Thursday, April 26, 2012

Village In The Ayer

Brunei is one of those tiny countries that you might have heard of, but aren't really sure about: who lives there? what do the people do? how can such a tiny country be viable? The answer to the last question, of course, is oil. Although small, Brunei sits on substantial reserves of both oil and gas. Indeed, one of the reasons why people may have heard of Brunei is that, up until 1997, the Sultan of Brunei was the richest man in the world and a byword for profligate extravagance. Indeed it was the tiny sultanate's abundance of wealth that led to it refusing to join the Malaysian Federation in the 60's so as not to have their riches siphoned off to Kuala Lumpur (the sultan and his family were adept enough at that already).

A panorama photograph of the old stilt-houses of Kampung Ayer.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Octopus's Garden

Most of my travels are of the cultural (cities, museums, ruins, monuments, etc.) or outdoorsy (hiking, mountains, forests and national parks) kind. I don't really do "fun" stuff. Whilst in Sabah I decided to change that state of affairs. The seas of southeast Asia are home to some of the most pristine tropical coral reefs in the world. Snorkelling among them is my favourite thing to do whilst visiting beach destinations. But with snorkelling you are limited by your lungs to just the uppermost corals and only for as long as you can hold your breath. Obviously the glimpses you get of the myriad multi-coloured fish, urchins, invertebrates, polyps, nudibranches and other strangely-named organisms are only enough to pique your interest. To truly see the underwater world you need to go scuba diving.

All kitted up in my wetsuit, air tank and sundry other paraphernalia and about to roll back out of the boat (something I had always wanted to do). Diving is a truly incredible sensation and one I hope, for my wallet's sake, I don't get too addicted to.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Making A Molehill Out Of A Mountain (Of Costs)

As I stood on the deck of my ferry, carrying me from Zamboanga to Sandakan in East Malaysia, in the still night, watching the rippling wake reach behind us through the mirror-smooth Sulu Sea, I found it hard to believe that this is one of the most notorious stretches of water in the world. From Mindanao to Borneo there stretch several island groups -  Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi - that form the heartland of the current Muslim insurgency in the Philippines. Piracy is not unheard of around here and only two months ago a couple of European tourists were kidnapped on Tawi-Tawi whilst taking wildlife photographs. These are certainly not places to travel to thoughtlessly, although peering at the soundlessly calm expanse around me when I awoke in the middle of the night, with only a small glow on the horizon indicating a mini flotilla of sardine boats, it was hard for me to equate the view in front of me with any sort of danger. And indeed there was none to be had as we arrived in Sandakan without a hitch (except for the 9-hour wait in Zamboanga as the 300 passengers cleared the customs inspection that was manned by only two officers - although there were about a dozen soldiers milling around doing little else than motioning the queue to shuffle along every now and again).

A suburban cul-de-sac in Sandakan that reminded me of middle-class suburban neighbourhoods in the UK.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Risk And The Perception Of Risk

Most visitors to the Philippines do not visit the southern island of Mindanao. But then again neither do Filipinos who live in Luzon and the Visayas. Not because they can't afford it (although it's true that many can't it is possible to get a cheap, budget airline ticket from Luzon to Mindanao for only $20 or less, well within the reach of the burgeoning Philippine middle-class), but because they are afraid to. Mindanao is home to various separatist rebel groups (such as the unfortunately-named MILF) and has seen numerous bombings, abductions and killings of foreigners and locals alike. For most ManileƱos it's a lawless, anarchic place with danger lurking around every corner, completely forgetting that the vast majority of people who live there are ordinary citizens just trying to get on with their lives (if it was so dangerous they would have probably left long ago themselves). I, however, despite the many warnings and looks of incredulity from other Filipinos, was determined to go there. Partly because I find that there is always a huge disconnect between risk and the perception of risk. Often when I mention that I have been to North Korea the first question people ask is "but isn't it dangerous?" to which I, in all honesty, reply that it is probably the safest country to visit as a tourist, even more so than Japan, South Korea or any European country (with the possible exception of Liechtenstein). The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office would rather err on the side of caution and advises against travel to Mindanao (see map below), but luckily I am travelling on a Czech passport and a brief perusal of their foreign office website I found no similar warning, so that makes it OK to visit then. My other reason for going to Mindanao is far more prosaic: the only scheduled international sea connections from the Philippines leave from the island. One south to Indonesia, the other west to Malaysian Borneo. I had lost in my attempt to enter the country overland, but I was damned if I was going to be beaten twice in succession.

The British FCO travel advisory for the Philippines. As you can see the vast majority of the country is considered safe. Only Mindanao is dangerous, especially the western part where you shouldn't go under any circumstances (only that's where my ferry leaves from).