from the southern bus station of LP, with a scheduled departure of 07.00, however, my bus left at 07.30, after lots of running around, form filling, and smoking in the designated non-smoking areas. We each had to list our passport details on a form, the form all in Chinese. I filled in what I could deduce and put a “?” in the other columns. More on passports later. There is food sold at the bus terminal at a small, but pleasant cafe, however, “motion sickness”—I always prefer to travel on an empty stomach.

We moved directly off from LP south, circling the town to reach National Highway 13. From then on to the border, with three major stops, including one at the busy town of Oudomxay.

The bus trip cost me 280,000 Kip ($35) from an agent in the city. This did include a tuktuk ride to the station. No doubt cheaper if you put it together yourself.

Mohan/Boten border crossing. The main excitement came at Chinese immigration. Exiting Laos was easy enough, the usual process. Don't forget your exit card, but if you do just write it out again in the office area. A little slow, my immigration guy seemed to be harassing Laos folk desirous of visiting China, but no trouble for me. In fact I did not have to pay the exit fee my fellow passengers were paying, however, this ease was soon to disappear at my next stop.

We returned to the bus and drove 2 kilometres north to the Chinese immigration office, here things changed. I was the only westerner on the bus, the others were either Laos or Chinese citizens. The first step was an inspection of our bags. Exit the bus, lay our bags on an outdoor table where solders waited to examine the contents. Then onto the large, largely empty, immigration hall. Here things became more complex.

An officer with 3 stars on his shoulder asked for my itinerary, discussing my answers with his colleagues, carefully inspecting the binding of my passport for signs of tampering, and generally slowing things down. However, he and they were always polite, and I gather they were as much interested in practicing their English as they were in checking my background. With all this I was the last back to the bus, where my fellow passengers were waiting.

The entire process of immigration took an hour and half, from leaving Laos to entering China, so not too bad, but is any of it really necessary? More an example of paranoia than protection.

Now, I am in the city of Jinghong for two days. Lets see what the city offers in the way of diversion!

Sunday, 4 June 2017

The town of Luang Prabang in Laos.

Back again! I do enjoy this town. It would be hard not to.

Luang Prabang is a world heritage site, a town in northern Laos, capital of the province of the same name, and a major tourist drawcard. The quiet, but still somewhat busy streets draw tourists from all over the world, mainly younger, backpacker oriented people, who visit as part of their tour of Laos and south-east Asia. People come to relax, enjoy the beautiful scenery, spend a little time with nature, and generally to chill. The town is a days journey by bus from Vientiane and half a day from Vang Vieng.

LP is a tiny destination by most standards, dwarfed by the megacities in neighbouring countries, it has a population of 55,000. The town lies between the Mekong River and Nam Khan Rivers. Essentially, the town is a long peninsular. The peninsular area consists of four main roads, which form the main tourist area. This is filled with restaurants, hotels, tour companies, tourist trinket shops, and massage shops—everything you need. Prices—cheap, cheaper than Thailand, cheaper than Vientiane, and a far more relaxing locale than both.

Getting in and out is easy. There is an international airport just out of town, with planes to all nearby countries. Also three bus stations, also with routes to all nearby countries. In addition, boats (slow) linking LP to other Laotian destinations and to Thailand. A fun journey. Easy to get in, easy to get out! Transportation inside the city is by tuktuk or rented motorbike or bicycle. Or just walk—it is a small town. Delightfully, there is little aggressive selling. Tuktuk drivers will call out “sir”, but that is it.

There is a lot to do for the eager tourist. Several waterfalls, several caves (Buddhist images), and elephants, local villages, eco-tourism—you get the idea—low key “green” tourism. Day trips, 2-3 night excursions, or tailored travels. It is possible to visit villages with people living largely traditional lives—as people have done for most of human existence. In the town there are two museums, several temples, and the town itself to see. Shopping, dozens of small shops selling local handicrafts, jewellery, bags and what not. Local tourist shopping in the night market is fun. Buy a few souvenirs and a couple of useful items from locals. I always buy a gadget (spoon, bottle opener, etc) made from aluminium scavenged from unexploded bombs left over from the Vietnam War. There are two small malls, one open air, one more modern in style, also convenience stores, and the rest. Not a place to visit for 'shopping', but a place where you can buy what you need.

Food is great! Laos and western cuisine, and a few others. I even spotted an Aussie Sports Bar! Also cafes, with excellent Laos coffee and cakes. I would recommend the L'Etranger Book and Tea cafe. This noble venue sells excellent food, sells and exchanges books, sells local craft products, sells art paintings, great service, and has a nightly movie screening, which is always packed with 20+ people in the upstairs room watching a movie on the big screen. A fantastic night out.

