Friday, 24 June 2011

Youth in Kunming

I've caught occasional glimpses into youth in the different countries I've visited and as I know it's often a fascinating group of people to many brands and marketers, so here are a few observations that may be useful and/or interesting. I was thinking of writing a post about several countries and observations at once, but after thought that would be way too long and would probably lose focus. In many ways, some of the things I noticed or thought about while traveling have been like looking through a keyhole without getting the full picture, and that's often where I find the most interesting pieces of insight, even if sometimes I don't know what it all means, I have more of an idea where to look next if I'd like to find out more about a topic.

As for the previous post, we are still in Kunming, City of Eternal Spring and capital of Yunnan Province, in Southwestern China, a few months ago. For a bit more background, Kunming is a lovely city, not very large by Chinese standards with about 5 million inhabitants. Similarly to many Chinese cities, the old town has mostly been destroyed to make way for modern roads and buildings, though it seems to have been done particularly well, giving the centre of town an airy and agreeable feel. The people seem rather laid-back and friendly, not moving at the same kind of frenetic pace one can notice towards the large urban areas of the eastern side of the country.

While walking around on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I came across several fairly large groups of young people and teenagers practicing their hip hop dance moves and routines on one side of a pedestrian square, and some dancing to more dance / vaguely electronic music on another (Mostly girls, with what seemed to me like emo or gothic looks, though they probably weren't at all - different references).

Check here for a quick Audioboo sound snippet of the scene (embed didn't seem to work, weirdly).

It was nice to see them express themselves and be quite at ease with dancing or singing in front of all their peers as well as passing strangers, if you think about it, it's not usual characteristics one would associate with teens. The classic stereotypes would probably include being self-conscious, worrying what others think of you and wanting to be part of the right kind of group. I'm not saying they don't have these concerns though they didn't seem to have them as I was observing so perhaps they show up differently.

The closest scene I could imagine elsewhere, and mostly coming from hearsay or movies rather than personal experience, is in the US, kids gathering close to outdoors basketball courts with the boom boxes or car stereos, hanging out and some dancing. It's completely cliché, but that's how this scene in Kunming felt. I wonder if that's where these kids got their cues from to start gathering like that..?

Another thought is about the fact that concepts of personal space or privacy are also completely different in China (perhaps Asia) than they are in the west (I'm generalising). This point alone can easily be the main focus of an all nighter conversation with friends, alongside some wine and/or drinks so I'm not going to go much into it aside from saying that people all over China practice dancing, tai chi and various other physical activities in large groups everyday, interior spaces are often crowded so the streets and public areas are naturally places where people meet and hang out so perhaps what these teens are going it all normal and nothing to do with American culture - apart from the music itself perhaps.

To finish on a different note about Kunming, a few days later I visited a trendy bar / club type of place and noticed this poster in the entrance:
Is it a party for white people? Do white blond girls on the poster attract more Chinese customers? Or the promise of white blond girls? Is it a party where are you are supposed to come dressed in white?

I'm still not sure what this one is about, though fascinating and rather funny I think, happy to get ideas and suggestions about it.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Farewell - The Old Yunnan Hotel!

While walking in Kunming a few months ago, this wall struck me as quite interesting and made me think of a few things on how we view new, old and how these qualities are associated with traditions. Generally the way we see things in Europe, a building, monument, more or less any architectural structure is old and merits the respect due to tradition if it has been there for a very long time. Several hundreds of years at least. That sounds extremely obvious, although most of European civilisations have been building of stone that can last a very long time.

Stonehenge or similar stone structures in Britanny are amongst the oldest left, believed to have been built around 2,500 BC or so. They are landmarks to early cultures and extremely important to us. They are authentic because they are old and because they have been left unchanged over time. At the same time, no other structures or buildings are left from that time and if we were to rebuild an ancient gallic or British village it would be considered an interesting and possibly educational theme park, and not treated with the same respect given to the real thing.

This is something that struck me the first time I visited China about 4 years ago and this time seeing it proudly written on a wall, I had to snap a few photos and scribble a couple of notes. Last time I visited China, I climbed the 3,000 high Holy Buddhist Mountain of Emei. The mountain has been holy for thousands of years, as you probably know China is steeped in ancient history and extremely proud of their traditions and heritage. The mountain has been sculpted over years, steps all the way to the summit, several  large monasteries built on the way, entire murals of intricately sculpted characters in the face of the mountain along certain paths. It was a gorgeous walk and a brilliant experience. 

