Friday, 28 December 2012

Welcome Obama: making history in Burma

‘Welcome Obama’ graffiti on the roadside opposite my Yangon hotel
© Andy Brown/Burma 2012
I always seem to be visiting Burma (Myanmar) at historic moments. On my first visit in June, Aung San Suu Kyi was visiting London for the first time in 24 years. On my second in November, Barack Obama was making the first visit to the country by a serving US President. On the street opposite my hotel, a large ‘Welcome Obama’ graffiti mural had sprung up, and the papers were full of the news. ‘From Sanctions to Success’ claimed the headline of the Myanmar Times, with articles inside ranging from sober analysis of the visit to a fortune teller’s predictions for Obama’s second term. Whatever else, Myanmar remains a deeply superstitious country.

Hotel prices in Yangon have rocketed this year with the influx of companies and development agencies, so I was staying at the ridiculously overpriced Excel Treasure Hotel, or ‘cel easure Hotl’ as the faulty neon sign had it. For over $100 US dollars a night, I got a room next to an eight lane highway that was so noisy you couldn’t even watch TV. The hotel was shabby and run down, although you could arguably blame sanctions rather than the management. Half the lights in my room were dead, the shower didn’t work and the iron burned my shirt. For my own sanity I had to ignore the cockroach that scurried down the bathroom drain when I went in. On the other hand, the staff were friendly and there were a few charming old world touches, like bellmen in the lifts, which I had only previously seen in 1950s Hollywood movies.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

A stitch in time: street children learn a trade

Thanda sews a shirt during the vocational training offered to street children
© UNICEF Myanmar/2012/Andy Brown
Sixteen-year-old Thanda* has spent much of her life living and working on the streets of Yangon, capital of Myanmar (also known as Rangoon, Burma). She is a a Burmese of ethnic Indian descent: a small, serious teenager in a blue polo shirt and traditional longyi skirt.

Thanda’s father is a manual labourer and her mother is a washer woman. She has seven siblings. When the family earns enough, they live in bamboo hut outside town. But other times they can’t afford the rent and have to live on the streets. “I used to pick up garbage with my brothers,” she told me when I met her at a drop-in centre for street children. “We would sell plastic bottles to junk shops for 2 to 4 dollars a day. I never went to school and I didn’t know how to look after my health.”

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Thailand: Loi Krathong

Loi Krathong is a festival celebrated annually throughout Thailand. The name means 'floating crown' and involves making decorations that are floated down river. The ceremony is about paying respect to the ancient (pre-Buddhist) river goddess and is supposed to bring good luck for the year ahead. We went to Phra Athit Fort, just down the road from the UNICEF office, to watch the ceremony. Afterwards, we went to the temple fair at nearby Golden Mount Temple.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Coping with tragedy: the legacy of war in Laos

Peter Kim, a young bomb survivor, at the COPE centre
© UNICEF/Laos 2012/Andy Brown
Peter Kim is a victim of the Vietnam War. But he’s not a Vietnamese or American veteran; he’s a 20-year-old Lao youth living in Vientiane. Four years ago he lost both his hands and eyesight to one of the millions of unexploded bombs that still litter the Laos countryside almost four decades after the war ended.

Peter Kim grew up in a small rural village in Viangchan province, where his father grew rice and kept cows and buffalos. “On my sixteenth birthday, I went to school for an exam,” he told me. “I came home with my friend. On the way back, my friend saw something on the ground. He picked it up to show me. I tried to open it and that’s when it exploded. It happened very fast. Afterwards I couldn’t see or hear anything.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Thailand: Royal Barge Procession

Thailand's Royal Barge Procession is a ceremony dating back almost 700 years that has been revived during the reign of the current monarch. It consists of 52 barges, most of them historical, manned by over 2,000 oarsmen from the Thai navy. The procession starts at Khet Dusit and proceeds down the Chao Praya River to arrive at Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn.

