Asia: back to the future

Royal palace, Bangkok. 2018. Back to the future? In more ways than one, I guess. I was born in the East, in India under its Pakistani guise. (To me the names change, the land and the people not so much.) We then pushed further East to Vietnam, briefly, and Cambodia which we left in ’57. 60 years later, I “came back” to Asia. And re-discovered a continent that could (should?) well be the future of mankind.

Changi airport, Singapore. 2017. I have seen many an airport in my life. Never before had I “experienced” (as the Marketing people say) such a place. The best airport I’ve ever seen. Constantly rated amongst the best airports of the world. The openings in the ceiling are a smart way to regulate heat and humidity. Fastest check-in and check-out I’ve seen in a while. Changi is a service airport.

“Kama citra” ale. Bangkok. 2018. I Joke you not. “Electric unicorn”? Bangkok is totally off the rail. (Beers of the world series)

Ta-Prohm temple, at Angkor, Cambodia. The locals call it “Tomb raider”. Khmer sense of humour, this is where Angelina Jolie shot some of the scenes of the film. Built around the 12th century as a temple to Vishnu, Angkor Wat is now the largest religious monument in the world. A thousand years’ fusion of worship and jungle. Buddha has replaced Vishnu. And not even the Khmer rouge could affect Angkor’s beauty.

A café in Georgetown, on the island of Penang in Malaysia. Malaysia’s GDP per capita is now close to France…

Gardens by the bay, Singapore. 2017. When my Uncle René Onraet was head of Special Branch in Singapore in the 30’s, I don’t think he would have imagined what Singapore would become.

Tuk-tuk on the island of Koh-Lanta, Thailand. Another “experience.” Do not board tuk-tuks in Bangkok if you have a heart condition. 😉 On the islands? Fine. Relax and enjoy.

Beers of the world series. Koh-Lanta, Thailand. Make no mistake if you buy beer. “Gassoline” (!) is sold in empty beer bottles to the tuk-tuks.

Straights Chinese (Peranakan) traditional shop-house. Georgetown, Penang. 2017. The shop was (still is) on the ground floor, the warehouse at the back and the living quarters above. We stayed in one of those, splendidly remodeled.

The four Buddhas (or was it Vishnu?) at the Bayon, Angkor-Tom, Cambodia. 2018.

Singapore means the city of lions. Many times, when I mention Singapore, I hear: “Yes, but it is an authoritarian state.” Maybe so. The streets are clean and safe. Women walk alone at night, I’m told. GDP per capita (PPP) for Singapore is at $97,000 constant International dollars. (Adjusted for international cost of living.) in 1990, Singapore’s GDP per capita was at $37,000 constant International dollars. As a matter of comparison, the US GDP per capita is at 62,000$. (I will not mention France. A shameful disaster)

Singha beer, Thailand, 2017. Asia is a beer land. (Too hot for wine). Good beers.

Huawei ad, Bangkok transportation system. The Bangkok metro system is better than Paris. I swear. Progress? Just think: Huawei did not exist, 30-40 years ago when Deng XiaoPing told the Chinese. “To get rich is fine”. The Chinese got back to work. And got rich.

Street art, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia. 2017. Penang is a very pleasant town. They actually have a scheme for expats. Something like “My second home in Malaysia”. I might consider it. 😉

Wat Arun temple. Bangkok, Thailand, 2018. Sheer beauty. The temple of the rising sun, named after the Hindu God Aruna. It sits on the Chao Phraya river. Every detail you see? Every flower on the wall? Made of fragments of porcelain. Glued one by one. They must have a cleaning team of hundreds to dust the temple at night.

Indian dancer. Street art in Singapore. Diversity. Variety. And street art. Oh, and GDP? They started at about 300$ GDP a year per capita in 1960, at Independence. Singapore is number 2 in the Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment, OECD) in Reading, Math and Science. Look at the country ranking here:

Tseu-Hsi, (or CiXi) the last Empress of China, c. early 1900’s. A mere hundred years and change ago.

