Letter from Southeast Asia
First Monday

Letter from Southeast Asia

In the four years since I had visited Thailand, the national economies in the region had suffered greatly and were now struggling to recover. The crises stopped or delayed many projects but not the 1999 International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) conference in Bangkok, Thailand. IFLA chooses conference sites many years in advance. When Thailand was chosen for the 1999 meeting, the economy had been growing. Most of the planning took place during the economic crisis when commercial sponsorship for such events was slipping away. Especially affected after bank closures were the local companies that closed plants and sent millions of Thais to the streets and eventually back to the villages they had left during the boom.

The conference was held in conjunction with several satellite events in Thailand and other countries. I had been invited to a pre-conference Collecting and safeguarding the oral traditions" in the regional town of Khon Kaen in the Isan region, an area where only one percent of the tourists ever visited and which was one of the poorest in the country. My talk was about how the Internet could be used to preserve and stimulate oral tradition, a concept that is foreign to those who believe the Internet is a homogenizing force for multimedia in the English language, a force that is corrosive to local cultures.

Flights from the U.S. seem to arrive around midnight, and I had found an inexpensive hotel near the Bangkok airport to rest a few hours before an early morning flight to Khon Kaen. The Asia Airport Hotel was built during the boom; it sits on a shopping center a few kilometers from the terminal, and costs 1,566 Baht (38 Baht = $1US) for a large air-conditioned room, pool, wakeup service, and shuttle to and from the airport.

Khon Kaen

Early in the morning at the airport for domestic flights, a group of Buddhist monks languidly walked down the concourse, the early morning shafts of sunlight illuminating the saffron and mustard colored robes. They boarded the plane to Khon Kaen before other mortals. At the airport we were met by staff from the Mahasarakam University which is located about an hour from Khon Kaen. We were housed at the Sofitel, a five star hotel that towers above the town of Khon Kaen and provides every amenity. The rooms were luxurious, and everything worked beautifully. We were fed so many buffets of Thai and western foods that I had to take extra long runs and walks in the early morning.

The town was in an area where Americans had air bases for the wars in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. The economy changed with the arrival of the military and slumped once they departed. It seemed vibrant while I was there. I observed open outdoor markets with more foods, household items, and clothes than many larger cities. The range of vegetables, fish, and poultry was astonishing. I was curious about a large bowl of chilies and shellfish that had been stir-fried. The vendor laughed when my face changed upon realizing the shellfish were grasshoppers.

Isan is known for its weaving, and there were choices of soft cotton bedspreads, quilts, embroidery, silk-cotton material for dresses, and pure silk ikat in every possible style. Lines of women hunkered across from the hotel with baskets of three and four meter pieces for sale to the guests. I usually try to find weavers' coop to get an idea of pricing and good quality products in an area. Khon Kaen has Sueb San of the NorthEast rural Development Association, 16 Klang Muang Road. This small shop has a variety of goods at fair prices, and they will discount slightly even if you don't ask. Supplementing marginal agricultural activity with crafts income allows people to stay on the land and not migrate to the overcrowded urban areas. Presumably this will help preserve the environment, though deforestation by illegal logging has diminished the forests so much that even the elephant population is migrating to the cities. That is, the mahouts who have trained the elephants, bring them to Bangkok to beg for food. Thais love elephants, and maybe their plight will help more make the link between business practices and environmental degradation.

Most of my free time was spent wandering around watching people in markets and malls and on the street. Traffic is moderate here, nothing like the famed jams of Bangkok. Near the hotel is a shopping mall where a student spelling bee in English was held. Hundreds of kids and their parents were taking part. On another floor a science fair for students was going on, and the full time cybercafes and computer labs were jammed. Rates for Internet access were about $1/hour, and all 30 machines were in use. What a change since 1995 when only a few businesses had dedicated lines to the PTT.