The procession also passes the UNICEF office, which overlooks the Chao Praya at Phra Athit. During the rehearsal we were free to watch from the windows, roof or fire escape. But during the actual ceremony we were told by police to close all the blinds and move to the ground floor, where we watched through the compound railings. This was because the Crown Prince was on one of the barges and it is not permitted for 'commoners' to be higher than him.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Luang Prabang: lost in space and time

Luang Prabang is like a city adrift in space and time. The main roads are lined with French restaurants, cafes and bakeries in colonial era buildings: brightly painted villas with wooden shutters on the windows. Just behind them are a warren of packed-earth side streets. Here, there are wooden houses on stilts, many with the Laos and communist party flags hanging outside. Women cook food without electricity on coal stoves and chickens peck around in the yards.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Vientiane: temples and riverfront

Vientiane is the capital and largest city of Laos, but still it retains the air of a small rural town. It lies sleepily on the north bank of the Mekong River, facing the hustle and bustle of Thailand to the south. I was in Vientiane with work in October and spent a couple of afternoons wandering around its many temples and along the riverfront with my new 18-200 camera lens.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Timor-Leste: first new nation of the century

I spent three weeks in Timor-Leste in August. The former Portuguese colony was the first new nation of the century, achieving independence from Indonesia in 2002. I worked at the UN base in the capital, Dili. Most evenings I went for a jog along the seafront, which was was spectacular at sunset. I also took a 'road' trip through Ermera province to see UNICEF-supported water and maternal health projects.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Special delivery: Timorese women give birth safely

Isabelle wants to deliver her fifth child at a health centre
© UNICEF Timor-Leste/2012/Andy Brown
Isabelle de Santos, 29, lives in Suku (village) Hatólia in Ermera district, Timor-Leste. Her husband is a coffee farmer. She already has four children aged six to 12-years old, and is four months pregnant with her fifth. “I’m hoping it will be a boy so he can help his father in the fields,” she says, laughing.

Suku Hatólia is part of a new initiative that encourages women to give birth at their nearest health centre. After a meeting with her local community, Isabelle signed up. “I don’t want to suffer or die giving birth,” she says. “Now, when I go into labour we can call the health centre and they will send the ambulance to collect me. I’m very happy to know they will come.”

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Water of life: villages in Timor-Leste get sanitation

Francisca Martinez with her niece, 18-month old Luciana
© UNICEF Timor-Leste/2012/Andy Brown
Francisca Martinez lives in Suku (village) Estado, high in the mountains of Ermera district in Timor-Leste. She doesn’t know her age exactly but guesses around 30. She has two teenage children of her own and helps look after her sister’s young children. “All the families round here are coffee farmers,” she says. “We earn up to $500 a year selling sacks of beans to an American company. We also keep pigs and chickens and grow corn to eat.”

Suku Estado is part of a water and sanitation project supported by UNICEF and local NGO Haburas Ita Moris (Lift Up Your Life), which motivates local communities to build their own latrines. “We used to have to walk 40 minutes to the river to collect water and we went to the toilet in the bush,” Francisca continues. “Now we’ve built our own latrine and we have a water pump. It’s much better this way – it keeps the village environment clean.”

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Between two worlds: diving in Malapascua

Me (left) diving in Papua New Guinea in March
© Thierry Dardare/2012
There’s something astonishing about stepping out of one world and into another. I’m reading a book about the moon landings and in many ways it reminds me of diving, the key difference being the speed of the transition. With diving, you kit up and step off the back of a boat, and within minutes you’re weightless and submerged. The world of ocean surface, boats and islands is replaced by an alien, underwater realm of iridescent coral, shoals of brightly coloured fish and – if you’re lucky – a huge thresher shark gliding through the blue haze.

This February I was in the Philippines, researching a book I’m writing about the islands. After visiting the historic sites of Cebu and interviewing a church historian, I took some time out to go diving at Malapascua, a tiny island just off the northern tip of Cebu and one of the top dive sites in the world.