Guangzhou airport, China, 2017. I still call it Canton, but then I was born in the 19th century. In the course of a thirty bl..dy hours flight, we stopped over at Canton airport. Night. December cold. Brand new airport that did not exist, as such, 30 or 40 years ago. In 2019, Guangzhou or Canton airport handled 65.8 million passengers a year. Close to half a million aircraft movements. Again, none of this existed 30 or 40 years. I wonder how Empress Tseu-Hsi would look on her great-grand-daughter above? “Child, would you mind covering your legs?”

Do not fear the Dragon. Artwork by my great friend Tiffany Choong. Visit her at:

Xie xie, Kam Sia, Terima Kasih, Kop kung kraap, thank you for flying Equinoxio Airways. 🙏🏻

94 thoughts on “Asia: back to the future

  1. C’est le dragon que je préfère ! Peut-être parce qu’il nage dans le deuxième mouvement de ma pratique la plus courante de qigong. Et puis, il y en a une variante locale, le mawhot ou mahwot, qui a existé, pour de vrai, sous la forme du très terrible mosasaure. Gentil dragon !
    Une belle journée à toi, Brieuc.

    • Le dragon est dessiné par une grande artiste qui habite Kuala. Je ne connaissais pas le mahwot. Bernard Heuvelmans aurait dit que le dragon n’était qu’un dinosaure…
      Bonne nuit Gilles

      • J’ai suivi Bulan Life Style pendant un bout de temps avant de diminuer mes doses d’internet. Et vive, donc, le dragon, celui qui nage ou celui qui ne nage pas.
        Une belle journée à toi, Brieuc.

      • Elle a du talent et elle est charmante. je l’ai rencontrée deux fois, à Londres et à Penang. On est en contact régulier et je lui ai acheté plusieurs peintures.
        Vive monsieur Lung, le dragon.
        Bonne nuit.

  2. Great post. And you’re right. Amazing what people can achieve in a single century.
    I wonder what the world will look like in another hundred years. A shame neither of us will be around to witness.

    • Well, if you go back to your grandparents, remember the world they grew up in: no cars, no planes, no electricity…
      Well, we have already seen quite a number of things haven’t we?
      Stay safe Mate.

      • True. My grandfather was the first person in the family to own a car! He eventually had several, including a Packard according to my dad (who learned to drive in it) and ran a small taxi service.

        You’ll like this. How we view technology? True story:
        I have a dear friend who now lives in Cyprus. When we were all a lot younger he worked for his auntie in a hotel in Kinshasa (years before I arrived in South Africa) for a short time before coming to Jo’burg. He was on bar duty when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Of course no TV so all the drinkers at the bar listened to it in the ”wireless”.
        Harry told me that as Armstrong left the lunar module several of the more serious drinkers left the bar to rush outside to ”watch”.
        Aaah …. when things were a lot more simple. Including us!

      • Your grandfather was a rich man! Mine was a Breton farmer. Born in 1890. After WWI, he had no particular skills, so he got hired by a French marquis as a chauffeur. Driving an “old” fancy car. I have a photo I will put in a soon-to-come post.
        And yes, I can imagine people going out to see the moon. (Where you in the UK still? You must have been what 12? Black and white TV?)
        Yes things were a lot more simple. I get very tired of dealing with computer red tape. If I could I’d hire a “personal secretary” to take care of all the paperwork…
        Thanks for the story. Take care.

      • Yes , I was in the UK. 11 and a half. ( the half is important when one is eleven, not so?)

        I left in ’79.
        My friend , Harry worked in a barber shop in London at the time then moved to Africa in 68. (He’s 12 years older than me)

        My grandfather was also a professional boxer for a short while and served as a batman to the captain of a battleship – I’m thinking the HMS Hood, but I would not swear to this as I know she was sunk by the Bismark during WWII.
        I shall ask my dad when I next speak to him.

      • Half is always important. As I get nearer to 7o yo, I always emphasize I was born in December… hehe.
        You left the UK young. Water under the bridge right? Who’d have thought you’d stay in SA.
        A boxer, a batman (what is a batman TO a captain. Must be navy terms, I was Army; plus it was the Frog Army)
        Do. It would be interesting. I hope your father is well.