The early mornings were cool; dozens of monks were out and about, sometimes a line of young boys, and some led by a middle-aged abbot. Most of them would file by a person dispensing food from a large container. The papers report on transgressions not only by government but also within the clergy. A young novice had killed his assistant abbot in Khon Kaen because he wanted money to buy an amplifier for his cassette player. The police found his fingerprints on the donation envelope from which he had taken 1,000 Baht. Other news was devoted to the charges against a senior priest who has misappropriated funds to buy property for himself. His followers were defending him as much as Jimmie Swaggart's followers in the U.S. supported him.

The conference was held for a small group from dozens of countries. After a welcome by one of the organizers, Ralph Manning of the National Library of Canada, we heard from a UNESCO official, Malama Meleisea, a Samoan based in Bangkok who argued that oral history is crucial to contemporary society but that it has a very low priority in most settings. Other speakers that followed also mentioned the lack of prominence for their own projects. The keynote speaker, Dr. John Waiko, Minister of Education for Papau New Guinea, had to cancel, but he faxed a thirty-page paper that was unique and very personal. Waiko, a member of the Binandere people, had his thesis judged by both academics in Australia and by village elders who were the source of the interviews. Now he has reluctantly taken on the role of an "elder", many of whom must adjudicate land claims and other arguments which can be settled by the oral transmission of stories, other settlements, and major events. People who maintain oral histories are not just story tellers; they are judges and guardians of property.

The participants came from varied backgrounds: audio archivists, anthropologists, librarians, oral historians, officials from cultural centers, and multimedia producers. A good portion of the conference was devoted to technical discussion of sound archiving and the pluses and minuses of digital formats. Some found it too technical, but I thought they built from the basics to help others understand how advanced centers in Australia and Austria are being run. Some Africans were hoping for a simple, permanent, and cheap storage format, even though the instructors warned them that no format was going to last forever and that migration from one medium to another is the name of the game.

We took a field trip to Mahasarakham University, about an hour from Khon Kaen. I sat next to Dr. Leo von Geusau, a Dutch anthropologist who lives and works with the Akha people in Northern Thailand. What is odd is that he heard about the conference from a person in Europe who responded to my query about the Internet and oral tradition on the nettime mailing list. So the Internet brought us together. The Akha number about 2.5 million and, like the Kurds, they are spread around various nations: Thailand, Burma, Laos, Vietnam, and China. Many have been marginalized by their treatment in each country and because they are mainly rural farmers. They are adversely affected by Christian proselytizing, government policies to integrate other cultures, and what Dr. von Geusau calls "technocratic modernism." Nevertheless he is hoping to get them connected to the Internet so that the different national groups can link up and stay in touch more easily. For more information contact him at the South East Asian Mountain Peoples' Culture and Development: Research, Documentation, and Information Programmes (deuleo@cm.ksc.co.th.

The tour of the University library and the Isan resource center was rather unusual and also serendipitous. The furniture in the center was designed to resemble local artifacts: carts, baskets, looms, rockets (traditional fireworks, not Vietnam War ordinance). They had also produced a CD-ROM of Isan culture that included text, digital video, and still images. The reception included different foods and some interesting desserts. One tiny cake was topped with flecks of gold, and miniature figures of vegetables and fruits, lovingly crafted from a sweet bean paste, looked too good to eat. Several of us were given a brief tour of a special archive for palm books, a medium that fascinated me ever since I received a lontar palm book from Bali. These books have been used for centuries to store religious teachings, epic poems, medical information, and financial records. Some are beautiful works of art, but Dr. Boonsom Yodmalee said that Buddhist temples had been discarding them in recent years because people were unable to read the older script. We headed for an outdoor pavilion where a traditional orchestra and dance troupe was assembled for an evening of song and dance. The instruments were a mixture of reed and percussion and string with some backup by electric guitar.

