Tag Archives: asia

Eden’s Thrill Ride

11 Jun


My travelogue for of the delightful Pagsanjan Falls in the Philippines is right here, right now on the Selamta site:


The Punisher’s Paradise

11 Mar

Contrary to type, one city in the southern Philippines is known for its clean environs, low crime rates and roguish mayor. But some question whether the ends justify the means.


If you are doing an illegal activity in my city, if you are a criminal or part of a syndicate that preys on the innocent people of the city, for as long as I am the mayor, you are a legitimate target of assassination.” – Mayor Rodrigo ‘Rody’ Duterte

Davao is not your typical Southeast Asian city. The air is clear and the pace relaxed. The Philippines’ customary – and customised – SUVs, motorbikes and iconic jeepneys queue calmly on the roads, freezing at crossings and edging slowly off the mark when the light goes green. Pedestrians stroll patiently on spotless pavements. Nobody in sight smokes or drinks due to an outdoor ban on these vices. After dark there is little nightlife in Davao, and all bars and liquor stores shut at 1am.

Such an orderly way of life has much to do with the stringent governance of the current mayor of Davao, Rodrigo S. Duterte, commonly known as Rody. His most controversial policy is what some call a “zero tolerance approach to crime”. Others, particularly human rights activists, prefer to term it an “endorsement of summary executions”.

From time to time, the peace and quiet of Davao City is disrupted by groups of men in baseball caps pulling over on motorbikes and stabbing or shooting a known criminal, often a drug dealer or juvenile recidivist. According to Amnesty International, about 1,000 people have been executed in this fashion since 2001, when Duterte came to power.

While “The Punisher”, as he’s been dubbed by Time magazine, denies any personal responsibility for these murders, Duterte’s public remarks make it clear as a bullet to the head where he stands on what is known as the Davao Death Squad. On his weekly TV show he told any lawbreaker watching: “You will not survive; you can leave either vertically or horizontally.” To the Philippine Inquirer he said: “Criminals have no place in the city, except in gaols, detention centres and, God forbid, in funeral parlours.” When questioned about an infamous rice smuggler, Duterte answered in homage to film director Sam Peckinpah: “Just bring me the head of Ryan Yu.” The local press have nicknamed him ‘Duterte Harry’. 

However, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, alleges that Duterte’s administration goes further than mere verbal threats – policemen and government functionaries are thought to train and arm death squad members, help them compile hit lists and tip them off as to the whereabouts of the target. The killers act with relative impunity thanks to a lackadaisical and complicit police force, as well as witnesses who are too terrified to testify, according to Roth.

So how does Duterte – a former human rights lawyer no less – get away with advocating the extrajudicial killing of his own constituents, some of them no older than 14? One answer is his broad popularity.

Luis H. Francia, adjunct professor of Asian American studies at Hunter College, New York, met Duterte in the early 1990s. “A lot of Filipinos like Rody’s charisma and they believe he brought down the murder rate,” he says. “People see him the way that, say, Wyatt Earp [a wild west lawman] would have been seen in Tombstone, Arizona.”

Moreover, Duterte’s fans span the political spectrum: from arch-conservative senators in Manila to Jose Maria Sison, the exiled leader of the communist New People’s Army. Duterte is also a shrewd politico, winning over those liberals and leftists who object to his stance on crime with other, more progressive social and environmental policies. In defiance of big business, he has banned mining across Davao City, “because it destroys our land and our forests”, and has created initiatives to modestly improve the health, education and social mobility of Davao’s poorest inhabitants.

Equally crucial is that many locals are inclined to agree with Duterte because they see a certain logic in vigilantism. The use of guns to settle disputes and vendettas is not uncommon in the Philippines, a nation where 3.9 million citizens own firearms and that ranks 25th in the world for per capita shooting crimes. Mistrust of the official justice system – blighted as it is by abuse, corruption and ineptitude – is pervasive. The law-abiding poor suffer the most from unchecked criminality and some are grateful for what Rudy Encabo, head of Davao’s Public Safety and Security Command Centre, calls “the rest-in-peace solution”.

