Eleven days in Asia

(This piece was written in 2004: an account of a press trip to UAE, Hong Kong and Thailand. I’m putting it up here because I think it’s very good! And most of it, I’d imagine, still applies…)

1: United Arab Emirates

Six am in Abu Dhabi International Airport, and a thought strikes: all airports are more or less the same now. They all have vending machines, escalators, big empty spaces; they all have credit card phones, tiled floors, universal symbols on toilet doors. The passport checkers are always grumpy and suspicious. It always takes an eternity to check baggage through. The duty free is always open and ready for business.

This place has a vivid, multicoloured mosaic on its ceiling, but it still feels like virtually every other comparably sized airport in the world…until you step outside, and 40 degrees of hot, damp air fills your lungs. This is something you don’t get at Shannon too often. Unbelievably, it’s that warm and humid at six in the morning, and I silently say thanks for air-conditioning.

Abu Dhabi is the capital city of the United Arab Emirates – a smallish confederation of seven emirates (or kingdoms), slightly bigger than Ireland, clinging to Saudi Arabia’s eastern side on the Arabian Peninsula. Dubai is the country’s business centre, and the one-hour motorway trek between the two (in air-conditioned bliss) offers a good opportunity to observe this young nation being almost literally borne into existence.

It’s like mankind has landed on a dusty, empty planet and simply begun to build there. Each side of the road is bordered by other roads, apartment blocks, strips of businesses, construction cranes, pipes and cables and, incongruously, verdant spaces, but beyond that is…nothing. Just immeasurable stretches of flat, brown desert, occasional wisps of wind the only disturbance of this perfect nothingness.

UAE officially became sovereign in 1971, but a more crucial date in its history is the early 1950s, when the first oil exports began. Like most Middle Eastern countries, oil is at the heart of a vertiginous drive towards economic strength (the emirate of Dubai, for instance, holds a staggering 10% of the world’s total reserves): from a poor, sparsely populated trading outpost to one of the region’s richest nations in scarcely 30 years.

And it’s obvious where the money is going. Foreign labour (80% of the population is immigrant) and prudent investment combine to serve this national imposition of will on an arid environment. UAE is building an infrastructure, laying out cities and roads and shopping malls and golf courses and parks and hotels where, until recently, very little existed. Two decades ago Dubai was a one-horse town of some 20,000; today it has a population of half a million and rising. The whole country is new, callow, partly formed; a virgin canvas in a rush to be filled.

And that’s partly a problem with the place. It’s like someone once wrote of Los Angeles: “There’s no there there”. It might be clean, neat, orderly and pleasant, but it’s fundamentally a sprawl: of shops, skyscrapers, footpaths, restaurants, resorts and walks, with no real centre. No real heart, I suppose. UAE seems too new, too plastic, too much like a perfect little Toytown for my jaded European tastes; I want history and culture and crumbling buildings, that weatherworn, comforting feeling you get from strolling round an old city. And unfortunately, that ain’t to be found here.

Not that this country is completely without charms. The climate is superb, and guaranteed; the people are welcoming and helpful; there are a myriad of resorts which cater to almost every conceivable whim (honest to God, there are plans to build an indoor ski run here); prices are reasonable and the hotels, if your tastes run to the luxurious, are fantastic. I stayed in the Emirates Towers, a futuristic architectural wonder with a mind-blowing mid-level lobby and super-speed glass-walled elevators.

I guess, ultimately, UAE represents the dividing line in taste between those who consider themselves tourists and travellers. Tourists will love the services, great shopping, grand accommodation, endless blue skies; the way everything you need, or desire, is available and accessible. Travellers, though, might find it a little too sanitised and bereft of character; too reminiscent of all those identikit airports with their identikit duty frees and vending machines. They might even find it uncomfortably blank and sterile, like the vast, enclosing desert.

2: Hong Kong

Contrast – now, that’s what makes the world interesting.

Where UAE was inert and somehow inauthentic, Hong Kong positively teems with life. It’s a raucous, rambunctious, manic place, with nearly seven million people crammed into not much more than 1,000 square km.

It’s loud and fast and hot and colourful, a sensory overload of smells, sounds and truly amazing views. It reminds me of Japan in some ways – intense, claustrophobic urbanisation bordered by the sea on one side and densely forested mountains on the other – but that’s being reductive and unfair. Hong Kong is unlike anywhere else I’ve been.

Gazing out a bedroom window at apartment block roofs and industrial yards and teeming flows of traffic, someone remarks dismissively, “Not much of a view, is it?”, but I couldn’t disagree more. This might be the grimier side of a place with more than its share of flashy, extravagant sights, but it’s all in there, all the indices of a truly great city: movement and lights and sparking nervous energy, the massive ebbs and flows of constant human endeavour.