Still, arriving at the summit was somewhat of a disappointment for us occidentals. We had heard of the statue of the buddha at the summit and were expecting a lot from it. It was, though it was also obviously brand new, wooden or something alike, with ugly yellow-gold plating. 

Immediately we see fake and it kills everything - well for me at least. The Chinese on the other hand see thousands of years of sacred history and tradition. They know it has been rebuilt recently, but that doesn't matter. I imagine it's the idea of it having being built so long ago in the first place and it being rebuilt anew for new generations to enjoy that matters most. Also, the main material used is wood, which doesn't last as long as stone so tradition, new and old are necessarily seen in different ways for Occidental and Chinese people (possibly Asian, but I haven't seen everywhere, tell me if you have any other thoughts).

Same for the Yunnan Hotel, which at the time I saw it was a pile of rubble of the old hotel. When it is rebuilt, it will be over 1,000 years old AND brand new at the same time for Chinese people visiting. The pride of the history for the building is there, as well as being able to enjoy all sorts of clean and modern amenities I imagine. For me that's a paradox, for Chinese people it may well be completely natural.

These are my own observations, I might be completely wrong. Does anyone else have similar experiences about new and old in China or in Asia?

Monday, 20 June 2011

Asian questions

                              Image Courtesy

Now that I've pretty much finished on the 'reporting' part of my travels in my blog, I am up picking on a few random notes I made while on the road with half baked thoughts about my experiences; the countries, people and cultures I traveled in. That is going to give me content for a few blog posts at least, though I also thought I would open up the playing field and see if anyone out there may have questions for me as well. Things I haven't necessarily thought but that might be interesting. Of course, none of my answers will be anything close to proper market research, though you never know when the next interesting piece of insight may come from.

We all know Asia is booming in many ways, even just spending a few days in China was awe-inspiring considering how it was when I had visited about 4 years before and how fast things are changing. It is also mind-boggling as one thing I'm sure of is that for anything new I discover while in China I also know I'm not even scratching the surface. Things are moving so fast and based in cultures so different from occidental / Judeo-christian points of views that everything is fascinating and I doubt there is a single straightforward answer to any questions someone doing business in Asia may have about their market and audience.

At the same time for all the differences, everything seems to be moving towards 'Occidentalising' Asia if that makes any sense - the same fashion brands, giant shopping malls, Hollywood cinema, fast food joints, etc. Though I believe assuming these things make Asian cultures and occidental ones the same (or soon to be the same) is a mistake, as the context they are coming from is completely different.

As I said, I only have my own glimpses and experiences, though I'm certain it's a worthwhile topic and I'm sure I can learn from others as well as some may be able to learn from my experiences out here.

Here are the countries I have visited so far and about which I may be able to share stories, experiences and insights:

  • China
  • Hong Kong (technically part of China, though still sort of independent)
  • Vietnam
  • Laos
  • Thailand
  • Malaysia

Any questions?

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Perhentian Paradise

After having enough of a few days of rainy weather in Georgetown, I decided to try my luck on the eastern side of the Malaysian peninsula and took the bus over to The Perhentian Islands. I thought I would probably stay 3 or 4 days enjoying the beach before heading on to the jungle of the Taman Negara National Park.

I did enjoy lovely Long Beach for about 4 days, but then the rest of my plans were thwarted in a very good way as I decided to pass my Open Water diving certification, in the end staying over two more weeks on Perhentian Kecil, the small island of the Perhentians. I really loved it there, started making new friends and discovering scuba diving is probably the best highlight of my whole trip. I fell in love with diving straight away, only wondering why I hadn't tried it before (well, I do know about the two last years, my ears were slightly damaged after a small flight over the Andes so I couldn't really be under water. I realised they were all fine by now after some snorkeling, so I decided it was time for scuba).

I'm still not even certain what I like the most about diving; fish have never been a particular passion of mine, though of course I started learning to recognise the most obvious usual suspects after a few dives (angel fish, butterfly fish, barracudas, puffer fish, clown fish, anemone fish, trigger fish, parrot fish, etc).