Alfredo P. Torreo, a Davao taxi driver who works 48-hour shifts to support his family of seven, recalls the evening he got home to find that the gang who’d been terrorising his slum neighbourhood was no more. “One day they were there trying to sell drugs to my kids and beating up my friends, and the next [they were] gone,” he says. “It was a big, big relief for me to have this problem no longer.”

The question remains whether Davao’s extreme form of violent ‘justice’ simply engenders more violence. Encabo argued that the death squad has made Davao the most peaceful city in the archipelago. “We have had very low crime rates for the duration of the mayor’s terms of office,” he says. “Davao is surrounded by the troubled areas of Mindanao so it is critical that we keep our city safe for our people and for tourism.”

Kenneth Roth’s findings, however, are quite different. “Contrary to expectations, the Davao Death Squad has not reduced crime,” he writes in the Far Eastern Economic Review. “In the decade since [the squad] began operating, crime in Davao City has mushroomed ten times faster than the population.”

There is also a stench of hypocrisy about Davao’s ruling officials – who the local media accuse of misappropriation of public money, pork barrel scams and downright theft – engineering the deaths of penniless and powerless individuals who hold up 7-Elevens and pickpocket tourists.

As Red Constantino of the human rights group International Accountability Project puts it: “People who applaud extrajudicial responses to crime are the same people who will demand due process when it is their turn to feel the state’s boot on their neck.”

Whatever the impact of the death squad on Davao, crime will endure until the conditions of the most disadvantaged are radically improved and those on both sides of the law toe the same line.

“Real toughness can be found not in the person with the unholstered sidearm,” says Constantino, “but among officers and citizens determined to end the culture of impunity with the comprehensive, consistent application of the rule of law.” 

Originally published in Southeast Asia Globe (03/2015)

Travels in Old Asia review (originally published in the London Magazine)

14 May

Western travel writing on Southern Asia may have become a crowded market, but Eland Books has recently republished three of the finest titles in the canon. Dervla Murphy’s Where the Indus is Young is an arrestingly vivid account of one stoical woman and her even more stoical six-year-old daughter’s treks through the Karakorum Mountains of Baltistan, an under-explored province of northern Pakistan. Travels into Bokhara concerns the adventures of Alexander Burnes, the Scottish spy, polyglot and orientalist who is regarded as a prototype of both Lawrence of Arabia and Wilfred Thesiger. An altogether more humorous – but no less evocative – read is Travels on My Elephant, Mark Shand’s quest to discover India from the saddle of a flighty but affectionate elephant named Tara. Although these books differ in many ways, they share preoccupations with cross-cultural encounters, unlikely or unusual itineraries, and the impact of modernity on natural environments and ancient civilisations.

Originally published in 1991, Shand’s travelogue begins on the kind of whimsical note that one associates with the English gentleman traveller-writers of earlier that century: ‘I had decided on a quiet jaunt across India on an elephant.’ After failing to buy an elephant from the wife of one of India’s greatest actors, Shand promptly heads to a small town in Orissa, follows a trail of dung to a camp of saddhus (holy men) and finds Tara, a young and fit – if malnourished – female of the species. It is love at first sight: ‘I knew then that I had to have her’. Recruiting a rum-sodden mahout (elephant master), Shand sets off on a six hundred mile ride to an elephant mela (market) in Bihar. Despite the centrality of elephants to Indian civilisation (we are told that throughout the 13th and 14th centuries AD, epic wars were fought to secure ‘superior breeds’ in Orissa), the sight of one being ridden in the India of the late 1980s by a half-naked Englishman causes children to panic, moped riders to crash and men to literally collapse with laughter. Such scenes prompt one to wonder how Britons might react to a half-naked Indian man exploring their country on the back of a shire horse.

Thus Tara becomes a symbol of the old India in conflict with the new. Perhaps the funniest demonstration of this is when she, a representative of the most traditional form of transport in the Subcontinent, encounters a typically contemporary coach load of Russian tourists. Amid the cries of excitement, Tara proceeds to steal a bottle of vodka with her trunk and empty its entire contents into her mouth.

