19 March 2011


I am, obviously, not all that afraid to embarrass myself - in public or private. I hate the way I look and sound on video. But... as these videos are now available and I am committed to exposing myself on this website - well, within limits - here are the videos of my two presentations / panel discussions in Jakarta at @america. For some reason, the videos don't show all of the slides in my presentation, concentrating instead on my hidung besar and other such oddities. In both cases, I begin the show with my own presentation, then the panelists take over and I do my best to moderate.

So, here they are, feel free to fast forward:

The American Road Trip Tradition - March 13

Baseball, in America & Indonesia - Feb 27

16 March 2011


EVA Airport Lounge, Bangkok Airport: I considered slugging this "Thailand" as well, but since I've already checked out through immigration, I don't suppose I'm still in Thailand. I'm in that netherworld of airports and no man's lands between border checks.

I learned a few new things while I've been here, but mostly I've had a lot of old ones reinforced. Here's a selection:

Buddhism, like any other religion, is a whole lot of different things to different people. Like most religions, everyone tries to claim it's really a philosophy, some concepts, some ways of living one's life and "not really a religion." Bullshit! The vast majority of the people who practice it, practice it and relate to it no differently than adherents of any other religion do to theirs. Buddhists often say things like, "I hope Buddha protects me." "I prayed to Buddha to make more money." "Thanks to Buddha for..." "Buddha is challenging me by..." etc. And Buddhists do a whole lot of different things. Thai and Tibetan Buddhists happily eat meat. Balinese Buddhists sacrifice animals - including puppies. Buddhists are as dismissive of women, or use their religion to suppress women, as much as any other religion. Buddhists all over the place pass the collection plate and rake in plenty of cash and get involved in all sorts of interesting scandals - financial, sexual, political, you name it. Sure, Buddhism, like pretty much any other religion, has some good, useful precepts. But in its actual practice it is as venal, corrupt, corrosive and generally offensive as I find any and all other religions.

Women are horribly exploited and oppressed in most countries, sure, but it's also not quite so simple. According to an international survey released on Women's Day this year, about five percent of North American companies have women CEOs. In EU companies, the figure is about nine percent. Guess what country has the highest percentage of women CEOs of any in the world? That would be Thailand, with about 30 percent. China comes in second at about 19 percent. Still, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of Thai women are forced into prostitution by economic, social and cultural circumstances. And Thai society doesn't seem much bothered by that. But at the same time Thailand is very much a matriarchal society in which women generally hold the purse-strings and run the households. Go figure.

Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population and they are trying their damndest to love us (Americans) even though we don't make it easy. Electing Obama, who spent part of his childhood there, was a big help - Indonesians take great pride in that. Our invasion of Iraq, however, our conduct of the war in Afghanistan, the demonization and suspicion in our media of Muslims, our support for oil-rich brutal oppressive dictatorships (in part because we think they'll help us hold back the terrorists) all make making friends with Indonesia a whole lot harder than it should be. And we really could very much use a good, largely Islamic, friend in the world.

Architecture - well, just scroll down to the blog about that and you'll see what I'm saying.

Whining and casting blame is something that we Americans have become expert at. People in Asia don't have time or patience for it. It just gets in the way of getting their jobs done, developing their countries, feeding their families, making their lives better. It is the one thing that they understand the least of about us Americans (what have you got to really complain about?) and the thing they like the least. I'm with them.

Counterculture - a good, solid core of wacky, creative, disruptive outsiders who can hold their societies up for examination, introspection, even ridicule are the one thing that most Asian countries seem to lack, and sorely need. It won't be easy to develop that - these are societies that put a premium on harmony and social cohesion and greatly discount individualism. So far that dedication to purpose and the greater common good has served them in good stead. And there is certainly no good reason to toss it all out. But beyond a certain point, if a society, an economy, a body politic is to continue to develop, and not simply plateau, it needs its nut jobs, its crazies, its wild eyed visionaries who sometimes make people uncomfortable. There are some of them around the region who are making themselves known, and there are some of them who are being brutally held down in places like China and Singapore and Malaysia and Vietnam - not to even mention Burma and North Korea. But there aren't enough of them, not yet, and I have no idea how a country provides for their development.