There are so many skyscrapers here. Tens of skyscrapers. Scores of skyscrapers. Uncountable numbers of them, jammed together apparently randomly, their tiny windows and white concrete skeletons reaching high into the sky, made to appear even taller because of how low the cloud cover hangs. Hong Kong looks like something from the future – the steamy, damp, neon chaos of Blade Runner or something – but, paradoxically, feels old and bedded in, like it’s been this way for ages. As if these buildings just sort of vaulted up out of the fecund depths of Hong Kong’s enormous harbour.

It’s founded on an intriguing cultural fusion, as well. After centuries of contact with Europe – often dominated by the opium trade – the British colonised what was called The New Territories in the ninteenth century, finally striking a deal for a 100-year lease in 1897. Though Hong Kong returned to mainland China seven years ago, as a semi-autonomous region, the Anglo influence echoes still: from the faintly ludicrous presence of streets named after British royals to the widespread use of the English language and the city’s partly Western ambience, existing comfortably with the cultural nudgings of the Orient.

That’s maybe the coolest thing about Hong Kong: it all seems to work. Gazillions of people shoehorned together in squashed tower blocks: it works. A global centre of finance and free trade getting on with business while its ostensibly communist big brother breathes over its shoulder: it works. The exotic past and head-spinning future simultaneously inhabiting one of the world’s most cramped slices of real estate, each feeding off and invigorating the other: somehow, it all works.

There are tonnes of attractions for the visitor, too, one of the finest being the tram ride to Victoria Peak, the city’s best viewing spot – two classically styled redwood carriages slowly hauling themselves up a 30-degree gradient, as the city falls off into the faraway background. And then the view from the top, which is breathtaking: much of the city, most of the harbour, all of the atmosphere. Equally breathtaking is the night-time show of lights and lasers along the quays at Victoria Harbour, as hotels and office blocks strut their stuff and advertise their wares, illuminating the inky darkness and reflecting off the water.

Like any city worth the name, Hong Kong is a perfect place for just dossing around, with many winding walks to be discovered, and regular ferry crossings connecting its constituent parts: Kowloon, Hong Kong island, the New Territories and the hundreds of tiny islands dotted throughout the bay. The markets are excellent – they always are in Asian cities – with Stanley Market particularly worth a visit, as it’s compact and easily negotiable while also full of interesting, diverse stalls.

And, oddly, perhaps the single most memorable place in the city has a Clare connection. The Peninsula is regarded as Hong Kong’s swankiest hotel, and from September has been managed by Shannon native Ian Coughlan. It really is a fantastic creation, like something out of a Bond movie, and the high-level Felix Bar, created by world-famous avant-garde designer Philippe Starck, is particularly worth a visit for two reasons: the bizarre chocolate-coloured private lift, and the even more bizarre design of the toilets.

It’s hard to describe, but trust me – taking a leak was never this interesting…

3: Thailand

The final, and longest, part of the trip encompassed two separate destinations in Thailand – its exuberant capital, Bangkok, and a medium-sized resort town called Pattaya, about two hours’ drive south-east. And while some similarities existed between the two – the sweet-natured and friendly locals, the pleasantly warm weather, the happily chaotic atmosphere on the streets and in the markets – they represent quite different options for the visitor.

Pattaya was once a small fishing town which was transformed into a holiday resort during the 1960s, with the initial visits of American soldiers on R & R from the Vietnam War. It soon established itself as one of the favourite destinations of this corner of Thailand. Unfortunately, as is so often the case with army migrations, where soldiers came, sin soon followed. While there are many lovely places to visit and activities to pursue in the city and its hinterland, prostitution and other sex industries form, it seemed to me, a large plank of Pattaya’s revenue and “attractions” (those are very deliberate quotation marks).

I don’t want to concentrate on this aspect too much, as the town – and indeed the Thai government – are making strident efforts to reduce the importance of the sex industry to their tourist economy. Like everywhere else, the more wealthy a country becomes, and the more tourists visit places like Pattaya, spending their foreign currency on normal stuff like accommodation, food, jewellery and souvenirs, the less locals need to pander to Westerners’ baser instincts in order to make a living. But it would be dishonest to deny the current reality of downtown Pattaya; and that reality was pretty depressing to me.

In fairness, the sex trade is very well monitored, and more-or-less localised to the notorious Walking Street. Sober-looking motorcycle police hang around either end of this long, bustling thoroughfare, keeping an eye on things. Regular businesses – everything from vegetable stalls and noodle stands to formal suit makers – dot the street in between the strip clubs, discos and pick-up joints, where the girls behind the bar are also prostitutes if the customer is interested.

It feels really safe, day or night, which almost makes the whole experience that much weirder; there is no harassment of tourists, no dodgy geezers beckoning unwary foreigners into dark corners where trouble awaits. It’s all out there in the open, and it’s all quite casual. You want some “love” for the night? No problem. You want to just sit and drink? That’s no problem, either. And, it must be stressed, child prostitution is strictly outlawed here, with prominent signs providing police contact numbers to raise suspicions.