But there is a serious overtone to Shand’s story too, a real melancholy about the destruction of India’s heritage. He shares his brother-in-law Prince Charles’s distaste for modern architecture and is saddened to find the once-grand Maharaja’s palace of Kheonjar looted and stained with graffiti; ‘an opulence long gone’.

Similar themes permeate Where the Indus is Young. One of the remotest parts of Southern Asia, Baltistan in the late 1970s is a society resisting progress, and this is to author Dervla Murphy’s delight: ‘my reactionary heart throbs with love for Baltistan’. Lack of outside influence has kept Baltis scrupulously honest, as Murphy realises when she is trusted to pay for some bootlaces by simply putting her money in an unsupervised box. When she opens the box she finds out that 500 Rupees – a considerable sum – is inside and that no-one would think to pilfer it. Homes are left unlocked and there is no need for watchdogs, ‘local standards of honesty being so high’. Every village Murphy and daughter Rachel arrive at they are showered with hospitality, even when the inhabitants are in ill health and have only meagre food supplies.

However, this is not a state of affairs that can last, as an enlightening discussion with a local Raja reveals. He is concerned that the central government in Lahore’s road-building and tourism development schemes will bring ‘disease-carrying’ aeroplanes and jeeps. Indeed it is the sudden approach of a jeep – a rare glimpse of modernity on a ‘rocky wall rising sheer out of the [River] Shyok’ – that causes Rachel’s pony Hallam to rear up and almost throw her over the precipice. This chilling moment will forever be engraved on her mother’s memory.

Alexander Burnes also travelled in the Indus region, although he did so some 150 years before Murphy and in very different geopolitical circumstances. The ‘Great Game’ between Russian and British imperial interests in Asia is afoot and Burnes is sent by the Empire to chart ‘a route so unfrequented’: the course of the Indus River beyond the borders of British India. His knowledge of local languages and customs, his talent for disguise (so effective that Turkmenistanis mistake him for an Afghan) and his literary skills (his cousin was Robert Burns, even though the surname is spelt differently) make him the perfect man for the mission.

In an act of what the travel writing scholar Graham Huggan calls ‘shadowing’, Burnes compares his own experiences of these lands to those of his hero, Alexander the Great, some two thousand years previous. At first, the comparisons are unfavourable. With an almost Byronic nostalgia for the oriental civilisations of yesteryear, Burnes regrets the ‘gradual decay’ of the ‘celebrated’ ancient city of Tatta, its beguiling architecture, substantial silk industry, and fertile land having tragically ‘passed away’. Earlier on in the journey, such an attitude seems to go hand-in-hand with patronising judgements about contemporary Asians (‘the cringing servility of the Indians’/‘ignorant barbarians’), but the more Burnes sees of this part of the world, the more impressed with it he becomes. By the time he reaches Kabul he is moved to declare, ‘I do not wonder at the hearts of the people being captivated by this landscape’. To the erudite and open-minded Chief of Kabul he even goes as far as to admit that he has become something of a cultural hybrid: ‘I informed him … that I was an Englishman, and that my entire adoption of the habits of the people had added to my comfort.’

Much the same can be said of the other two writers. After seeing India astride his darling Tara, Mark Shand falls in love with Indian wildlife in general and with Indian elephants in particular. Of visiting the eccentric Eurasian enclave of McCluskiegunge, he writes, ‘perhaps the term Anglo-Indian represented what I was when I rode in’. Dervla Murphy starts integrating into Balti culture as soon as she arrives, embracing the ascetic lifestyle – dried apricot diet and all. Meanwhile, it takes Rachel several gruelling experiences – including a fall into a glacial torrent – before she is ‘completely adjusted to the oriental way of life’.