The most impressive part were the stylized dances by elaborately costumed young women, with heavy makeup accentuating their stellar beauty. I sat there entranced by the intricate hand movements that looked like sign language. Each movement meant something, but I have no idea what. Sitting up front, I was immersed in the music. Later, after a short interview for the local television station, all the participants were invited to dance in a giant circle. A young dancer invited me to follow her moves. I mimicked her as best I could, and she seemed to approve. It took a lot of concentration, and in the midst of her intricate gestures, she would stop and give me a double thumbs up, as if to say, "You Number One, Yank!" but she spoke no English. Yet I had this feeling that the musicians and dancers could easily rock out with any modern theme (Ricky Martin is featured prominently on Asia-MTV). There were the welcomes and thank yous by local dignitaries, and Ralph Manning was presented with a giant model of a crab, a species that survives only in this area. How he would get it home, I had no idea.

Nong Khai

On the last day I gave my talk that introduced the theme of oral tradition and the Internet. This included storytelling, poetry, poetry slams, oral history archives, and streaming media for the distribution of spoken word. Just afterward I had to rush for an afternoon train to Nong Khai, a regional town three hours away on the border with Laos. The trains are inexpensive, relatively comfortable, and a leisurely way to travel. Two newlyweds from British Columbia were trekking around Thailand for a year, and I enjoyed hearing their adventures with elephants, a group of Buddhist novices made up of at-risk youth, and once we reached our destination, we shared a tuk-tuk (a three wheeled open motobike with cab) to the Mut Mee Guest House. Nong Khai stretches along the Maekong River. There are more tourists here than in the past because Laos has relaxed its visa procedures, and an Australian built a bridge that joins Thailand and Laos just outside of Nong Khai.

The Mut Mee Guest House is a classic successful backpackers haven. It has all the right ingredients for a certain kind of traveler: low rates, helpful staff, decent food, exotic location that is very quiet and convenient at the same time. The rooms are well-screened from bugs; the shared bathroom was spartan but clean. The fan and the lights worked and the door locked. For $3 a night these are features you don't assume. Mut Mee also provides a very good hand-drawn map of the area and of Vientiane, Laos.

On the path leading to the guest house from the road there is a book store, another guest house, a bicycle rental shop, a little art gallery, and astrology service. The bookstore is stocked with travel books plus a handful of historical Black Power literature from the USA: Ron Karenga, Eldredge Cleaver and other writers from the 60s.

Most of the guests sat outside under cabanas. Wicker chairs, hammocks, and desk chairs were pointed at the river. We watched the lights from Laos while others played chess on a small chess board and a giant one in the yard. The food service is varied and inexpensive. Each guest has a book in which he writes menu items or drinks taken from the refrigerator. The order books are fanned out in front of the chef, and when the book is closed, the order is ready. Upon departure the items are added to the room bill. I had fried fish in honey sauce, rice, and a large bottle of beer for $4.00. One menu item that puzzled those who took it seriously: "Maekong River water: natural and unfiltered: 173 Baht."


Friday morning I took a tuk-tuk to the Friendship bridge and paid 10 baht to cross to Laos in a van filled with locals and tourists. Those without visas can get one for $30 U.S., one passport photo, and 15 minutes of waiting while the People's Democratic Republic border officers do the paperwork. There were only three other tourists waiting, and we met two Dutch fellows returning to Laos for a second visit. We shared a tuk-tuk to Vientiane, a 50 Baht, 20 km ride. You can wait for the regular bus, but while cheaper it is much more crowded. I had no local currency, (9,300 kip = $1 US) but Baht and dollars were used freely. In the past 7 months the Laos kip had lost about 50% of its value, so the more stable Thai and U.S. currencies are valued.

The Dutch, used to very low prices, urged us to "get out of Vientiane. It's too expensive." However, I only had two days and would not leave the capital, but I listened to their tales of temples and elephants, and priests, unexploded land mines and kind villagers.