  3. Vu d’ici et d’aujourd’hui, c’est un tout autre monde que tu nous montres là, comme un monde d’avant, un monde qui n’existera plus tel quel, ou tout au moins un monde qui ne sera plus accessible pour ‘l’étranger’… L’ailleurs me manque tant, merci pour toutes ces superbes photos, merci pour le voyage…

    • Ouiiii. C’est à la fois un monde d’avant. Les traditions sont très fortes. Il ya une grande connaissance de l’histoire. Les gens savent d’où ils viennent. Et em même temps complètement tournés vers l’avenir. Et une grande réussite de développement. (Pendant ce temps-là l’Europe s’enfonce. Ça me navre…)
      A la première occasion je repars en Asie.
      Bonne nuit.

  4. Kama citra! Excellent word pun and marketing.
    I am happy to report my heart survived the tuk tuks in Bangkok. in 1986~ and obviously I was young.
    I love the dragon artwork. Your friend has talent! Fabulous.
    I think you are right about names and things changing but people don’t so much.
    The Singaporeans are much to be admired, despite their regulation. In some ways, to be successful, they needed that. Yet, relatives who have lived there so there is still some segregation despite how it looks like they are very well integrated.
    Changi is a fabulous airport. When you have a 18 hour layover it is the best airport to be in. Did you hear loads of Aussie accents there, Brian? They grated at me after my return from three months in Europe!
    Moving to Malaysia sounds great!

    • Vrey creative branding. 1986 Bangkok must have changed a lot since… And yes, Tiffany has a lot of talent.
      I’ve lived in the same “South” most of my life. I think “regulation” is the only way to make it grow. (And yes, the people sweeping the streets tend to be a tad darker… Tamil generally. Well, at least they have a job.) Like I said: the Third world needs regulation.
      I didn’t pick up much Aussie accent around. I think we were more focussed on other things.

      • Funny isn’t it. How Changi airport was for me, the sudden plunge back into my diaspora and I heard Aussies everywhere. We are great travellers, you know! And I should set the context that it was not my first trip to Changi, so the other wonderful features the airport offers, weren’t entirely novel. But it does offer a lot to keep the tourist busy. I did a day tour of Singapore during one of my layovers! Fantastic!
        I haven’t been back to Bangkok since 1986, only transiting through their airport once or twice. The city would I assume be unrecognisable to me, from those days. And one’s memory fades somewhat! I remember Pattaya beach better and seeing photos of that location now, confused me as it looks so vastly different.
        Re regulation: how much is too much? Where do we draw the line for freedoms? It is up to each individual, I suppose. It might be different for each culture and nation, as it should be in a diverse world. As you mentioned, at least some folks have work. I feel sure we have discussed before, the capitalist system is all about striving for the American dream, but it also does not allow everyone to have that American dream.

      • Bangkok still is chaotic. )It did remind me of Mexico city) A mixture of old and new. I remember the artist house on one of the Klongs. The “metro” is impressive.
        Singapore? Like I said, we liked it. Plus we found tracks of my family right in the city. Fascinating.
        Regulation? I would say the key word is balance as in many things. Too much? becomes a dictatorship. Too little? Humans take advantage.
        “Capitalism”? I have worked most of my professional life in Marketing and market research. I propose to replace the word “Capitalism” (Which cannot exist without Labour and vice versa) by what it truly is now: “Market economy”. In which humans exchange products and services, freely. Competition should ensure that no dominant positions are achieved. (A bit lax on that ultimately). It is basically the only economic system that works. based on Freedom. Freedom to sell the wares you want to sell. (And possibly fail) Freedom to buy the goods and services that you want. Of course this has to run parallel to a Free political system. With non-rigged elections. Where incompetent or corrupt leaders are ousted of power when need be.
        And yes, the “American Dream”, may be an illusion but some get there. And one thing about them: if you fail, at least you tried.
        I always tell my daughters that the lifestyle and the opportunities they enjoy are not (just) because of what I did, or what they did. My grandfather was a railroad man. Blue collar to the black-lined fingernails. My father? he never finished Collegebecause of the war. So? If we are where we are it’s because all ancestors busted their “ars..” off for generations. 😉

  5. Great post, Brian! What strikes me, reading this and seeing the images, is how little we in the U.S. know of Asia and the countries that comprise it. I did love these pictures … thank you!