My journey started at the bus station in Cebu city. I had an old copy of the Lonely Planet guidebook, from my first visit in 2009, and it neglected to mention the new, modern bus service. Instead, I ended up on an old, shabby bus with seats so close together that I couldn’t get my knees in, let alone my luggage. Luckily it was half empty so I could stretch out on the front row. The door was left open and a youth hung out the doorway, shouting the destination at potential customers. Vendors would jump on and off whenever we stopped, folded bank notes clasped between their fingers.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Opening up: visiting Burma at a time of change

A stall selling Aung San Suu Kyi t-shirts at Bogyoke market
© Andy Brown/Burma 2012
While Aung San Suu Kyi was visiting London for the first time in 24 years, I was in Rangoon, Burma (also known as Yangon, Myanmar). It was a fascinating time to visit, with the country just starting to open up politically and economically. On the drive from the airport to the hotel, I passed several street vendors openly selling t-shirts of ‘The Lady’, an activity which two years previously would have landed them in jail.

Although it’s less than 600km from Bangkok, Rangoon could be a different world, or at least a different time. Most people – both men and women – still wear the traditional longhi, a sarong-like wrap-around skirt made from a tube of fabric that you step into. Women and children also covered their cheeks, nose and forehead in coloured chalk. Initially I assumed this had cultural or religious significance, but I was wrong. “It’s actually cosmetic,” my colleague Ye Lwin explained.

The only vehicles on the roads of Rangoon were cars, most of them ageing and some literally falling apart, giving the streets a very different feel to other South East Asian capitals where the motorbike is king. They were banned here a few years back, allegedly after one crashed into a politician’s car. Rangoon was also very green with plentiful parks and gardens, a pleasant change to the concrete overload of Bangkok.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Ugly duckling: eating balut in the Philippines

Peeling a fertilised balut egg, while trying to hold down my nausea
© Marge Francia/2012/Philippines
Balut is probably South East Asia’s most gruesome delicacy. It’s a fertilized duck egg with a half-grown embryo that is boiled alive and eaten whole. For Filipinos, balut is a treat. They buy it from street vendors or in local restaurants and bars, where it is served as a drinking snack, much like salted peanuts in British pubs. Inside the shell is a curled up foetus that looks like something out of an Alien horror movie or one of Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds exhibitions. Filipino children will cheerfully crunch their way through the foetal bones and feathers but just the thought of it makes me feel ill.

I’ve been coming to the Philippines for three years, as part of my work for UNICEF. In my spare time, I’ve visited archipelagos of limestone islands off Palawan and dived with thresher sharks. I’ve climbed an active volcano at Taal and marvelled at the view from the rim, while trying to ignore the sulphurous smell. And I’ve visited the 2,000-year-old rice terraces high up in the remote tribal mountains of Luzon. But each time I managed to avoid eating balut.

However, I’m now writing a travel book about the country and trying to get beneath the skin of its culture. Eating balut is considered a rite of passage to becoming an honorary Filipino and I knew I couldn’t avoid it forever. Finally, I gave in. “OK, let’s do it,” I said to my Filipina friend Marge when I visited this February. ”I’m ready to eat balut.”

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Pirates of the Pacific: colonial history in Cebu

A painting at the Basilica del Santo Nino, showing an idealised view of colonial history
© Andy Brown/Philippines 2012
From a European perspective, the history of the Philippines began abruptly in 1521 with the arrival of the Portuguese conquistador Ferdinand Magellan. Like Christopher Columbus before him, Magellan was a mercenary on hire to the King of Spain. His mission was to find a new trade route to the Spice Islands by heading west from Europe via the Spanish colony of Mexico, handily avoiding the Portuguese navy, which controlled the Eastern route around Africa.