"This country is so great. It's like Europe was four centuries ago!" one of them exclaimed. To which the other added, "Except there's fantastic French bread and pastry everywhere!" What a great characterization of paradise! We were dropped at the main market where young women money changers descended on us, flashing calculators with poor rates for Baht and dollars. I bargained the Baht rate up to 250 kip and pulled out a 1000 Baht note, pleased that they were not going to get away with unfair rates. But I did not count my money correctly as I stood in the noisy crowd and traffic, and I walked away 50,000 kip short! Totally my fault. Another learning lesson for the world traveler. The market was a swirl of pedestrians, tuk-tuks, cabs, bicycles and sedans. NGOs and UN workers had the best vehicles: big white air-conditioned Toyota Land Cruisers and SUVs.

The Vientiane market was located in three modern buildings with two floors. The electronics gear was all shrink wrapped with no cartons. I guess people want to see the item and probably could not read the English packaging anyway. Stands selling household items and tools stood next to souvenir stands and then row after row of Laotian fabric, both for the visitor and for local women buying skirts and materials to make suits. There was such variety that I decided to come back before making any purchases.

I found the Ekalath hotel on the corner and a middle aged European sitting watching the koi pond in the heat. He spoke no English, so I switched to French and he said the place was okay and not too expensive. One room was over the street, and another was windowless but air conditioned and everything seemed to work (main criteria) for $15. Many places for backpackers are less than half that price, but I was looking for a place to cool off easily and often. Vientiane still has a lot of French influence: restaurants and a large number of wine shops, filled with reasonably priced bottles and even wine by the glass for about $1 and up. As a former winemaker I don't drink too much when it is hot, but many ex-pats and Laotians must. Most of the prices for food were rather low. In the central area near the fountain there were buffets for about $2 at lunch time. I chose an Indian restaurant which was filled with foreigners and had a good meal before heading back to the market.

I planned to make a shirt with the first cloth I bought, but after getting a few meters of ikat cotton, I began getting other pieces just because they were so amazing. Silk in deep reds and gold ikat figures (men, elephants, temples); geometric patterns embroidered into cushions and wall hangings by Hmong artists, some designs on the skirts looked like they came from Oaxaca (Mitla) and old baby blankets from the 19th century plus the usual Beer Lao t-shirts. Before visiting Laos I had asked an area expert what I should do during my short visit. "Do nothing," he advised. "Sit by the Maekong and drink beer with the other Laotians. Relax." I sat by the central fountain and watched people while guzzling the half pitcher of beer (60 cents U.S.!). A young bicyclist with strawberry blond hair waited anxiously for her friend, and they bicycled away together. The pace here is so slow compared to other Asian capitals, and it is recommended for that reason alone. Just off of the circle was the Auberge Provencal where I had a delicious but comparatively expensive meal for only $8.50.

The Raintrees bookshop is across the street from Lao Aviation. I walked in and a young man immediately asked me to check his resume. He was managing the bookstore but looking for other work that would put his English and computer skills to work. He had only a few awkward phrases, and I offered some alternatives. The National Library was further up the block. A science institute had just donated a computer and modem to so they could connect to the Internet. I went into the public reading area on the ground level. Two young girls giggled and greeted me at the door. Most of the people were young and were reading English papers and magazines, though there were materials in Lao and Russian, a language many seemed to have learned before 1990. A large portrait of Vladimir Lenin was propped on the top of a bookcase. A fan droned in the heat and gently rustled the pages of the newspapers on the table.

Laos recently was connected to the Internet, and compared with the hundreds of cybercafes in Thailand, Laos just has a few. One is the Malic Cafe, just off a busy intersection. It's relatively expensive: $2 for 10 minutes, but you get a free beer with your access! At a computer store near the hotel I met a young man who was helping the tourists access mail. His English was fair, but he worried more about his lack of knowledge about the Internet. When I asked how he learned, he said they taught themselves. They set up the server and LAN, leased a dedicated line from the PTT and began charging 1,000 yip (10 cents) a minute for online access. Offline composing of messages is a bit less. Most other providers in other countries have benefited from outside training courses, such as those sponsored by the Internet Society, or else they have learned from people who had already set up a TCP/IP service earlier. Setting up this business in such isolation is really very remarkable. It is like finding a Bible and trying to set up a local Catholic church by just reading the text. He asked me for help understanding electronic mail. He did not know about mailing lists, only about free Web-based e-mail. Nor did he know that many other services were being offered for free such as group calendars, large file storage, affinity group tools such as photo albums, discussion areas, and lists. He had not heard of Linux, nor did he know the sources online for more free information about the technical side of internetworking. I promised to send him pointers and information, once I had returned home.