From great travel writers we should expect great powers of physical description, and this trio does not disappoint. Dervla Murphy is a little hard on herself when she claims that words cannot do justice to the sublime wonder of the Karakorums, as she consistently succeeds in rendering the otherworldly formations of the frozen landscape in the intensely detailed and lapidary style she is rightly famous for:

Much of the track was covered with thick sheets of ice, and

waterfalls had become towering, transparent columns,

surrounded by the bizarre elegance of giant bouquets

of icicles formed around clumps of thyme. Fantastically

convoluted masses of ice hung from roadside rocks…


In a similar vein, Mark Shand has a nature lover’s eye for the delicate balance of Southern Asian ecosystems, and how – at least for the time being and in certain locales – peasants in ‘bright lunghis of emerald green’ can live in harmony with ‘piebald and blue’ kingfishers and ‘clumps of bamboo and palm trees’.

Alexander Burnes’s cartographic expertise may have won him the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society, but he is equally adept at bringing to life such sumptuous spectacles as Maharaja Runjeet Sing’s meeting with Lord Bentinck, the Governor-General of India. Burnes writes beautifully of gold and silver-clad noblemen, ‘a lofty arcade of yellow silk’, ‘the richest carpets and shawls of Cashmere’, and a velvet tent ‘glittering with every ornament’. The event concludes with the Maharaja offering the British fifty-one trays of lavish gifts, as well as the finest horses and elephants.

These three books may have been written in different historical moments, but their observations remain of interest today. Burnes, in particular, is sometimes prophetic. He discerns a kind of globalisation taking hold in the ‘commerce extending uninterruptedly over such vast and remote regions’ and upbraids both the African and Islamic slave trades for breaching ‘human rights’. His curiosity about Southern Asia’s melting pot of unique cultures and subcultures prefigures the work of modern travel writers such as William Dalrymple, who fittingly provides the prologue and epilogue to this edition of Burnes’s book. In the afterword to Travels on my Elephant, Mark Shand explains how he set up the Elephant Family, a charity that is still campaigning for the conservation of Asian elephants today. As for Murphy, it would seem that Baltistan has changed little in almost forty years, and its ‘diamond-brilliant summits’ and ‘fearsome peaks’ not at all.

(Originally published in the London Magazine Feb-Mar 2013)

Missive #19 – ‘Travels in Old Asia’ review in the London Magazine

10 Feb

TLM Feb_Mar 2013_Cover

Greetings all, my latest piece for the London Magazine, a review of three classic travel books on Southern Asia, is out now.



Tragedies of Exile Part I

28 Aug
Tragedies of Exile: Candid Encounters with Expats
27 August, 2012


During my two years in Asia, some of the most intriguing people I met were expats. Some were genial and intelligent, others were obnoxious, but not one was ever dull. Settling down for brief periods in India, Malaysia, and other places, I became an expat myself. I experienced a weird kind of dislocation, a confusion about who I was and what I was doing. Despite my keenness to integrate, I had many fears and anxieties. Such feelings were new to me; I wanted to understand them better.

I decided to interview a number of expats about their attitudes, motives, and desires. I became fascinated not only by their personal stories, but with the wider phenomenon of expatriation itself. I found out that expats are defined as migrants from economically advanced countries and that, while there’s much debate about immigration to such countries, there is less focus on emigration from them. I was surprised to learn that six million Britons (10% of the total population) currently live outside the country, while 5% of Australians and 2% of Americans have moved overseas.

The more interviews I conducted, the more I realised that my troubles weren’t unique. An expat life seldom runs a smooth course.


I first meet Annisa at the University of Malaysia. She is performing an experimental dance routine drawing on African and Asian styles. She lurches around the stage as if possessed, her face pinched with terror. Afterwards, she sits down with me, exhausted.

Her beauty suggests she is younger than the “late 30s” she claims. She has caramel skin, sleek black hair and small elliptical eyes. These looks are typical of Cape Malays, she tells me, the descendents of Javanese slaves brought to South Africa by the Dutch. But while her ancestors were forcibly expatriated, Annisa has freely chosen to return to their country of origin five centuries later. She belongs to a genre of expat called “the returnee.” As Sriskandarajah and Drew observe in Brits Abroad, other returnees include British-Jamaicans who opt to go back to the Caribbean in later life. They are not always impressed with what they find. “It’s a foreign culture for us,” complains one man. “Now it is Americanised and strange.”