Speaking of accommodation, LP is the easiest town in Asia in which to find a room. These range from 3 to 1 stars. By this I mean there are no huge franchise hotels, nor for that matter, any large hotels. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site LP preserves its traditional French/Laos architecture, with many of the building being improved upon from my first visit five years back. Walk along any street, and you will see guest houses, hotels, and rooms on offer. A dorm starts at $3-$4, a mid-range single room with aircon is $10+, a better room in a classy stylish building is $25+. I am not even sure if I would recommend booking. Just get off the bus and walk into the town. See what presents itself. Large discounts are available on the off-season (rainy season, second half of the year).

My hotel of choice this time was the Cold River. This is east of the town, on the other side of Mount Phousi (pronounced pussy). I got a room here for $25 a night, including breakfast, where I got to sit and chat to other travellers and volunteers residing here for a few days or weeks. One chap was a Dutch vet, who was advising Laos farmers with cattle and buffaloes—there is only one Laos vet in the province! Also an American nurse who was providing training for local Laos nurses. A French doctor doing the same. A group of American girls (<30 years), who were here to empower local women with English lessons.

My reason for staying here so long (ten days) in LP was to obtain a Chinese visa for my planned Chinese visit. I want to visit China again for many reasons. There are a few academic job prospects I want to check out, also I can visit my online Chinese students, see a few friends, do more waymarking in China, and see more of this large and variegated country.

Chinese visa-this was not the easiest process, but not terribly difficult. To gain a Chinese visa one must visit a Chinese embassy and hand over or present the following documents: passport (naturally), proof of inbound and outbound travel, a hotel reservation for your first stop, and an itinerary of your visit (dates and places). I added to this a copy of my travel insurance (always good to have). Then wait three working days. My wait coincided with a weekend, and, the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival, which necessitated the closure of the Chinese Embassy of LP. This meant a wait of a week and a few days. This did not disturb me, as you can imagine I greatly enjoyed my time in LP and the Cold River Hotel.

Ready I am. Ready for China. New shoes, a haircut, practicing basic Chinese, which will no doubt give children an excuse to laugh at my pronunciation! Leaving in two days.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Why you shouldn’t teach English in Thailand

(posted on linkedin.com)

Teaching in Thailand is not a rewarding experience, neither financially or career wise. There are better alternatives, including the new option of online teaching. Test these before heading to the Land of Smiles, but if you go this is what you need to know.

The first hurdle is visa paperwork. Mere words do not suffice to describe the complexity—the ever changing and growing complexity. To start, you must spend a few days at your school getting all the various bits of paper together, having them photocopied, signed, and verified, next visit several different government departments, and then leave the country(!), travel to a Thai embassy, and then wait for the Thai officials to process your ‘paper’ and return a work visa. All with lots and lots of ‘stamps’—just make sure that the correct colour is used. This usually goes ok, but not always. To add insult to injury Thai schools expect you to pay for this. A week and $1,000.

Having secured your coveted visa you are now in front of your students, here the fun begins. The Thai education system is stuck in the 19th century: rote learning, teachers swaggering with big sticks in their hands, obedience, and absolutely no questions. This is against the official policy of Communicative Learning Teaching (CLT), but few pay this any attention. Also, expect also to be out of pocket for supplies you buy for your students, and to never be told what is happening in your school. You must develop your courses, teach, grade, deal with problems, and to never expect help from your fellow Thai teachers, most of whom don’t know enough English to speak with you. You are 90% on your own. 

For this you will receive the princely sum of around $1,000+ a month. This is not a bad salary, but not a great salary, it is also a salary that has remained unchanged for over a decade. There will be Thai teachers, with seniority, who make more. You can live on this, but don’t expect to save. There is the option of better schools and private teaching, but don’t come to Thailand for the salary.

Coupled with the low salaries are the growing number of 9-10 month contracts—to put it directly you will not be paid during the school holidays—insulting and painful. Many teachers have reported that they only find this out the hard way, being told at the end of the month that there is no salary. 

From here lets look long term, except there is no long term. As an “alien” you can expect to get a 12 month contract, a 12 month visa, but nothing more. You can work in the Kingdom for a lifetime, and then have 7 days to leave after your last visa expires. Not welcoming.

Lastly, most importantly, education. The Thai education system is bad. In 2016 over 50% of students failed the five national standardised test subjects (O-NET). Let me say that again, more than half of students failed all of the test categories. The nation failed. The students failed. The system failed. The best subject was the Thai language, the worst (unsurprisingly) was English—and nothing has changed. This against a backdrop of one quarter of the national budget going towards education. With inadequate classrooms, lack of support, and poor training one wonders where the money goes?

My advice would be to look elsewhere in Asia for a country in which to teach. Look for a future, look for a career, but not in Thailand. 

Friday, 19 May 2017

Vang Vieng, Laos — again! 2017

This idyllic small town has been a goto destination of mine since I first came here five years ago. The reason is simple, it is a cool, friendly, comfortable, and fairly happy town. It is also dedicated to travellers, backpackers, and similar people. In short, a place to relax and have a little fun.