Vientiane has a weird monument, the Arc de Triomphe, that towers over a broad avenue leading from the presidential palace on Thanon Lan Xang. It is a blend of French, Laotian,and Soviet styles, much like Black Star Square in Accra, Ghana, combined Soviet and African motifs. You can view it from the morning market or walk 15 minutes and stand under it. There is also a revolutionary museum, but I didn't go in. I enjoy the places where people are strolling and relaxing. Along the river, small restaurants are set up outside near the bank. A group of students were consuming what looked like a large plate of green leaves with a side order of noodles. The Maekong was moving as slowly as Bangkok traffic, and it made me feel very far from home, from the rest of the world, but it was enormously peaceful, especially for an urban capital. The American Embassy is on a secluded side street near my hotel, and it is closed up on the weekend. A directive in English alerts prospective visa applicants that there is a fee just to apply, but no acceptance is guaranteed, even for a tourist visa. To immigrate the U.S. government a DNA test is required, to prove blood relationships to relocated family members! Fortress America!

On Saturday I headed back to the transport park early in the morning to see the market one last time. About 6 a.m. one section was filling up, and most of the vendors are selling fruit and vegetables, but after a rain the whole market area was a sea of mud on which mats are spread for the produce as well as some meat. One tuk-tuk smashes into another near me. I was startled and realized how lucky I was not to be hit, especially since I did not buy medical insurance for this particular trip. About noon I checked out and took my bulging backpack and found a ride back to the bridge. This time it cost about $2.00, but he drove carefully,and I had a wonderful view of the town and the countryside. I have to return here.

Within two hours I returned to Mut Mee to rent a bike and dump my second bag. My plan was to visit the Salakaewkoo sculpture park and a handcrafts store. The heat was intense, and after getting lost on the back roads I returned to town where I found the Village Weaver Handcrafts store, run by Mr. Suvan Boonthae, a Lao who was forced to leave the country in the 1970s during the war. He had worked for the United States embassy, and the communists assumed he was a spy. Once in Nong Khai he helped set up the center for the Sisters of Mercy. Giving rural woman an income from crafts may allow them to stay on the land and earn enough not to be tempted to move to Bangkok. Many people from Isan have gone to the capital, and millions have returned to the countryside during the economic downturn. Mr. Boonthae said he can return to Laos safely and most recently organized a marathon from Nong Khai to Vientiane. He also buys Lao handicrafts to expand his store's selection. The prices are fair, and the quality seems to be high. He uses electronic mail frequently, the fax much less now, and visitors who return home place second orders via the Internet. He has no Web site, but write village@udo.ksc.co.th if you want more information. He handles many orders from previous visitors, but he has no illustrated catalog of items.

The train from Nong Khai to Bangkok has three classes. Some cars have fans; some have AC. Some have berths, others just benches. A large Thai woman packs in 4 cartons and 3 suitcases when she arrives shortly after I do. We each have a seat in second class facing the other. These two are converted into a bunk and the upper berth is opened up after a couple of hours into the 12 hour trip. I could recline against the wall and let the moist breeze cool me. I slept and read and dozed off again. The car was remarkably quiet, except for the sound of the tracks. No babies crying or even any snoring. In the early morning I got up and cooled off with a quick shower. We arrived in Bangkok about 630 a.m. and a 100 Baht tuk-tuk ride drops me at the Collins YMCA hotel on Sathon Tai Road. The driver is from Nong Khai, but like so many Thais, he works in Bangkok and goes home once a month. He learned English from his years in the U.S. Navy in Long Beach and Honolulu!