Magellan is widely credited as the first man to circumnavigate the globe, even though he was killed on Filipino soil just over half way through the voyage. He is various regarded as a brilliant explorer, ruthless coloniser and defender of the faith. Either way his arrival in the Philippines, after a gruelling 18-month voyage that killed half his crew, kick-started five centuries of Spanish rule and left a cultural, linguistic and religious stamp on the islands that can still be seen to this day.

I was in the Philippines in February, partly to do some work for UNICEF, partly to research a travel book I’m writing about the country. After a work trip to the troubled southern island of Mindanao, I took some time off to visit Cebu, where Magellan met his death at the hands of a rebellious tribe. I wanted to visit the site of the final battle and see the oldest relic of the Spanish era – the Santo Nino, a statue of Jesus as a child, which Magellan gave to the wife of a local chief.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Road to recovery: children go back to school

Ten year old Joy hugs her grandfather at the evacuation centre.
© UNICEF Philippines/2012/Andy Brown
Ten-year-old Crizelle Joy lives with her grandfather, sister, two aunts and uncles, and nephew in a small one-room hut at an evacuation centre in Barangay (village) Mandulog in Iligan, the Philippines. The village is right next to the river and was one of the worst affected by the flash floods that followed Tropical Storm Washi in December.

“We were asleep in our house when the flood came,” Joy remembers. “The Barangay Captain woke us up. He was going from house to house in a bamboo boat. We had to leave immediately. My grandfather brought blankets for me and my sister but we left everything else behind. I was very scared. It was dark and the water was rising, and I could hear people crying out for help.”

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Relocation, relocation: families living in tent cities

Children use an umbrella to shelter from the sun at the tent city.
© UNICEF Philippines/2012/Andy Brown
I was in the Philippines recently to see how UNICEF was helping children in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Sendong, which hit the southern island of Mindanao last December. This was the worst storm in the area in modern history, dropping the equivalent of a month's rainfall in just one day and causing flash floods which left thousands of families homeless.

After my morning visit to Barangay Carmen evacuation centre (see part one of this blog), we returned to ‘Alpha Base’, the temporary UNICEF office in Cagayan de Oro (CdO). In fact it was a rented house in a residential compound, with a UNICEF banner hung from an upstairs balcony. Here I met Phil, a bubbly communications specialist from New Zealand who was my main contact for the trip, as well as Love, a friend of mine from the Manila office who had volunteered to work in CdO, and Rohannie, a child protection officer who I was due to accompany on her afternoon rounds.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Peer to peer: children recover from disaster

Kim helps six-year-old Robin with a math lesson, at an evacuation centre.
© UNICEF Philippines/2012/Andy Brown
Seventeen year old Kim sits with a group of young children in a child-friendly space at an evacuation centre in Cagayan de Oro, the Philippines, one of the towns worst hit by Tropical Storm Sendong last December. The centre is in a barangay (village) covered court. It’s crowded and humid, with the smell of sweat. Over 130 families live on top of each other with little comfort or privacy – sleeping, cooking and washing in the open.

But this morning an area has been cleared for children, marked out by a UNICEF tarpaulin mat. Here, Kim and other young volunteers are teaching math. “What does five plus two equal?” Kim asks in English, holding up a piece of paper with numbers drawn on it inside different shapes. “Seven!” the children shout happily in unison, before colouring in the right number with a yellow crayon.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Luang Prabang: monks procession at dawn

Joyce at Wat Xieng Thong. Having lost my camera memory card in January,
all these photos were taken on a return trip in October
© Andy Brown/Laos 2012
Luang Prabang is like a city adrift in space and time. The old royal capital of pre-communist Laos, it now feels like a cross between a suburb of Paris and a rural Thai village. It occupies a peninsular between the Mekong (see part two of this blog) and Nam Khan river, which takes a hairpin bend off the larger waterway. The main roads are lined with French restaurants, cafes and bakeries in colonial era buildings: brightly painted villas with wooden shutters on the windows. French tourists cycle lazily around between the cafes and sights, conversing in Gallic tones.