After five years I still enjoy a visit, and I plan to return in the future, but the town is changing. The demographic is now fewer younger people, though they still predominate, and more older folk, families and such. Tubing and beer bars are now in decline, good and bad to that, but there are lots of other nature oriented activities to do. The big change to come is the rail link with China, due in five or so years. When this occurs hordes (pardon me) of Chinese tourists will flood across the border , heading south to merriment and enjoyable times, turning what is a now trickle into an avalanche.

A sign of this coming change are the new and rather stodgy looking hotels recently built and under construction—heavily contrasting with the traditional and original hotel and guesthouse buildings that are constructed from wood and bamboo. Still, times change. The annoying aspect of this is the lack—the complete absence—of any form of city planning. Is this a Libertarian paradise? If you own the land you can build whatever you want on the land. Great fun. This means that the town centre retains its small-sized charm, for the moment, but around the town, trampling over rice paddies and homes are new hotels leaping skyward.

The coming of the Chinese has mixed reactions in the town, even from those who will stand to make sizeable profits. Many local business owners are anticipating making a lot of money by selling their existing businesses in the next five years. The expectation is that as soon as tourism numbers soar due to the train, Chinese investors will snap up whatever they can, paying astronomical prices (by local standards), for what they want. This will drive out most Laos business folk and create a sizeable inflationary effect on local prices. On the other hand, more jobs, certainly service jobs.

This influx of people will also demand a marked improvement in infrastructure. Quaint Vang Vieng has potholes on its major roads, poor sewage, a shortage of drinkable water (bottled only), and a general air of neglect. Understandable, but not conducive to large scale business growth, and something that must be remedied before a solution is needed, not after.

What is required in the town and province is a plan, a workable plan to cater to the expected growth in tourist numbers, to build a city that is liveable for both tourists and citizens, and to plan for a beneficial future.

Fingers crossed.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

"Blindsight" A novel by Peter Watts

'Blindsight' (2006) -- a science fiction novel by Peter Watts.

I am a long standing fan of science fiction, it is the genre of choice for intelligent and educated people, and it is the new literature for the 20th century and beyond, however, finding good SF (never used the 'term' Sci-Fi, it is an abomination) can be challenging. In recent decades, in my opinion, too many SF authors have done no more than rehash old ideas and rework existing themes. With this in mind it is a pleasure to find a new author with new works which push the boundaries. Such an author is Peter Watts.

Watts, by profession, is a marine biologist. According to his website bio (rifters.com) he has had a varied career, which was part of the reason he decided to turn his hand to writing. His first novels centred around human exploration and exploitation of the mid-21st century oceans. His latest novel, the subject of this review, is set later in the 21st century with its action taking place in deep space.
The story begins with the detection of an alien artifact at the outer edge of the solar system, and a very public scan of the Earth. This discovery compels the Earth's leaders to launch probes, and then a fully kitted out hi-tech space craft, to examine the artifact. Let it be clear that the background Earth civilisation is totally super science, a trans-humanist geek daydream come to life: advanced AI, virtual reality, genetic enhancement, it is all there. Way to go. Lets try and hang in there until then.
Most of the action takes place on the ship and the alien 'space craft'. 

I am not going to give away too much here but there is some serious, out there science, discussion of the nature of intelligence, consciousness, evolution, advanced science and humanity. The conclusion to all this is that (SPOILERS AHEAD) elsewhere in the galaxy (very likely the universe) evolution has produced intelligence, but not self-awareness. That is to say the aliens are very intelligent but have no individuality, but it is not a 'hive mind', a stock SF concept, these are non-aware, intelligent creatures, motivated purely by instinct. The analogy used to describe the alien presence is a 'dandelion seed'. Watts, in the novel and in an appendix, does point out that self-awareness is not necessarily a survival trait -- what is the survival value in stopping to appreciate a sunset?  I can also add that the crew members themselves are a rather diverse bunch of people, by 20th century standards they would be regarded as freaks.

At the novel's conclusion only one member of the crew is still alive (as far as we know). This lone individual heads back to Earth with a first hand account of humanities meeting with the aliens and the sad understanding that we could be in conflict with the rest of life in the universe. (END OF SPOILERS).

The novel is hard core, hard science fiction. The wikipedia entry for Peter Watts describes him as a biological version of Greg Egan. If you like this sort of thing you will like this novel, and vice versa for all you soft-core fantasy readers. There is a sequel underway, a novel which reveals what happens on the Earth during the time period of the alien encounter. Here's hoping it does not take too long to appear. It will be a good story.

One thing you might want to know is that Watt's work is available on his website, free of charge, as well as available in the more traditional paid formats (paper from amazon and other retailers). If you do download and read Watt's work on an ereader (as I do) consider making a donation. There is an option for this on his site.
Good reading.