Is Annisa impressed with what she’s found? “It’s not how I imagined,” she sighs. “I was hoping for more gamelan music and fewer shopping malls.”

Does she spend time with other expats? “Apart from my English husband, not really.” She inverts Aesop’s adage: “Divided we stand, united we fall.” Fellow expats are “too inward-looking; they have little to do with the locals.” She has touched on a big theme: the problem of integration. In one school in Spain with a majority of British pupils, teachers protest the refusal of these Brits to learn Spanish. While living in Manila, a Filipino friend accused me of hiding in a gated community: a tower of rich outsiders guarded by natives poor enough to be sacrificed in an armed robbery or kidnap attempt. I pointed out to my friend that this was the only accommodation available to foreign workers like me; I hated it as much as she did.

However, some expats don’t feel welcomed to integrate. In Knowles and Harper’s study Hong Kong: Migrant Lives, Landscapes, and Journeys, British teenager Jess complains that Hong Kongers won’t sit next to her on the bus. When she enters a clothes shop they giggle at her Western physique. Knowles and Harper link this hostility to the colonial past, when local coolies had to ask special permission to enter whites-only neighbourhoods such as Victoria Peak. “There is a whole other life here which is very different from ours,” Jess concludes miserably.

In contrast with Jess, Annisa has learned fluent Malay and is founding a theatre company here in Kuala Lumpur. I ask her why she chose the expat life. “I was a professional actress in South Africa for five years, but the work dried up. I thought I should travel and better myself as a writer and performer.”
Annisa belongs to a long tradition of creatives who have sought inspiration and ideas abroad. As Malcolm Bradbury puts it, “by virtue of his dedication, creative anguish, and distinctive perception, the artist exercises his freedom and his powers by existing in a displaced relationship to his national culture.” Bradbury goes on to examine the great American writers who moved to Europe, from Henry James to Washington Irving, Ezra Pound to T. S. Eliot, Henry Miller to William Burroughs. Many of them went to Paris and joined a United Nations of artists: Irish playwrights, Spanish filmmakers, German painters, and so on.

Has Annisa been an expat anywhere else? “I’ve lived in San Francisco, Jakarta, Mumbai, and Yeovil.” “Yeovil?” I wonder if I heard correctly. “Yes,” she laughs. “It’s where my husband’s from. We didn’t last long there.”


I sit with Lily in a peach-coloured bar that used to be a Portuguese villa. Her peroxide blonde hair and sequined dress recall a femme fatale from a film noir, except she may be too old for the part. We are waiting for a band to tune up.

I ask Lily how she came to live in Goa. She looks over at the band, tears filming her heavily shadowed eyes. I seem to have upset her.
“I’m sorry,” she says, catching a tear in a napkin. “It’s been a while since somebody asked me that question.” She composes herself and begins her story.

Lily used to be a “workaholic miser,” running old people’s homes in Auckland. When her 20-year-old son Doug died in a car crash, she stopped caring about her career, money, New Zealand, and a lot else besides. She moved to Australia and lived on a houseboat. She threw lavish parties for her neighbours, enjoying this “new feeling called generosity.” A typical party would start with steak and champagne for breakfast and end with skinny dipping in the Timor Sea.

Lily then lived on a houseboat in Thailand for two years before sailing on a cargo ship to Goa. She admits to “running away from something,” but doesn’t mention her son. Her latest act of generosity was to buy instruments for the band, which has just started playing.

“Doug loved music,” she shouts in my ear. “Really loved it.” For the first time this evening she smiles. Some other expats join us, kissing Lily on the cheek. She keeps smiling for the whole of the gig.

Read part two in next month’s issue of The Expat.
This article was written by Tom Sykes for The Expat magazine.

Source: The Expat August 2012

Missive #11 – Tragedies of Exile

12 Jul

Those nice folk at The Expat will be running my article ‘Tragedies of Exile’ in two parts over August and September. It’s a series of interviews conducted with expatriates in different parts of Asia, all of whom are escaping from some difficulty or another. But don’t worry, it’s not too miserable. Actually some of the interviewees are quite funny.