I think I really the sensations of being underwater, discovering a whole new world where we're not naturally geared up to be wandering around as human beings, I enjoyed learning new things about diving safety procedures and equipment, I appreciate the calm silence interrupted by the weird quality of underwater sounds, I love the freedom of movement as well as learning to use my body in new ways (Such as using my lungs and breathing to manage buoyancy and which level I stay at under water, or sparing my arm and leg movements to save air). It is magical in many ways and I definitely want to keep diving in the future.

I ended up also passing my Advanced Open Water certification, in which I tried out different types of dives which was a lot of fun: a deep dive where we went down to 29m depth; a navigation dive practicing with the compass underwater; a search & recovery dive learning basic techniques to look for and recover lost objects under water; a wreck dive spotting and writing down points of hazard and interest on the wreck of a fairly large cargo ship; and finally a night dive which was weird, eerie and wonderful.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Eating Indian in Georgetown

After a whole day in sweltering sun begging bewildered Malaysian car drivers to take us just a couple of kilometres to the next junction (and them invariably wanting to drive us to a bus station), we finally covered the 150km or so from the jetty landing of Kuala Perlis to George Town in Penang.

Hitch hiking that day was a lot of fun, it was great to have many random conversations with Malaysian people about their country and culture. For some reason several of the people who picked us up were university professors, so very well spoken in English. I explained to them I was hitch hiking to find out more about Malaysian people and for the fun of the experience (that made no sense to them at all).

We checked in a cheap guesthouse which seemed to be an old travellers hangout, for some reason the average age seemed over 50. Apparently the younger backpacker crowds stayed on newly renovated fancy chic hostels further down the street.

I hadn't mentioned Jean-Roch doesn't drink so I thought it would be good for me to start my month no drinking while hanging out with him (and alcohol is pretty expensive in Malaysia, beer in particular).

I like Georgetown, it was a nice place to relax after the travel rush in Thailand, and there is Little India. We found ourselves our little Indian canteen and proceeded to eat there at least once or twice a day. Cheap and delicious, I was surprised how much I don't get bored of Indian food!

We met Andrea and Franzi again, two German girls on holidays we had met in Langkawi. We had a fantastic evening visiting a few 5 star hotels, crashing a Chinese wedding, and singing cheesy karaoke songs on the revolving top floor restaurant with nice views of the city.

The weather wasn't that great, I was glad to rest for a few days, walk around town, read and eat Indian food. Then it felt like time to move on. We did have one lovely morning before I left though and walked over to the Chinese Clan Jetties, which had great views of the bay and the city.

Duty free Langkawi

On the 9th May 2011, I spent the day travelling with a couple of buses from Ko Lanta South to Satun via Trang. I spent the night in Satun (which I wouldn't particularly recommend doing unless you have to, though the night market is pretty good) and caught the first ferry to the duty free island of Langkawi in Malaysia the following morning.

Langkawi is a pretty large island (it means 'strong eagle' in Malay, the eagle is the island symbol) on the Adaman Sea, pretty developed, though with several protected areas of nature as well.

I stayed at the Gecko Guesthouse on Pantai Cenang, probably one of the cheapest options for backpackers and was glad to like the atmosphere immediately as well as the other people staying there.

The beach seemed nice enough, though again pretty developed: resorts, paragliding, water scooters, banana boats, etc.

Unfortunately the weather started turning bad just after I arrived, skies clouding over around noon and raining soon afterwards. I tried cycling to the cable car one day with Crystal, a girl I met at the guesthouse, we almost got there but it was really overcast, couldn't see the top of the hill anymore and it started raining heavily so we gave up and hitched a ride back to Cenang beach.

On the plus side, we had a good party the night before. It was Bobby's birthday, one of the staff from the guesthouse, so we partied at the guesthouse first, then at the Babylon Beach bar, and ended at the only bar club sort of place, The Sumba. A fun night.

I then met Jean-Roch, a cool French traveler who usually hitch-hikes everywhere. He was heading to Georgetown, Penang in the morning. Given the weather was bad and he sold me the fun of hitch hiking, I joined him for the ride.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

South Thailand

I spent most of a lovely day in the train heading South to Surat Thani, watching the world go by out of the window. I had thought the train line would get extremely close to the shore according to the map and I was glad to see I was right, rewarded with views of the Gulf of Thailand rolling a couple of hundred yards away at some point during the journey.