Those are just a few thoughts that have come to mind.

15 March 2011


Bangkok, Thailand: That's the title of my short story that's in the new anthology, Bangkok NoirHere's a picture of me, Colin Cotterill (another of the included writers) and Christopher G. Moore (yet another of the included authors and the editor) in the office of the publisher here in Bangkok.Clicking anywhere on this paragraph will take you to the publisher's website, where you can buy copies. (It will also, eventually - don't know when - be available as an e-book.)

And here, to whet your appetite, is a short excerpt (it is only a short story after all) from


“Sorry, no fish today, Khun Ray.” Plaa looked more upset by that than she ought to be.
Maybe she had sold out. I hoped so for her sake. But it was still early, and this would be the first time ever.
“Plaa, is something wrong?”
“No, no problem, Khun Ray, only no fish today.”
She’s a bad liar.
“Come on, what is it?” She bit her lip and looked away. I could barely hear her.
“Robbers, Khun Ray, take fish and all my money. Make big trouble for me.”
I’d been buying lunch from Plaa for a few years. She makes the absolutely best green curry-coated, banana leaf-wrapped baked fish I’ve ever had. And she sells it every day out of her cooler on the street at Sukhumvit Soi 11, across from my hotel, for 25 baht.
I was in town for one hellish day of appointments. Our Bangkok correspondent was mad at the editor of the magazine. I couldn’t blame him. I was, too. But I don’t see why he had to take it out on me. I guess it was my fault for letting him arrange my schedule.
My first appointment had been an interview at the Central Bank at four-thirty this morning. The guy I met gets into the office at three to avoid traffic. My last interview is set for seven this evening, back next door to the Central Bank. In between I’ve got four more appointments scattered all over town. Those six interviews are going to add up to a total of about three hours of work, for which I’m going to spend at least twelve hours stuck in traffic.
I like Bangkok when I don’t need to get anywhere.
At least the correspondent loaned me his rolling office, so I can work at the desk in the back of the van as his brother-in-law drives me around town. And, having been the one who introduced me to Plaa’s fish, he didn’t want her to lose out on my business, so he kindly routed us past her usual spot just before lunch.
“When did this happen, Plaa?”
“I get here ten o’clock, Khun Ray. They waiting for me, push me, take cooler, run away.”
That’s an hour ago, and Bangkok is a very big city. I doubt there’s much I can do.
But I like Plaa. She works hard and spends little on herself so she can afford to keep her fifteen year old daughter Noi in school and out of the bars. I’m here to write an economic update on the country. My appointments are all with bigshots. But it’s Plaa, and people like her, that actually make this place tick.
“Do you know who it was? Did you recognize them?”
In Bangkok everybody knows who everybody else is, at least within their neighborhoods. And why would anyone come across town to rob a street vendor?
She gets a look on her face that I don’t like. A look that tells me she knows who it was but doesn’t want to say.
I ask again and she pretends like she doesn’t understand me. I know she does. Her English isn’t good, but it’s good enough.
There’s a tap on my shoulder. It’s Cho, my driver for the day. He wants to get me back in the van. We’ve only got an hour to get to the next appointment, and it’s a couple of miles away. I’d walk if it wasn’t ninety nine degrees and ninety some odd percent humidity and not likely to rain at any minute, and I wasn’t in a suit.
Cho wants to be a journalist. I have him sit in on my interviews in case I need any translation. It’s a matter of pride for him that we’re punctual, no matter how bad the traffic.
But I don’t want to let this drop. I’m getting tired of hearing all the glowing reports about the booming Thai economy. I could already write exactly what the next three interviews are going to tell me. ‘It’s 1992, if the economy keeps growing at eleven percent a year, by 2000 it will be, blah blah blah.’ I can do the optimistic math as well as the next well-connected mogul or government minister. It all sounds too good to be true, which it is.
Plaa’s got a real problem, maybe one I can do something about.
“Cho, Plaa was robbed. I think she knows who did it but she won’t tell me. Could you ask her?”
He leads her a few feet away, their backs turned. They talk for a minute before Cho comes back to tell me what he’s found out. Plaa stays where she is but turns toward us. Her face is pointed down, but I can see she’s looking at us through the top of her eyes.
“I think maybe better we go to your appointment, Khun Ray. This maybe big trouble. Better we not involved.”
“What’s the problem?”
“Man who steal from Plaa work for Big Shrimp.”
The name sounds familiar. “What’s that?”
“Big new restaurant, Sukhumvit 37. Owned by wife of general.”
I’d heard of it. There was a small stink raised when an old apartment building full of working class people was torn down to clear the land for it. And the general himself has recently been associated with some shady land deals. But wives of generals are well connected.
“Huh? What would they want with Plaa’s fish? And she couldn’t have had much money.”
“They want know how Plaa cook her fish. They offer her money, but she not want to tell. Her cook same as mother and grandmother. Is family secret. Today they steal fish and money and tell Plaa if she not tell, then she no do business any more.”