YMCA hotels in Hong Kong and Bangkok are bargain full service hotels. If you want more than backpacker's lodging but prefer not to pay for a Westin or Marriott, this place is quiet, well run, and located within walking distance of the notorious Patpong red light district, a destination of interest to many young Christian men seeking associations. Most hotels have signs posted to prevent "visitors" from being in guests' rooms after 11 p.m. This hotel is filled with Japanese youth groups, librarians from China, Cambodia, and France, and unattached tourists.

The IFLA conference is held every year in a large city and is hosted by a national organizing committee drawn from the library associations in that country. Because the cities are chosen years in advance, political and economic turmoil can make it extremely hard for some groups to find matching funds to plan and execute such a grand conference. In 1994, Cuba hosted the meeting during the depth of their economic crisis, and Thailand had to plan this one during the major recession still affecting the country.

The Thai librarians planned well. However, they did have to chose a meeting place less centrally located, and each day the delegates had fairly long bus rides to BITEC, a new convention near no other businesses or activity within walking distance. Most delegates stayed around the exhibits or visited with each other when not attending one of the many sessions. The conference Web site has more details on the program.

The Internet Discussion group drew hundreds to a series of topics on Web design, reference services, delivery of library information, and one that I ran on public access to the Internet. Ours was small and drew librarians from Norway, Trinidad and Tobago, South Africa, China, and Australia. Most were not offering such a service, and they had questions for those already providing it. We encouraged them to devote about 50% of their budget to training and support since that is usually underfunded.

At the heart of this conference are formal papers. More than 100 were presented and available in paper form. Rather than take every one, each delegate had a sheet of coupons to be used for a limited selection. The packet also included the organization's Web site on a CD-ROM, and that contained many of the papers from the conference. By the time we return home most of the 1999 papers will be online. Of course, many delegates do not have adequate access to the Internet, or else it is too expensive to download many files, so the CD-ROM is a good compromise.

The exhibit hall was filled with high tech companies from Europe, Israel, the U.S., and SE Asia pushing electronic services, automation systems, barcode readers, and Sun drew the biggest crowds because they set up a 30 station Internet café. Anyone giving away bags or posters were targets for the crowds of students coming through on visitor passes during the day. For those librarians who think e-mail is not a legitimate service in their public stations, they should look at their colleagues here. Most were using e-mail, and because of the load on the network, that process was very slow. A few people went to the backpackers' hotel area and used one of the dozens of cybercafes that charged as little as one baht a minute (less than $2.00/hr.) for a fair connection.

Bangkok's air leaves an acrid burn in the back of my throat, but if you have the money you can carve out islands of comfort by renting air-conditioned rooms, taxis, and even city buses, and you can drink bottled water and eat better food, but millions don't have that choice. One European commented on the differences in wealth; the extremes are somewhat reminiscent of Silicon Valley. Bangkok feels safe, even though there have been some reports on crime against tourists, and the number of police who are visible is limited to the thankless job of traffic control. They wear brown uniforms, face masks, or else they are blasting away on a whistle. The vehicles here run lights, and if the congestion is great the motorbikes will go on the sidewalk and honk for pedestrians to get out of the way.

I walked for hours around he central part of the city. The areas of commerce are distinct. From the fabric market I went into the electronics shops, many selling garlands of cables, printed circuit boards, shrink wrapped components, and pirate soft-core porn Video CDs. Then it turned into a area of gem dealers, and then boat motor repair where a line of men squatted and washed drive chains by hand, using some powerful cleaning agent. I worried about the contact with the chemicals as well as the dirt. In most areas there were outdoor eating areas displaying dried fish, little round sausages being grilled, along with skewers of chicken satay. In Chinatown, so marked on the street signs, all the gold shops are bright red and yellow. Asians must buy most of the gold in the world, judging from the massive amounts on display, usually in the form of necklaces and rings and flat gold bars.