    • The western world has ignored (or labeled) Asia. Not even bothering to understand how they have grown so fast and steadily. I insist they’re a lesson to the world. I have images of Singapore in 1952 when my parents went on a Asian tour that took them all the way to Hong Kong. Singapore was no more than a crumpy fisherman’s harbour.

      • There is, in the western world, an arrogant belief that those of European descent are somehow … intellectually superior. You and I both know it’s a fallacy, but sadly some are fully convinced of its veractiy. My best friend for many years while I was in my teens was a Japanese girl whose parents had been in the Japanese internment camps during WWII. Many a night I spent at her house, listening to her parents and grandparents telling the truth of that time and place. We have much to learn, I think. S … er, no … hugs!

  6. I should learn more about “The East” seeing that my step-daughter is half Korean. Were you ever that far east? Rumors run about The East being the more dominant continent soon. I think it’s possible. What do you think?

    • I was born East, in Pakistan. As a child I lived as far east as Cambodia. On this last 2017-2018 trip we flew in from Mexico to Singapore, eastward. Visited a few places in Asia. Finished in Cambodia. So I did in fact complete my roundabout tour of the globe. I’ve gone around the planet one full time.
      And yes, as they are set? Asia will be set the pace. Fine with me.

  7. Thank you for the wonderful journey around Asia!
    A former colleague of mine lived for many years in Singapore with her husband and children, actually gave birth to her third child there. She reported like you about cleanliness, safety, very advanced education and health systems. The only thing she felt in the end was that the Singaporians were a tad tired of foreigners.

    • Interesting. A first cousin of mine spent the last ten years in Singapore. He may have met your friend.
      “Tired of foreigners”? Possibly. Westerners tend to be so blind to other cultures and customs. I didn’t stay long enough to see that.
      If I did stay in Singapore a while, I would learn Mandarin or Hokkien (already know a few words), just to be polite. It always works when you make the effort to learn the local language.

    • I just found an old comment of yours in my spam folder. About 2 weeks old. About fami.y how I must miss my sister. I do. But it’s been a long time. And about your family that you were never close. Well, that happens. I still try to keep in touch my older brothers in France calling every few months or so. And seeing (at least one) in France “every year” when we go. “went”? Tschüß

    • Don’t we all? SE Asia? I have yet to visit Indonesia (And Philippines too for that matter)
      I don’t really have favourites. I loved Singapore. But same goes for Penang. I could live there. Bangkok. Siem Reap and Angkor. I could easily stay there a while. Most places I think. Like I said, I want to discover Indonesia. (I am brushing up my Bahasa) Selamat pagi. 😉

  8. “And re-discovered a continent that could (should?) well be the future of mankind.” And yet, so few science-fiction novels are set in that part of the world. I agree. Changi is one of the best. Compare that with J.F.K, New York? Oh, my.

    Love that dragon. Such a majestic creature.

    • Very true. No SF novel that I know. But then most SF is white anglo written. A few limited Europeans. But then, very little Asian litterature comes out on the market, whether Indian or SE Asian. I know there are a lot of Indian writers, who just don’t make it to the Western market. (Couldn’t name one though), now, Straights Chinese, Malay, Indonesian? I don’t know. I will ask around.
      The dragon is fantastic. And I just realized there are no dragons in the immense Indian pantheon. Unless one counts Garuda as one? Interesting.
      Be good

      • Yes, 90 percent of the SF genre is written by white males. But there’s this brilliant Chinese writer, Liu Cixin, whose work, “The Three-Body Problem” is profound. I hear there are a lot of Indians SF writers now, but I feel they’re all crappy.

      • Liu Cixin duly noted.
        My Indian authors (on my shelves) are a bit old: Satiajit Ray, Kamala Markandaya, Kushwant Singh (Train for Pakistan, bilkul!). Closer to us: Rushdie, Arundahti Roy. I will have to go to India. 😉 Some day.