13 March 2011


Take a look at these partial skyline and building views. The top one is Pudong, across the river from Shanghai (in 2006, no doubt it's changed by now.) The next three are around Jakarta, the three after that are high-rise apartment buildings in Bangkok.

UPDATE: Here's a few more I took this morning (March 16) of Bangkok office buildings:

Take a look at these:
Chicago, Houston and Minneapolis.

Chicago has some fun old skyscrapers, and a few new ones with a sense of playfulness in the architecture, as does Minneapolis (the new ones that is), but for the most part, almost any developing Asian city is kicking our fat, lazy, slow American asses when it comes to fun, interesting, playful, exciting, innovative architecture. Increasingly our buildings just look like the boxes that all those new Asian buildings came in.


Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, Jakarta, Indonesia: Once again I'm sorry to be leaving. You know how there are places in the world that feel like home, that stimulate all your senses and excite your intellect and make you laugh and where you just plain feel comfortable? Well, Indonesia is one of those places for me. It's hot and sticky and I don't do great in that kind of weather. I've developed a nagging cough - I think from the one-two punch of massive pollution and going in and out of fierce air conditioning in Jakarta. I call it "Sakit Jakarta" - Jakarta Sickness. At this very moment I am alternately sweating and chilled - and I'm pretty sure I don't have a fever. And yet I love this place, I can't get it out of my system.

Go figure.

I love the contrasts. Indonesia is one of the most modern, traditional, rich, poor, beautiful, ugly, natural, artificial, fast-paced, slow-moving, challenging and comforting places I know.

Last night I moderated a panel and gave a presentation on road trips across America, at a new U.S. Cultural Center in Jakarta called @america. It was in Pacific Place, a huge and super swank new shopping mall next to the stock exchange building. (There's a Bentley dealership on the ground floor.) Very few Indonesians can actually afford to buy anything there - even the food court is high-priced for most of them. But plenty dress up in their best to come and ride the escalators and window shop and look around.

My fellow panelists were highly educated, sophisticated, well-traveled Indonesians, as were most of the people in the audience and I felt as warmly welcomed and well-received by them as I did by the people in Jatinegara, where I was the night before (see the last blog), in a neighborhood that is poorer than anywhere in Los Angeles. Much poorer.

I don't know any other country that extends as genuinely warm, friendly, humorous and gracious a welcome to outsiders as does Indonesia. And I don't think it's just me viewing the place through rose colored lenses. I wish I knew what the secret is. I wish it were a virus and we could infect the rest of the world with it. My own country, the U.S., could use some.

So I'm loathe to leave. But I am looking forward to some good tacos.

11 March 2011


Jakarta, Indonesia: Would I take my expensive camera, complete with two expensive lenses, to one of the poorer neighborhoods in the U.S. at night, to sit around on the street with locals drinking beer and shooting pictures of them doing something that is at least occasionally frowned upon by society at large - banned, even?

Probably not. It would be unwise.