But it’s still inescapably grim and saddening. The fact that most of the working girls aren’t even local, but brought in from Laos and Cambodia, only accentuates this. It’s global economic inequality literally made flesh in the bodies of these beautiful girls: rich westerners pay poor Asians a few bucks for sex, who then crawl out of the poverty trap just enough to get someone else, even poorer, on the job while they serve the beers.

Having said all that, greater Pattaya itself is a charming, shambling town, surrounded by lush greenery and with some spectacular views of the Gulf of Siam. An elephant sanctuary lies nearby, affording visitors the chance to ride these magnificent beasts, while the Gems Gallery, in town, is the world’s biggest jewellery store. There’s a “ghost train”-style ride explaining the history and mechanics of gem mining, and inside the store itself, you can observe the craftspeople at work, buffing and cutting the rough gems into polished jewels. (Be warned, though: an extremely hard sell then awaits from a platoon of shop assistants.)

We also took a Chinese junk out to Coral Island, around an hour’s journey, and both the trip and island itself were superb. The resort complex in which we stayed, the Royal Cliff, was also lovely, with practically everything you could need for a week or two of sheer, pampered bliss. Glimmering pools, private beaches, in-house massage and shopping, an array of restaurants and bars, fabulous décor and a small army of incredibly pleasant, amicable staff – it really is true about the beneficial effect of Buddhism on the human character – mean that you hardly need to leave the resort at all.

So the ultimate verdict is that Pattaya is family-friendly, up to a point, but parents should be keenly aware that some parts are off-limits to minors. Whether that applies to the adults themselves, I guess, is up to each individual.

To Bangkok, then, which I could probably describe using many of the same words as for Hong Kong: raucous, manic, hot and colourful, sensory overload, movement and lights, that sparking nervous energy. It’s a big, vibrant Asian city, in other words, housing over 10 million people. Strangely, despite the fact that most Irish people who come here find it almost unbearably noisy and dirty until they properly acclimatise, I didn’t have any of that sort of culture shock at all. Bangkok is loud and grimy, the air thick with exhaust fumes and engine noise, but no worse than Dublin’s O’Connell Street at rush hour.

I felt welcome and relaxed almost at once, and most of that was probably down to the hugely friendly locals. Thailand styles itself as “the Land of Smiles” and it’s easy to see why. From the market stall-holders to the hotel staff to the drivers of tuk-tuks (motorcycle taxis with a two-seater frame for passengers constructed on the back), a beaming face greets the customer every way you turn, without ever seeming forced or cynical. Though the Thais are a proud, defiant race – the only country in South-East Asia, as far as I know, never to have been colonised – these are genuinely nice, gregarious, courteous people (it’s that Buddhism thing again). Some lessons to be learned there for the service industry in our own land of Céad Míle Fáilte, methinks.

The visit to Bangkok felt rushed, primarily because there is so much to see and do here that a fortnight wouldn’t be enough. But chief among the many highlights was a fantastic trip, in a long tail boat, along the web of canals which branch off the broad, muddy-brown Chao Phraya river. It was amazing to see how the people here have adapted to straitened circumstances, showing resourcefulness and wit in crafting dwelling places out of bits of timber, metal and other scrap.

Another wonderful attraction is the Grand Palace, nestling in the heart of the city, which houses the royal residence and throne halls, some government offices and the famous Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Talk about sensory overload: these buildings are brightly coloured and infinitely baroque in styling, a riot of gold and green curlicues and loops and ever-declining spirals. My own tastes would probably run more to the minimal, but aesthetics aside, it makes for an undeniably impressive spectacle. The Emerald Buddha, meanwhile, is a small statue of the Buddha, hewn from jade, sitting atop an ornate altar under the temple’s high roof. It’s a calm, quiet place, a nice respite from the perpetual motion outside, filled with pilgrims and tourists, the devoted and the curious.

Just up the street from our hotel, the gorgeous Meritus Suites State Tower on Silom Road, is a massive night market, open until the wee hours, which sells just about any product you could think of, and a few you probably haven’t. And while I would forever be loath to promote the consumption of semi-legal bootleg merchandise, designer watches, cameras, sunglasses and clothes are there at a knockdown price, while bootleg DVDs and CDs are about a quarter of the cost here, not to mention six months ahead of the release dates for Europe.

Bangkok has garnered itself a reputation as the sleaze capital of Asia, if not the world, over the past few decades. And while the aforementioned sex industry is easily accessible if that’s your thing, there really is a whole lot more to the place than that. As I suggested in the first portion of this piece, some people want to check into their hotel, strap on a backpack and hit the streets, to experience firsthand all that history and culture, that weatherworn, comforting feeling you get from strolling round an old city. Bangkok, for me, is a perfect place for that, and that’s the finest compliment I could pay it.

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