Yet just a step back from the post-colonial villas are a warren of packed-earth side streets, just wide enough for a bicycle or small motorbike to get down. Here, there are Thai-style wooden houses on stilts, many with the Laos and communist party flags hanging outside. Women cook food without electricity on coal stoves and chickens peck around in the yards. Here the locals still use traditional addresses, based on ‘villages’ named after the local temple.

As a UNESCO World Heritage site, Luang Prabang is off limits to larger vehicles and there are relatively few cars. We spent three days exploring the town by bicycle, visiting various wats (temples) and the former royal palace. On the first day, we rode our bikes over the old wooden bridge and into the centre of the old town. From here, we walked down small pathways through the villages to Phu Si, the hill in the centre of Luang Prabang.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Laos: slow boat down the Mekong

Sunset at Huay Xai, Laos, looking back over the Mekong river to Thailand.
Having lost my camera memory card, this photo is from Lonely Planet
Coming from Thailand (see part one of this blog), Laos is both familiar and subtly different. The people are from the same ethnic group, they have a similar language and the same religion. The streets of a Lao town look very similar to those of a small rural Thai town. They have the same wooden stilt houses with the same spirit shrines in the corner. The shops accept Thai currency and locals sit in cafes watching melodramatic Thai soap operas on TV.

However, there are small but significant differences. Where in Thailand you see yellow royal flags hanging next to the national flag, in Laos their place is taken by red flags bearing the communist hammer and sickle. And where Thailand hustles and bustles, Laos moves at a slow, sleepy pace. Here, roads are often unpaved and bicycles and motorbikes are the main modes of transport. “Thai people view Laos as a backwards province of Thailand,” I was told in Bangkok, and while it’s true that the economic benefits of development were absent, so too were their darker side effects, like pollution, over-population and prostitution. It was in many ways a refreshing change.

We arrived at the border crossing by bus from Chiang Rai. Here, the Mekong river forms the border between the two countries. On one side was the Thai village of Chiang Khong, on the other bank the mirror-image Laos village of Huay Xai. The passport office on the Thai side was a small wooden hut at the bottom of a dirt road. From here, a handful of small wooden boats ferried passengers across the river, while lorries lined up to make the crossing on shaky-looking articulated barges.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Chiang Rai: bamboo forests and hill tribes

Elephant trekking in Chiang Rai province. Sadly, having lost a memory card
during the trip, this photo is from Lonely Planet
Where Bangkok is concrete grey, Chiang Rai is red, yellow and green. We landed at sunset at a small airport surrounded by dusty red earth and fields of tall yellow grass translucent in the evening sun. Beyond the fields, green forested hills curved out of the plains like the backs of whales from the ocean. This was the first stop on Joyce and my adventure honeymoon through Laos and Cambodia  - the adventure being admittedly more my idea than hers and obtained against the promise of a future beach holiday. We were in Chiang Rai primarily to reach starting point for our overground journey through Laos, but while we were here we decided to take a few days to see the sights.

For our first day, we hired bikes to ride around town and visit the local temples, including Wat Phra Kaew, originally known as Bamboo Forest Monastery. The forests had long since retreated up the slopes of the nearby hills but the temple remained, now surrounded by market stalls and tuk-tuks. It was still very much lived in and young monks in orange robes roamed the grounds, sweeping the paths clean, reading the daily newspaper or being bussed in and out by song-tau.

There was a museum of artifacts, and I chatted to the monk supervising it (he wouldn't talk to Joyce, as women represent temptation away from monkish pursuits). I told him my name and where I was from. "You speak Thai very well" he said, somewhat overstating the case, before turning to the exhibits. "We have statues of King Rama V and King Rama IX," he said proudly, pointing to two small gold statues, one wearing glasses and the other an impressive moustache. ACS46RPKF7AK