Here, I don't think twice about it. One of my very favorite places on the planet is under a highway overpass at night, on the edge of a very dark, very poor, very dirty neighborhood called Jatinegara, where I am usually the only non-local to be seen. Even Indonesians from other parts of the city don't go there - some are afraid to. (I fruitlessly try to explain that while yes, Jakarta has crime, even increasing amounts of violent crime, it wouldn't even make the top 25 in crime statistics in the U.S.)

People in Jatinegara are, in my experience welcoming, friendly, helpful, happy to attempt conversing with me in my terrible Indonesian and proud that someone from far away is interested in their neighborhood and their lives.

There, six nights a week - they take Thursday night off - two stages are filled with musicians, singers and dancers performing Jaipongan. Rather than attempt to explain it, I will refer you to Wikipedia - which in this case, so far as I can tell, does a reasonably good job.

Men dance on the ground in front of the stage - sort of dancing with the women on the stage, who they shower with money - usually one and two thousand Rupiah bills (12 to 25 cents U.S.) - but also dancing with each other in a sort of martial artsish friendly competition for the attention of the women on stage.

Some of the women on stage might, or might not be, available for takeaway (so to speak), but you'd probably need to be a regular and get to know them first.

Last night I was there, by myself, enjoying one of my favorite things to do anywhere. I might have even danced a little - luckily there is no photographic evidence of that.

Here, though, is the other photographic evidence of my night out:

And okay, so he's not really a jaipong musician, but I'm pretty fond of nose-flute guy. He's good, too.

09 March 2011


Jakarta, Indonesia: Excepting, maybe, chicken. This seems like an issue here in the country where chickens were invented. Well, from whence they sprang - like potatoes and chilies from Peru and rock and roll from Africa by way of Mississippi.

Today I went to a local branch of the famous Taipei dumpling house, Din Tai Fung. It is fast becoming a large chain. (There's a branch in L.A., in Arcadia, as well as many throughout Asia.) Their specialty are Xiao Long Bao, (XLB) what are translated on their menu nearly everywhere (except here) as "juicy pork dumplings" - what New Yorkers (oh, those quaint rustics) refer to as "soup dumplings."

Here, in deference to the majority Moslem population of Indonesia, they are "juicy chicken dumplings."

It's a bad substitute. People are already wrong when they say that, for instance, frogs legs taste like chicken. They don't, they taste like frog's legs. They're wrong, too, about snake, especially cobra. Dog absolutely tastes nothing like chicken. And pork, most decidedly, does not taste even remotely like chicken. When I want an XLB, I want that porky goodness that doesn't taste like anything else.

Now I happen to love chicken. It is among my favorite meats. Yesterday for lunch I went to my very favorite nasi Padang (Minang) restaurant in the whole world - Natrabu on Jln. Agus Salim here in Jakarta. At a nasi Padang restaurant you sit down and piles of plates are stacked in front of you. You only pay for the plates that you eat the main ingredient out of. (Traditionally you can spoon the sauce from any plate onto your rice, and if you don't eat the solid stuff you don't have to pay for that plate.) It is the spiciest food in Indonesia and I love it.

I was spoiled for choice. And a full five of the choices - of which there were about 20 - were chicken (ayam): ayam goreng (fried), ayam pop (sort of poached in oil, served with a sharp red chili paste), ayam panggang (grilled with a tasty paste), ayam bakar (baked) and ayam in a creamy, spicy coconut milk sauce that I forget the name of. Any one of them would have been splendid. The chicken here is smaller than in the U.S. where even the chicken breasts have implants - and darker, too. It has a lot more flavor.

But it ain't pork, and it's never gonna be. They do, however, pit roast up a mighty fine crispy, crackling suckling pig in Bali. Buddhists and Hindus are happy to eat pork.

This week in Jakarta I have launched upon a new strategy. I am limiting my exposure to the outside world by day. When I go somewhere I take a taxi from my air conditioned hotel to the air conditioned wherever I'm going. Not only is the heat and humidity taken care of, but the air is more breathable. My lungs, though still experiencing a certain level of sakit Jakarta (Jakarta sickness) do feel better than they did after I overdid it during my first week here.