      • Well, thank you. I always find it a shame that my family stayed in India for 2 centuries, and I only know bits and pieces… “The ministry of utmost happiness” shed a dreadful light on today’s India… I forgot Naipaul. Who may oor may not be considered “Indian”, I guess. He’s on my to read shelves.
        And yes, India is, well, India. 🇮🇳

      • India? very serious. My ancestors were French, went with Dupleix, sort of. They were born in Chandernagor. Middle of the 18th century. One of my ancestors was Captain of the harbour at Chandernagor. His descendants were indigo planters. A cousin of my grandmother was Christine Weston who wrote several books on India, including “Indigo”. My grandmother was born in Jowrah (never remember how it’s spelled now). Her father, my great-grandfather was married in Varanasi. Imagine! He was Sarsubar of the Maharajah of Gwalior, Rao Scindia. I was born in Karachi, my little sister too, she was the last one of the family to be born in “India”. Family legend says I spoke Urdu before I spoke French or English. My parents spoke fluent Urdu… Strange family story isn’t it?

      • Try Christine Weston, née Goutière, she was my grandmother’s cousin. She wrote several books, Indigo and The Hoopoe on her childhood in India. She may still be on Amazon.

      • And my father wrote a family account of their life in the Raj. But in French. I plan to put into in English. One day. You will be the first to know.

      • Are we? I think it’s more a matter of “looking around”. My mother never finished high school (Blue-collar family) but read like crazy. (Big fan of Camus) My father never finished College because of the war. But his family was poshier than posh. 😉

    • Thank you. Going back to photography, a few years ago, has forced me to “re-train” my eye. be attentive to details and the big picture.
      Do. If you only travel to one place in the next 5-10 years, go to Asia. And Angkor. for enough days to maybe just sit one day in Angkor Thom. Record all details of just one temple. No rush. Just watch. 🙏🏻
      Hope all is well?

      • It does look the sort of place to which one could devote days of exploration and reflection. Thank you for the advice.
        We’re well here, UK is opening up – even venturing away a weekend – 1.5 hours away, not Asia yet! Hope all is well with you.

      • An hour or so away is a breather. We went to a restaurant, last Sunday. With all the family. Since we’re all vaccinated, almost. Wide open space. Distant tables. One places the order at the bar. Open air and sun. Nice.
        Have you gone out already for your week.end or is it in the works?

      • Good news on your vaccines! We’re going Friday – it’s a bank holiday Monday next week (for May Day, of course). Really looking forward to it.

  9. Asia seems like an exciting place to visit! Besides the art, culture, and wine, The Changi airport, Singapore, has a distinctive yet interesting setup which sparks my curiosity to visit this country.

  10. You’ve had an enviable life of travel. I’ve never been to Asia or to many other places featured regularly on your blog. Thanks so much for sharing your travels.

    • C’est tout-à-fait ça. Lâchez-les nous. Er5 de partout. je viens d’apprendre, à ma grande fureur que les locations “touristiques” sont interdites par la Mairie de Paris. Chais pas comment on va se loger à Paris si on arrive à prendre l’avion. Hallucinant.

      • Ben oui, mais je suis déjà obligé de prévoir certaines choses. Quand on habite loin… Au risque de devoir tout annuler le 1er juillet. 😩

      • Je comprends…
        la situation devrait se débloquer dans une quinzaine de jours. Je pensais que les locations saisonnières étaient ouvertes.

      • Les ,locations saisonnières sont ouvertes. Airbn’b a l’air de marcher, mais Anne Hidalgo dans sa détestation des propriétaires a limité les locations temporaires, il faut un certificat de travail, pour une mission, ou un stage, ou des études. Ça s’appelle “bail de. mobilité”. J’ai parlé longuement à un conseiller de Lodgis. Eventuellement il va falloir que je demande à un de mes amis Parisiens un certificat de mission. Le délire! je ne peux même pas garder mon studio Parisien vide comme pied-à-terre, on me filerait une taxe égale à trois fois le loyer annuel. Youpi. (donc je vends, et je cherche sur Airb chose.) Enfin. Problèmes de riches. Allez. Prends bien soin de toi et de ton gone. 👍🏻

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