The U.S. Embassy and the Library of Congress held a reception for American attendees as well as the Thai organizing committee. Instead of holding it at the embassy, it is in the new Marriott in a ballroom where the food is distributed all around the room in a variety unmatched except by lavish Silicon Valley holiday parties. The hotel staff was so solicitous that if your drink fell below a certain level, someone wanted to give you a new one. The hors d'oeuvres included duck in cucumber, samosas with mint yogurt, spring rolls with jerked beef, prawns as large as I have seen, vegetables, cheeses, and a wide variety of desserts. One librarian was working on war crimes trials in Arusha, Tanzania, where the Rwandans are imprisoned. He'd prefer to be in Southeast Asia, and he plans to spend new years in Bangkok. A marketing expert tried to enlist me in her plan to build a library in Africa, but she has not involved any Africans in the plan, and she imagines I have some kind of unlimited resources to help out. It seems to be a classic case of a well meaning person not involving those who will be affected in shaping the whole project. Other IFLA regulars recount their trips to Burma (king cobra on the stupa that he is climbing), Angkor Wat (safe, hot, spectacular, and a five star hotel near the airstrip and the ruins) and some gorgeous beaches elsewhere in Thailand.

The Khaosan Street is a backpackers ghetto that houses numerous guesthouses where backpackers can stay for $3/night and up. A few nice hotels are wedged in between the shops catering to young tourists, and there you can get a double with TV, phone, and air conditioning for about $10. This is kind of an interesting area where restaurants show pirated copies of movies all day long. Each posts a schedule at the entrance, near the menu. I asked a Thai if they ever use chopsticks, and he said, yes, when we eat Chinese food. So the Thais use a spoon and fork while Americans use chopsticks for Thai food. Out on the street there are tables set up to order fake identification cards: student, press, drivers licenses from Australia and California, and something called a United Nations ID card. Some of the vendors use dry transfer letters for the card and then laminate the finished work. One of the funniest examples is a UN ID card with Oliver North's picture. For 40 Baht I could be Osman Ben Laden and work for the Tyrell Corporation. The booths are usually quite busy. Outside of the U.S. Camel is positioning itself as clothing brand and fake Camel shorts and pants are on sale. The hiking shorts seem to be a bit lightweight, especially the "Timberland" long pants. However, the knockoffs of Alpine and North Face backpacks look sturdy and well sewn. The starting price for potential buyers is $60 for a full-sized one. TinTin shirts go for $3, and CDs with Office 2000, Encyclopedia Britannica, or Adobe PhotoShop are less than $10 asking price. The vendor has a booklet of color labels with no supply in sight. Presumably this is insurance against losing a supply of pirate copies in the event of a raid. A Microsoft official predicts hopefully that the rate of pirated software use will decrease radically due to stepped up enforcement.

Just before I head for the airport I stop by a Burmese tailor and pick up some cotton shirts he made to order in 48 hours. As I wait in the departure lounge I know I will return. This country is a great introduction to Asia for Americans who have not travelled much around the continent. Airfares are low and hotel and restaurant prices are reasonable. Aside from the traffic everything works well, but the ambience is so unlike the United States that you won't think you are in one of our outposts.

About the Author

Steve Cisler is a consultant whose background is in public and special libraries. He has been a teacher in the Peace Corps, a wine maker and search and rescue coordinator in the Coast Guard. Now he focuses on public access projects and community computing projects in the United States and developing countries. He is currently working with Tachyon, Inc., an Internet services carrier using Ku band satellite for high speed access. He has written for Online, Database, American Libraries, Library Journal, and Wired. Steve has two sons and lives with his wife in San José, California.
E-mail: cisler@pobox.com

Contents Index

Copyright © 1999, First Monday

Letter from Southeast Asia by Steve Cisler
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue4_9/cisler/index.html

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