But I do go out at night. Last night I went with my friends Tim and Carol to Jatinegara, which is one of my favorite neighborhoods in Jakarta, maybe in the world. We were going to see people playing, singing and dancing jaipongnan in the street under an overpass next to the railroad tracks. We got there too early, at 8pm, and nothing was going to get underway until at least 10. We didn't want to hang around for hours, especially as they both had work to go to today, so we walked around for a while and have made plans to go back at the right time tomorrow - Friday.

There was plenty going on in the neighborhood though, and here's the photographic evidence:

07 March 2011


Jakarta, Indonesia: On my way to the Denpasar airport to leave Bali, I passed through the tourist hellhole of the south. I passed several McDonald’s, a couple of Burger Kings, a few KFCs – which got me to thinking.

The McDonald’s in Indonesia are often open 24 hours and they are often full. At one time the McDonald’s on Jalan Thamrin in Jakarta was the busiest, most profitable McDonald’s in the world. (It's now either the one in Moscow or one in Germany, there are arguments about this.) All ten of the busiest McDonald’s worldwide are outside the U.S. – probably all 20, maybe more.

I don’t like McDonald’s. There are very few places on the planet where I don’t feel that I can find something better, cheaper even, not too far away. But a whole lot of people love it and that’s their business and like it or not, when it shows up in a place like Indonesia it is a sign of progress. To most Indonesians those golden arches are a sign that their lives are getting better, that there might be some opportunities opening up that didn’t used to be there.

Same with KFC. I don’t understand its popularity in Indonesia – where fried chicken was invented and where within spitting distance of any given international franchise you can find better and cheaper local fried chicken. Still, I am apparently in the minority.

Does that make me part of the problem? A cultural imperialist happy to spread my Yankee crapola all over the world, destroying the local “authentic” culture through the imposition of globalization?

It would be the height of arrogance for me to deny people here something they like in the name of providing me with a more “authentic” experience of their country.

And you know, Bob Dylan had it right: “Money doesn’t talk, it swears.” Indonesians regularly vote in favor of international fast food franchises with their rupiah, and for most of them that money is harder to come by than it is for most Americans (and Western Europeans) - so those “votes” are pretty damn meaningful.

Luckily, though at times and in places more difficult to find than others, the “authentic” Indonesia is still out there to be found. Sometimes it is even right next door to a KFC or out back behind a gigantic mall. (For that matter, all these new fast food restaurants and glitzy shopping malls are pretty authentic to Indonesians. They’re part of their life, an increasingly welcome part of it.)

But if you want to find the traditional Indonesia you just have to look and not get distracted by the glow of the golden arches or by your own perspective that wants to deny other people what you already have the choice to spurn or not yourself.

05 March 2011


Tirtigangga, Bali: I am loathe to write this blog. I have been coming to this place since 1985 and it is mostly unchanged and I would love for it to stay that way.


There are books one reads by people who came to Bali in the 1800s and who were horrified at how much it had been spoiled by the early 1900s. Every ten years or so new people show up here and when they come back ten years later they are outraged by how overrun their beloved Bali has been by voracious hordes of outsiders.

And it's kind of true. The government originally did a very good job of ghettoizing much of the tourism in the south - Kuta, Sanur, Legian, lately Jimbaran and some other beaches. Ubud was permitted to become the cultural showcase - sort of Bali Disneyland as it were. (Apparently the restaurant and hotel owners in Ubud recently ganged up on the kaki lima (pushcart food vendors) and banned them from city streets. FEH! I never liked that place anyhow. It deserves all the idiot hordes who are showing up because of that dumb book and movie.) Denpasar was the big city, the commercial hub, and as such it was permitted to be as filthy and crowded and noisy and crass as most of the other big cities in the country - or the world for that matter.

But when I first came here, it only took a little effort - and ideally a rented Volkswagen "Thing" (they all seem to have come here for an afterlife) to escape the international tourist ghetto in the south. Since I never spent more than a day or two in the tourist hellholes, I never felt overwhelmed by my fellow foreigners in Bali. I'd hop in my vehicle and head north.