I moved on straight to Krabi afterwards, nice little town. Enough travellers to meet people around a meal at the night market, but not so crowded with tourists. I spent the following day at Ralay Beach, and booked to go on a sea kayaking tour the day after - both were really lovely, and the sea kayaking was good exercise as well. Not really that much to add, it was all pretty fast, no particular encounters, more nice people travelling and sharing opinions about where they've been and where to go next...

After Krabi, I decided to head to Ko Lanta on the recommendations of several people I met along the way as well as my brother Morgan and my friend Susie. I stayed on Long Beach for the first night and had a nice sunset with views of Ko Phi Phi in the distance. Aside from that Ko Lanta was extremely quiet, too much so for me traveling on my own. I did meet a few people after I moved to Khlong Khong beach the following day and had a nice day motorcycling around the island, but then it was time to start making my way to the Malaysian border.

Briefly in Bangkok

I haven't seen The Hangover II yet, though I'll wager that my 2 days in Bangkok were pretty different: a couple of beers at most, no ping-pong shows, no seedy bars or brothels, no Sikh fortune tellers, walked down Khao San Rd just once.

I spent most of the day travelling from Ayutthaya (80km away, don't ask) and was going to meet Rene, a guy from Cameroon I could couchsurf with, a contact I got via Brian in Khon Kaen.

Very nice guy, he lived fairly close to Sukhumvit and told me of a couple of crazy stories in which he literally picked crying tourists off the street after a party night where they'd lost everything, being drugged and robbed around the trendy bars and clubs of the area.

So we went to the cinema instead, saw Thor. Pretty good in a bad and cheesy way, or something like that. The weirdest part was to stand up during the 2 min film to the glory of the king of Thailand before the movie.

Being far from the main tourist sights, I decided to move closer the following morning. Took the river bus, found a cheap hostel a couple of streets away from Khao San, walked around ChinaTown, Little India, to the train station to buy my onward ticket and walked back, visited Wat Pho and the big (really big!) laying Buddha statue before it closed for the day. I found a nice little quiet bar playing live jazz for the evening which was perfect.

I visited the Grand Palace the following morning, really loved the murals in the temple, that's really what I spent most time looking at. The Palace itself looks nice, though I'm pretty sure it served as inspiration for Disneyland - I think the entrance of Disneyland Paris looks extremely similar.

I then walked over to the Vinmanmek mansion, I think that was my favourite sight, gorgeous all wooden mansion. No photos allowed as well, so I really paid attention and wanted to remember as much as I could.

Then on the way back to the hostel, I was pulling my iPod Touch out of my pocket to check the time, someone bumped into me at the same time. The iPod fell to the ground in slo mo. Screen shattered.

That was Bangkok.

I left early to get my train to Surat Thani the following morning.

Rushing through Thailand

After 6 weeks spent in Laos, taking my time, enjoying the relaxed Lao way of life as well as having a fantastic time with my baby niece, my brother and his wife, it was high time to move on to Thailand, just like it's high time to post on this blog. I left on Wednesday 27th April 2011.

I thought I would get a 30 day visa at the border, but it turned out to be only 15 days so I was already changing travel plans having barely left Vientiane. I cut out a few places I thought I would visit and essentially decided to rush it down South to the Malaysian border.

I stopped in Khon Kaen and met Brian there, a couchsurfing host who showed me around town. It's a nice relaxed university city with no tourists whatsoever, and for me a gentle re-introduction to modern Asian cities (7/11, fast food joints, road traffic, etc) after 6 weeks in Laos.

A train the following morning took me to Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Siam that had been sacked by the Burmese.

I met several interesting people there, including two funky French truck drivers there who were completely in love with Thailand, it was their 4th time in the country and they told me lots about the history of the country and about Thai culture. They also told me about diving in the Similan Islands.

I also met a Dutch surreal artist on his way back from painting a mural in a bar; he has like 9 cats and loves them so much he created cat towers for them he then also sold as useful art, I guess. I saw him again randomly in Bangkok a few days later. I have to find the links to his portfolio website.

There was also super-connector Josh, a cool Ozzie guy who made a point of introducing himself to and then inviting every person in the bar in order to make one big table of happy travellers.

And to finish, the reason we were all there was for Mr Noi, blues rock singer and guitar player extraordinaire. An awesome voice.

Sure, I also cycled around some of the main ruins around Ayutthaya, which was nice but certainly not as interesting as the people I met there.