Sunday, 27 November 2011

Rice diaries - an extract from Thailand

Krabi, Thailand.

Schools out for the day and I'm sat pondering my life in a US mimicked hypermarket, air conditioned and cushioned from gritty reality. From the dust, heat, vibrance and  uncontrollable nature of South East Asia. I'm drinking an iced coffee, which is sickly sweet and devoid of dairy. I miss dairy, cheese and crackers, milkshakes...I digress. For the last year, I've centred around a goal - to save enough money to go travelling. To experience cultures entirely unlike the pleasant subtleties of Europe or the brash beauty of Africa that I've been fortuitous enough to experience.

The be all and end all of life out here is rice. Small children shovel it in as though their lives depend on it and until their cheeks are full to bursting. Rice is offered to Buddhist monks at dawn on their morning procession through every town to collect sustenance from locals in a vast, ornate metal pot. It is an offering to every Buddhist shrine, it is the fuel of every work place. It is more often or not bizarrely accompanies by lurid colour Fanta's, cap popped and straw straight in the bottle. It is clear that Fanta exported all the unwanted E numbers from the West here. It seems Buddha enjoys Fanta too - bottles are often left on shrines to wash down his pad thai or durian. Durian has to be the most putrid smelling fruit but people seem to love it. It is the size of your head and covered in a tough brown, bobbly skin.

Venture anywhere even a few streets from the path of the over 18s holiday shagfest and boozeathon that the coast of Vietnam and Thai Islands have become and you can find a meal for 50p. Failing rice, you can be sure of a nice does of noodles. South east Asia created the original fast food. Its cheap, moreish and delicious, the only difference is McDonalds haven't created their own version yet. Nutritious meals are fired up (literally) in front of your eyes as you squat on a plastic road side stool. Arguably a thousand times better than any Big Mac. That's not to say that I haven't had more than a few cravings for the taste of home. A self confessed foodie, I would KILL for a Cadburys dairy milk. I'm not ashamed to admit I spent £2 on one chocolate bar in  Vietnam. I would pay an excessive amount to eat a cumberland sausage or some greek yogurt. Bright red frankfurters tolling in glass boxes on the street just don't quite have the same allure as bangers and mash. Neither does jellied fruit with condensed milk. Bring me chocolate fondant and sticky toffee pudding any day. We have got so much scope and accessibility to other cuisines and times of food stuff in the UK, that I've been spoilt rotten. Eating pad thai once a week - enjoyable. Eating pad thai every day twice a day - boring.

Rice is the staple for a reason, it's cheap, mass produced and bountiful. The West are like fat kittens, the sort that has been licking the cream and lazing around. In comparison, aside from the minor wealth percentage and rising numbers of middle class families, the average person in here lives their lives in their business. A television out front, thin mattresses on the floor, faulty electricity that crackles overhead menacingly, a toilet resembling a corrugated hole in the floor, flushed by emptying a bowl of water into it, and the steady whir of ceiling fans. Perhaps this is the basis and explanation for the refreshing attitude of just getting on with it and working hard. There is no room for complaining or disobedience in this ultra polite culture. Accepting your lot in life and retaining face are the measurements of a reputable citizen in this humid paradise. Not whether you own the latest Apple regurgitation.

A surprising number of travellers from the West have left the people of Asia with the impression of ludicrous gluttony. That despite have access to luxuries and ultimate comforts, they persist in self destruction, in downing bottle after bottle of Tiger beer, simply believing that their own invincibility will save them from an early grave. To hell with the poor medical facilities, they cry, I have insurance! Such an invincibility fostered by growing up in a world never overshadowed by war, famine or a major disaster. Not so for the decendants of the terror of the Kymer Rogue Regime in Cambodia, or the ongoing political unrest in Thailand and Loas, nor the war in Vietnam. The after effects are still very much prevalent. The deformaties and genetic abnormalities spawned from the defoliant chemical Agent Orange in Vietnam are not matched by a welfare state sufficient to cope. Mines still explode on the farmers tending to their rice paddies, ironically, tragically butting short the lives of those cultivating the substance of life.

Cambodia is still in the infant stages of repairing itself from the devastation of loosing what is estimated to be over 25% of the population. Those who were dispossessed and forced into communes in the countryside often alone as whole families were split up, are still trying to piece their lives together. All this is happened a mere 30 years ago. The sickening rise in the child sex trade stemming from the phenomenal amount of orphans serves as a testament that Cambodia is far from being healed and far from being free of exploitation.

For me in the UK, growing up meant University was a given, as was partying at weekends, new clothes, plentiful food, a car.............. I was taught to await the discovery of my individual brilliance. That someone would recognise how great I was, paying me accordingly. How trivial the plight of the disillusioned youth in England in comparison to those who live on the bread line and do so with utmost dignity.

Let me just step down off my soap box...!

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