This time I was worried. I'd heard disquieting rumors. Amed, the sleepy black sand fishing and salt producing village north of Tirtigangga had been developing fast. Candi Dasa, the beach community to the south the same.

And it's true. Amed has become a French colony of sorts, and a SCUBA diving center. Candi Dasa seems popular with Germans and Australians.

But praise the lord and pass the ammunition - Tirtigangga has been spared!

There may be one or two more homestays, set deep back into the hills, than when I first came here. One or two more restaurants - warung really - that provide pizza to bule, but basically it is the same place I visited for the first time 26 years ago.

This morning I woke up early, able to leave the hotel after Nypei Day by six am, and took a long walk through the nearby rice terraces and villages. It was the same place I have loved all these years - almost entirely unspoiled. In my entire weeks stay here, I have encountered, to say hello to, only 13 other foreigners. I have seen some five or six others in the distance. (Oh, make that seven or eight - two just walked into the Water Palace.)

I think this must be in part due to the beach not being close at hand. Tirtigangga is in the foothills and while you can see the ocean, it takes about a half hour or a bit more to get to it. Fine by me. I'm not a very beachy person.

Now I would never be so presumptuous as to say that Tirtigangga is the "real Bali" or anything like that. As a people, the Balinese seem to have a remarkable ability to go about their traditional business in the midst of what the rest of us would regard as overwhelming distractions of the modern, and pushy foreign world. They have even made a very successful cottage industry out of leveraging tourism in a way that helps them maintain their traditions and culture. (If anything, motorbikes, which are their own seeming current fetish objects, are the biggest threat to the place.) Even in the middle of the tourism tornado that engulfs such places as Kuta Beach, Balinese culture, tradition and even tranquility somehow manages to survive - thrive even.

But here, removed somehow from the onslaught of, well, of people like me, is the Bali that I truly love. A few pictures from this morning's walk in the neighborhood are below:

04 March 2011


Tirtigangga, Bali - Nyepi Day (part two): If one believed in demons and such like, one could easily get the impression that Bali is a dangerous place to live. From the amount of appeasing or not aggravating of them that goes on, one gets the feeling that nasty spirits are everpresent, always ready to make you suffer if you let your guard down.

Even the benevolent gods have tempers. If you decide you want to climb Mt. Agung – Bali’s holiest – you dare not speak, not even whisper, try not to even think if you can avoid it the name of Ratu, the god who lives up there. That makes him mad and you don’t want to do that. He might smight you and you are, after all, on the exposed slope of an active volcano – probably not a good place to get smote.

And it’s questionable just how benevolent he is anyhow. Bali does have great soil, it’s growing season is year round, thanks to its volcanoes. But every so often one of them erupts and flattens and burns all sorts of stuff that was simply minding its own business. The last time Mt. Agung threw a big fit, a bunch of monks at Besakih temple – the holiest on the island and on the mountain’s slope – threw themselves into the lava flows to appease Ratu. Everyone says that stopped the lava flows and saved the temple. Well, I don’t say that, but everyone else does.

And of course if you’re a woman and you’re having your period, just forget about it. There are so many place you aren’t supposed to go that every menstruation day is like Nyepi day for you.

So if you believe in demons, well, you’ve got to do something about them or you are being irresponsible. Right?

The Balinese do all sorts of stuff on an ongoing basis to keep the demons at bay. But on the night before Nyepi they parade a whole bunch of them, called Ogoh-Ogoh, made out of paper mache, around the streets, through the villages, hoisted on bamboo platforms carried by often drunk young noisy men, accompanied by raucous gamelan marching bands (I actually heard some ingenious combination of percussion instruments sound vaguely like Hendrix) and the usual buzz and fumespew of millions of motorbikes.

Then they burn them. If they’re still in any shape to burn. It poured rain off and on yesterday and as many of you might recall from childhood, rain and paper mache don’t mix.

Here’s some pics: