Hong Kong Chronicles

I’ve been getting a lot of questions about the protests in Hong Kong lately (some worried, some curious), so I decided to write down some of my impressions of the situation here.

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So what’s the background to all of these protests? In 1997, Britain gave back its colony Hong Kong to China, under the agreement that Hong Kong would have a great deal of autonomy for at least 50 years, under the “One Country, two Systems” policy. At that point, Hong Kong’s new constitution (the Basic Law) came into force, in which universal suffrage was stated as the future “ultimate aim.” So far, Hong Kong has been led by a Chief Executive (currently Chun-Ying / CY Leung), chosen by an election committee of 1200 members, the majority of which are pro-China. However, China had stated that Hong Kong citizens would get a direct vote in the next Chief Executive elections in 2017. Now, the wording of this promise seems to be reinterpreted by China, with heavy debate arising over what the Basic Law stipulates: one-person one-vote, or not? To ensure electoral reform would be in accordance with the wishes of the Hong Kong public, a protest group formed, called “Occupy Central with Love and Peace” (referring to Central, Hong Kong’s business district and the heart of Hong Kong Island). Earlier this summer, Occupy Central organized an unofficial referendum, in which voters could nominate their preferred direct-vote elective system. One in five registered voters turned up at the referendum, a number exceeding expectations. At that time, Occupy Central organized protests on Hong Kong Island, but these were equally followed by a massive pro-China, anti-Occupy rally.

A decisive moment came when China’s national government announced its ruling on the matter on 31 August: direct suffrage will be granted to Hong Kong citizens in 2017, but they may only pick from a list of 2 or 3 pre-approved candidates, which will need the backing of a nominating committee. It is widely expected that this committee will be quite pro-China, thus effectively weeding out candidates that are opposed to Beijing or seen as too democratic. China justified its decision by explaining that Hong Kong was “confused” over its rights and autonomy, and that China thus needed to make sure any Chief Executive candidate would “love his country.” The Hong Kong government still needs to debate Beijing’s ruling and pass a bill of its own on the issue, but it is against this backdrop that the current unrest (even: revolution) has been unfolding in Hong Kong.

Protests started relatively small, but turned serious on 22 September, when over 13 000 students in the city boycotted classes for an entire week. After that, students turned to the Central district on Hong Kong Island, where they started a peaceful sit-in around the main government offices. Riot police arrived on the spot: last Sunday night, they repelled the protesters by teargas, pepper spray and force. This caused massive outrage in Hong Kong, especially as the protesters were seen as incredibly peaceful. Compared to other protests in history around the world, no looting, damage to surrounding buildings/vehicles or rioting has occurred. So as a result, even more people joined the students, including the Occupy Central movement. They had long announced that they’d start a major “campaign of civil disobedience” on 1 October, but decided to come out earlier to join the students’ momentum. (This action has been criticized by several who say Occupy Central is hijacking the students’ movement, and that the two campaigns need to be seen as separate.)

What is the situation like on the ground right now?

I can honestly say that I have almost never seen crowds like this in my entire life. You have probably all come across the pictures in newspapers, but the sheer size of the masses is insane. When you now stand outside a subway exit at night, people just keep streaming and streaming and streaming out, endlessly. Most of them seem quite young: late teens, or 20- and 30-somethings. They are determined but cheerful, all defiantly wearing the protester’s uniform: a black t-shirt and yellow ribbon proudly pinned to their chest. When I followed them down to the very core of the protests, my jaw simply dropped. All I could do, was mutter “Ho-ly crap.” As far as my eye could see, on all the roads, overpasses, bridges, sidewalks and parks underneath the towering skyscrapers, people were amassing. Like ants, they were simply everywhere. It was an awe-inspiring, exhilarating sight!

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Basically these protesters have brought some of the most important roads of Hong Kong Island to a standstill, blocking the areas of Admiralty and Central with barriers and crowds. On normal days, mad traffic congests these busy roads – but when I walk to work now, I’m greeted by an almost Armageddon-like view of empty roads, save for a couple of office workers in the morning. At the protest sites themselves, things vary quite a bit from moment to moment though: the crowds are biggest in the evenings after work, and diminish during the day. Protests have spread to other parts of the city too: now sit-ins are organized on Kowloon side across the harbour, and roads are blocked eastwards in Causeway Bay. When I joined the protests some evenings ago, I could walk right in the middle of the street for almost twenty minutes, all the way from these Causeway Bay protests to the Central core. The feeling was very strange: no traffic, and instead people strolling arm in arm, taking selfies to capture the surreal situation. Yellow ribbons are tied to lamp posts and fences everywhere along the protest roads. Handwritten signs are taped to buildings and overpasses – not only in Chinese, but even in Russian, English, Swedish or French. Slogans talk about democracy, revolution and rights, but mostly in a peaceful manner: dreaming big, asking with outstretched hands, standing together. The only signs that are somewhat ‘offensive’ are printed photos of CY Leung, the reviled Chief Executive, with fangs and devil horns scribbled on his face, and messages of “CY go home!” or “Resign!”

What newspapers report about the polite and friendly manner of protesters is very true, by the way. A short walk from my apartment, I came across the first protesters sitting on the street. I didn’t have a yellow ribbon yet, so I spoke to two women who were just pinning theirs on. When I asked them where they got it, one of them instantly took her ribbon off and said “Here, I give this to you! You support our struggle!” with a broad smile and a raised fist. At the core protest site, I was surprised by how calm everybody behaved: nobody was shoving, pushing or shouting at others. Nobody seemed drunk nor did I see any alcohol. Instead, there were boxes with biscuits, bananas and water bottles everywhere, all handed out for free by volunteers. You hardly needed to ask – people just offered you food, mouth masks or rain ponchos. There was barely any trash lying around at the protest sites, because protesters have devised a solid system of trash collection…and recycling! This recycling part is especially astounding, because Hong Kong usually recycles extremely little. Another very touching gesture was the fact that people helped each other a lot. Along the protest sites, there are some pretty big barriers of concrete blocks which are somewhat difficult to clamber across. What the protesters did, was create a makeshift staircase of cardboard boxes and bags, and then they formed a chain of people who gave you a hand and made sure you got across safely. I was at the protests with a couple of Chinese girls wearing skirts, and the guys near the barrier even showed them how to cross in a comfortable way that wouldn’t lift up their skirt. Amazing! So people are all smiles and friendliness, a mood I hadn’t expected from such large protests.

Other than this, it’s difficult to describe the nature of the protests. Personally, I had expected more, well: protesting. My impression was that these tens of thousands of people showed up, but then most of them ended up just walking around or sitting together peacefully while chatting, but that was it. This could be because I don’t speak Cantonese, though: perhaps to me, the verbal protesting is less obvious. Several groups of people were singing pro-democracy songs, for example, and a lot of them held up signs in Cantonese, with several activists standing on a barrier with a microphone, addressing part of the crowd. But there wasn’t one main figure addressing everyone, nor did there seem to be any direct leadership or one single program everyone was following. I wonder to what extent this was just my feeling, as a foreigner, or whether some of the locals joining in had the same experience. Sometimes I saw some people taking pictures of themselves in front of the crowds, which smacked the teensiest bit of revolution-tourism. But don’t get me wrong: it is encouraging to see so many people out on the streets, fighting for something they believe in. They are undoubtedly passionate about better governance and universal suffrage in Hong Kong. But as one American I talked to said: “Perhaps they still have to figure things out a bit, as Hong Kong has a shorter history of revolution than some other countries. So maybe this is newer to them and it takes a while to figure out the most effective way to protest.” Maybe there’s some truth to what he said.

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It’s difficult to know too how broad the support base is for the protests amongst Hong Kong locals. One colleague calls them “that rubbish going on in Central,” as she’s skeptical about protesters’ knowledge of what the whole background is about. Other critics include businesses in Hong Kong, who fear declining profits, and citizens who are annoyed by the disturbance the protests have caused, especially transport-wise. When I was on my way to the protests, I looked at other passengers on the subway: some in black with yellow ribbons, but others just chattering happily, walking around ready for a night on the town. Do these people think a lot about the protests? Have they gone to take a look? Are they supportive? Or do they feel annoyed? I want to find out more.

I talked to some other people in Central too, including the two Mainland Chinese girls I was with: both of them are students in Hong Kong, and I was surprised by how fearful they seemed of being at the protests. One of them even covered her face with a mask non-stop, saying she didn’t want anyone to recognize her. One described how her parents had received an official call in China to inquire into their daughter: where was she in Hong Kong, what was she doing, surely she wasn’t joining these illegal protests? In a tiny voice, she told me that she had mainly come along that evening because her friend wanted her to go, and that she definitely wouldn’t tell her parents. Her friend seemed only slightly more comfortable, but she too told me that she worried about her parents’ job with the Chinese government, in case word got out of their daughter’s whereabouts. Laughing nervously, she said: “I almost feel like I’m coming out as a lesbian here, that’s how big of a deal this is to me!”

Another mainland Chinese guy visiting a friend of mine, seemed very uncomfortable when I asked him about the protests. I wondered whether he would join. He laughed, said “Hmmmm. I’m not so into politics” and left it at that. It reminded me of a sentence I read last week, in a book on China by Paul Theroux: “The Chinese laugh is seldom a response to something funny – it is usually Ha-ha, we’re in deep shit or Ha-ha, I wish you hadn’t said that or Ha-ha, I’ve never felt so miserable in my life.” I understand what he means now.

Finally, what’s coming next? The short answer to that is: nobody knows, since the situation is so unlike what Hong Kong has seen for the past couple of years. I’ve been receiving worried e-mails from people wondering whether the Chinese army will step in and we will see another Tiananmen Square. Personally, I don’t think things will progress that far: Hong Kong is a very international, modern city, and an important node in the global economy. The eyes of the world are on the events here, so China could do enormous damage to its image and diplomatic relations if it let the army loose on these unarmed students. On the other hand, unrest in Xinjiang has been getting worse lately, so the Chinese government is probably weary of having another revolution hotbed on its hands, nor do they want to lose face or be perceived as weak.

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The Hong Kong government’s response has also been disappointing so far: very little direct contact with the protesters, just speeches by CY Leung saying he refuses to step down, and now some kind of half-hearted offer for talks between the students and Chief Secretary Carrie Lam. Some fear the Hong Kong government is trying to wear out the protesters: dithering until they go home of their own accord. Simultaneously though, police vans delivered large boxes of what appeared to be tear gas, pepper spray and batons to the government headquarters yesterday, perhaps preparing for a more direct confrontation.

The most realistic remarks I have heard about the protests, were made by a young man at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, with whom I’ve been working together closely. He told me that he felt there was very little chance of the protesters achieving their aims (i.e. CY Leung stepping down, and real universal suffrage). “It’s a bit sad that this will probably not happen, yes. Because imagine if you asked your mother whether you could pick your boyfriend, and she replied: ‘Sure! You can date whoever you want! But he needs to be a guy from the pre-selected list I drafted.’ That’s ridiculous and not okay. That’s why we want to be able to pick our Chief Executive. But the main achievement of these protests will be something else: we will finally have created a discussion. We have raised the issue, and now people are talking. That’s the most important start.”

Wipe the tears from our eyes

Before I left for Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina with UF, we decided that I would write an article about the trip for Utblick. When I asked whether the editors had a specific topic in mind, they said it was completely up to me. Initially, I thought I might do a piece on the peculiar mixture of religions and cultures found on these crossroads between East and West, or perhaps I could report about the international institutions we would be visiting.

Now that I’m back from Sarajevo, I know that this is not what struck me the most. What left the deepest impression on me is how incredibly, heartbreakingly present the Bosnian war still is. Both in space and time, this city still breathes, talks and mourns the atrocities committed between 1992 – 1995.

Granted, Bosnia-Herzegovina is taking small steps in the right direction (however few and far in between, as highlighted by talking to the hardworking yet disheartened representatives of Transparency International and the EU delegation). But sometimes it feels like this country is still right in the middle of dealing with the past, when not a day goes by without newspapers publishing something related to the war, when the majority of war crime perpetrators walk free, and when cemeteries are strewn around town – their gravestone inscriptions all ending in a similar date.

 

Foto: Michael Bücker
Photo: Michael Bücker

 

Photo: UF
Photo: UF

 

During our first day in Sarajevo, we strolled around happily in the city center – seeing the sights, basking in the sunshine and enjoying that content freedom that comes from being on holiday. Near the main cathedral, we discovered a gallery with work by a Bosniak photographer, Tarik Samarah. Called “11/07/95,” the gallery is dedicated to the Srebrenica massacre that occurred on that very date, and consists of photographs of the survivors (mostly women and children) and their lives afterwards, as well as of the work of identifying and burying the bodies found in mass graves. A group of about eight of us visited the exhibition that day. Upon entering the elevator, we were met by the words You Are My Witness (in Bosnian/Serbo-Croatian, Turkish and English) on the mirrored interior. When the elevator doors opened again, a 16m long wall faced us with what at first seemed to be a white alphabetic pattern. A closer look stunned us into silence. In front of us were hundreds of thousands of names, all belonging to the victims of the Srebrenica genocide.

 

Photo: UF
Photo: UF

 

Before we looked around the gallery, we watched an introductory documentary about what happened in Srebrenica. In the early nineties when Yugoslavia fell apart and its constituent republics started declaring themselves independent, Bosnia slid into a civil war between its three official peoples (Croats, Serbs, and the Bosniak Muslims). The Bosnian Serb army (supported by Serbia and the ex-Yugoslavian army) swiftly attacked and took over large swathes of the country, especially in eastern Bosnia. What ensued were some of the worst war crimes committed since WWII, including ethnic cleansing, mass rapes, terror, genocides and concentration camps.

Cut off from other Bosniak areas, the village of Srebrenica near the Serbian border quickly became a haven for refugees at the start of this civil war. As more and more people amassed in the area, Srebrenica started suffering from severe food shortages and humanitarian problems. Amidst a deteriorating crisis in April 1993, the United Nations officially declared the village a “safe zone” in the war and demanded that all parties gave up their arms. In return, a couple of hundred Dutch peacekeepers were stationed in Srebrenica, promising to keep the villagers safe from harm as the Bosnian Serb army drew closer and closer.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QfInjlNoT4Q

(Radko Mladic entering Srebrenica triumphantly)
Things went horribly wrong on 11 July 1995 however, when enemy troops under the command of Radko Mladic (currently on trial in The Hague) finally entered and took over the town. In a desperate search for protection, over 25 000 people attempted to seek shelter in the UN compound. Chaos ensued when all but 5000 of these refugees were shut outside the gates for lack of space. Another 10 to 15 000 men and boys fled through the mountains instead, trying to reach other safe areas out of fear of what would happen to them if the peacekeeping protection failed and they would fall into Bosnian Serb hands. Outside of the UN compound, the Bosnian Serb army slowly started separating the remaining men and women from each other – disturbingly aided by some of the Dutch troops. Over the course of the next couple of days, an estimated 8372 of these people were captured, transported to nearby fields, sports halls and factories, and brutally slaughtered there.

The oral histories of the victims were amongst the most painful things to watch, as mothers, wives, daughters and sisters described the last time they had seen their son’s face; how they could still feel the touch of their husband’s hand on their shoulder when saying goodbye; or how they still don’t know what happened to their brother when he fled to the mountains. After the film had finished, more than half of us were crying and none of us said a word.

Until this day, mass graves keep being found in Bosnia almost every year. The fact that the perpetrators often reburied victims from a primary grave into a secondary or even tertiary grave, has created a situation in which victims’ remains may be spread over a vast area, making it extremely difficult to identify exhumed bodies. Family members often wait for years to find out what happened to their loved ones, sometimes dying themselves before ever learning the truth. On 11 July every year, a collective funeral is held for victims of Srebrenica, though only for those of whom at least 70% of the remains have been found. Last year, more than 400 graves were dug, including one for a baby of only a couple of days old.

(Do take a look at the haunting pictures exhibited at the 11/07/95 gallery: http://tariksamarah.com/thumbs.htm

The photographer’s website also includes an account of the Srebrenica events, but be warned that it includes violent details of what happened: http://tariksamarah.com/genocide.htm.

For more on the gallery itself, click http://galerija110795.ba/en/)
When we walked out of the museum, blinking into the suddenly harsh sunshine, none of us really said anything and many rummaged through their bags in search of handkerchiefs.

The first thing my eyes now noticed were no longer the people having an ice-cream in the shade, but the walls of almost all of the surrounding houses. Still now, over twenty years later, they are riddled with bullet holes as scars. Walking back to our hostel through the center, we passed several “Sarajevo roses” on the pavement. Like blood-red rose petals splattered eerily across the street, these roses are spots where one or more inhabitants of the town were killed by mortar shelling during the siege of Sarajevo, the remnants of which were later filled with resin to mark the place.

 

Photo: UF
Photo: UF

 

A couple of nights after our visit to the Srebrenica gallery, I met up with a Bosnian friend of mine that I had studied with in Japan some years earlier (and who requested to remain anonymous). At the time, I hadn’t asked him much about his experience of the Bosnian war. Now, after gaining so much new knowledge and impressions from our visits to the War Tunnel museum, the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia and the Srebrenica gallery, I asked him to tell me about his life during that time.

When the war started in 1992, my friend was a boy of 13 years old. For the entire duration of the war he kept living with his family in Sarajevo, which was under heavy siege by the Bosnian Serb army from the mountain edges around the city. Laughingly, my friend told me that the initial reaction of him and his classmates had been one of joy: now they wouldn’t have to go to school anymore! (That was the case for the first year of the siege. Later however, teachers would travel to the different neighborhoods so that schoolchildren could still be educated without having to risk getting hit by enemy fire when walking through town). Suddenly though, things changed drastically. A year before, my friend had still gone skiing happily in the winter with his parents and his main desire was getting a new Gameboy. Now, there was no water, no electricity, and the family slept with all their clothes on because of the cold. Once or twice a week, my friends and the other kids from the neighbourhood would walk an hour into town to get water, dragging the 50 liters all the way back to their families. In the meantime, the Bosnian Serb army continuously shelled Sarajevo, threw mortars and hit buildings. Snipers with machine guns were placed on strategic highpoints, creating terror amongst the inhabitants. A trickle of humanitarian aid from the UN and the Red Cross reached the city, although my friend said that some of the canned food was so appallingly bad that maybe, only maybe, would he consider giving it to his dog today. When I then assumed he had gone hungry all the time, he was quiet for a while. “In a way, we were healthier than we are today,” he answered.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-boLmzBnzO8

(Video footage of the siege of Sarajevo)

 

Photo: Stacey Wyzkowski
Photo: Stacey Wyzkowski

 

When I asked my friend how on earth he managed to survive, he told me that life had carried on: he played with his friends, they joked and sometimes laughed until their stomach hurt. And everyone kept saying “Next month. Next month for sure, the siege will be over,” as the war dragged on and turned into years. Paradoxically enough, my friend’s main conclusion was that he had been lucky: in the beginning of the siege, their house had had a vegetable plot that supplied them with some food; no one in his near family got killed; and most importantly of all – they had not had to endure what others in occupied eastern Bosnia had to suffer. With a tone of sadness and horror, he described how the war crimes committed in that part of the country contained cruelty literally beyond the imagination of almost any human being. If the ethnic map of Bosnia-Herzegovina before the war had been called “a leopard’s skin,” now almost all of the leopard’s spots have been wiped out by ethnic cleansing. People who have lived in a (rural) area for years, don’t usually leave their birthplace gladly or easily. So how does a country’s map change so drastically? Hearing the answer, I understood why my friend called himself lucky. “You make people suffer to such an unbearable, excruciating extent, that they have no other option left except fleeing from their homes. Carefully and deliberately, you plot their utter destruction and inflict violence until they are mad with grief. You let fathers rape their sons, burn whole families alive in their houses, torture prisoners when holding them victim. Until people have nothing left to lose, nothing. War crimes are not an accident: they are the ultimate goal.”

When I asked at the end of the evening how he looked back on his childhood during the Bosnian war, my friend answered without hesitating: “It was one of the most valuable experiences of my life. Some people say that if the war would start again today, they couldn’t handle it and would go mad. I don’t agree with them. Two days. Two days is all it would take before I would turn the switch and go back into survival mode. It’s a skill you remember for the rest of your life.”

Text: Eva Corijn

Tokyo

Many say springtime is the time when Göteborg awakens. With the first rays of sunshine, suddenly the streets are filled with elated citizens – making you wonder where all of these people were hiding outduring winter. While right now may be a great time to enjoy this city’s soft evening light and the spring flowers, there is one destination more than 8550 kilometers eastwards that offers an equally splendid springtime experience. Nihon e yokoso: Welcome to the Land of the Rising Sun, and the imperial city of Tokyo.

Photo: Tanaka Juuyoh
Photo: Tanaka Juuyoh

FOTO BStarting at the end of March and continuing throughout April, Japan is cloaked in a flurry of cherry blossoms. Delighted Tokyoites will be out en masse, carrying with them the obligatory items for a proper cherry blossom viewing party. Ueno Park is the place to be to spread out your blue tarpaulin, munch on some snacks and – naturally – consume copious amounts of sake. After all, who could resist getting gloriously drunk with friends under a starburst of pink and white flowers?

If you’re low on greasy food, you can check out the cramped, seedy and all-round awesome Ameyoko alley, right underneath the train tracks of Ueno. Sellers will shout at you in a hoarse voice, praising their fresh lobsters, fake Pokémon watches, freshly cut pineapple or flip-flops. Take your pick of the cheap and delicious street food like yakitori (grilled chicken skewers) or yakisoba (fried soba noodles with some vegetables and lots of gloopy brown sauce).

FOTO CIf you are lucky enough to be in Tokyo on an unclouded, nicespring day, it’s definitely worth heading over the financial district of Shinjuku to get an overview of the city. Shinjukuharbors the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (or simply Tochô), which offers a panoramic view that will leave you almost as dizzy and light-headed as a cup of sake in the park. Completely free of charge, you can drink in the city sights and maybe even catch a glimpse of legendary Mount Fuji in the distance. Compared with the ridiculously expensive Tokyo Tower (a red and white replica of the French Eiffel Tower), this is an excellent early morning stop.

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FOTO EOne thing that is very noticeable from the topmost levels of Tochô, is the massive Yoyogi Park. Walking into the park through the giant wooden Shintô gate, you are enveloped in a peace and quiet that seems oddly out of place in such a big metropolis. Wander onwards underneath the centuries-old trees that were donated from all over Japan, until you discover the serene and stately Meiji shrine. At the entrance, you will find all the attributes of a typical shrine: a water well to cleanse your hands and mouth with a bamboo spoon; small votive tablets on which people write their prayers and wishes; and a rack with rows upon rows of white paper strips fluttering in the wind. These little fortune notes are taken home by people when they contain good fortunes, but tied to the rack and left behind by worshipers who draw a fortune paper with a bad prediction. A convenient way of dealing selectively with messages from above! On a springtime weekend day, your chances are also quite good of witnessing a typical Shintô wedding at the Meiji shrine, with the couple beautifully dressed in traditional garments.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERATo discover the difference between a shrine (the Shintôism place of worship) and a temple (where Buddhists pray), switch from perfect peace to the bustling atmosphere of the Sensôji temple. Located in the down-to-earth, residential neighborhood Asakusa (a far cry from the skyscrapers and office buildings of Shinjuku), the precincts of this temple are a world of their own. You’ll be met by the scent of joss sticks, ferocious lion statues, paper lanterns towering over you…and hundreds of believers. Whether they worship at the altar of bodhisattva Kannon or in the rows of little food and souvenir shops might remain a matter of some doubt.

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Photo: Cory Doctorow

In stark contrast to these spiritual matters is the craziest and perhaps most Japan-ish neighborhood of Tokyo on the edge of Yoyogi park. Harajuku is the natural habitat for lovers of fashion and cosplayers, who congregate especially on weekends to admire each other’s outfits and swap the latest fashion news. See and be seen! Guys dressed like Dracula in tophats and waistcoats sit next to lolita girls with teacups in their curly hair and dresses straight out of Alice in Wonderland. 18th Century princesses shriek in delight over Hello Kitty shoelaces, while Visual Kei fans with insane hairstyles will make you realize how Japan got its cutting edge reputation. Wander up and down Takeshita Dôri street (a must for lovers of claustrophobic crowds!), assemble your own outfit or simply allow yourself to be enthralled. Of course you also have to pick up a Japanese crêpe along the way, complete with Nutella, bananas, strawberries and agenerous helping of whipped cream.

 

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAIf you’re suffering from sensory overload, head over to the Tokyo-Edo museum. This high quality museum provides a most enlightening overview of the capital city’s history, including a huge replica of a traditional Kabuki theatre. If anything, the fact that the exterior of the museum looks like a spaceship straight out of Star Wars should be reason enough to go check it out.

Close to this museum lies Akihabara: a mecca for electronics collectors, with hundreds of stores filled with weird Japanese gadgets and video games. Especially at night, this area is magically lit up with neon advertisements and flashing colors – the Japan of legends. Akihabara is also where you can have a drink at one of the notorious “maid cafés.” The waitressesthere are dressed in French maid-uniforms, talk to customers in the most incredibly polite Japanese, act cute, and will basically live up to your horny fetish dreams of being treated like a lord. It’s no problem if you don’t want to venture into one of the maid cafés themselves, since you’ll usually bump into one or two maid girls on the streets already, handing out flyers for promotion. Apparently maid cafés take on non-Japanese girls as waitresses too, so if you’re a bit short on cash and need a summer job: you know where to send your CV.

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Another breathtaking location at night in Tokyo is the hip and glitzy Shibuya area. Excellent for shopping and dining, this is where a famous scene with Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation was shot. Follow in her footsteps and stand on the junction of seven streets and countless pedestrian crossings, surrounded by an impressive wall of towering neon commercials.

Photo: Guwashi/Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Guwashi/Wikimedia Commons

If you’re getting hungry from wandering around the concrete jungle, going to an izakaya café is highly recommended. The best izakayas are often stylishly decorated in the traditional Japanese way (with sliding doors separating the rooms, tatami mats and low tables). Instead of being just an ordinary bar, izakayas can serve as high class restaurants, business meeting places, pre-karaoke hangouts or the setting for a romantic date. When Japanese friends go to an izakaya at night, they’ll usually eat a full dinner there by ordering a variety of small dishes like sushi, sashimi, noodles, or dim sum. The fun starts when people sign up for “nomihôdai” (all-you-can-drink), which usually includes anything from cocktails to jugs of warm sake. Since many Japanese don’t seem to tolerate alcohol very well, you can imagine they’re in for a lively night…

Photo: Lloyd Morgan
Photo: Lloyd Morgan

This is why late at night is a good time to round off a day in Tokyo by going people-watching – a free and most interesting way to study Tokyoites when they’re out and about. Or an anthropological goldmine if you’re trying to find out how drunk Japanese (returning from an izakaya party) attempt to navigate through Tokyo’s busy subway system. The awesome blog Tokyo Damage Report (your number one insider’s guide to Tokyo, including a search for the legendary Japanese vending machines of schoolgirl panties and vacuum-wrapped used sanitary pads – complete with Polaroid photo by the previous owner) does a hilarious report on this practice:
http://www.hellodamage.com/top/2008/02/24/people-watching-in-shinjuku-station-drunks/ and http://www.hellodamage.com/top/2008/02/10/more-shinjuku-station-war-stories/.

In the space of less than two hours, you could witness people getting into fights, slipping and falling grandiosely, sobbing tragically under the influence of alcohol, or friends bowing to each other when saying goodbye, thereby bumping butt-first into another passerby.

Since any sentence or blog on the topic of “Meanwhile in Japan…” can lead to the craziest, most baffling, amazing stories, a single city guide can hardly cover the myriad wonders that Tokyo has to offer. Do yourself a favor and include springtime in Japan on your bucket list – you may find yourself addressing the spirits next to a Shintô priest, fighting with schoolgirls during a pink tutu sale, or getting advice from a suit-clad salaryman directing you to the best sushi joint in town. Either way, it will be “cool!!”

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Text: Eva Corijn
eva.corijn [at] utblick.org
Photo: Eva Corijn and others where noted

The realities of adventure



The Society of Foreign Affairs’ magazine, Utblick, mostly features serious, thought-provoking articles about political struggles, ideas and revolutions – anything officially “foreign affairs” related. While this interests me a great deal, I also enjoy the more individual side of international relations. Perhaps some of you have had the experience of living abroad for a prolonged while. If so, then I hope you enjoyed yourself and look back on it with fond memories. As for me, I feel that my triple exchange student experience has given me invaluable insights that probably will keep influencing my life for a long time. Obama’s policy decisions and Kim Jong-Un’s antics might make it to newspaper headlines but for me these personal experiences abroad are really how international affairs come into play in our daily lives. So let’s get personal at the end of this year, and allow me to share some of these insights with you! (Every exchange experience is different though, and one should be careful with broad cultural assumptions – so consider this just one perspective: that of a Belgian girl who is no expert, but breathes restlessness whenever she has stayed in one place for too long.)

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First, the concrete exchange facts! One year in a small, dry, northeastern Thai town near the Mekong river and the Laotian border, communication with smiles and little more took place, to shape a loving bond with three host sisters. Next; half a year on the west coast of Japan in a city that specializes in tea with gold-leaf flakes floating in it. Living in a traditional Japanese house, I once crashed through a paper sliding door while attempting to elegantly enter my tatami-mat bedroom. Finally; two years here at seventy-five degrees north, eleven degrees east – Gothenburg.

What I always find remarkable and amusing when abroad, is the speed with which you can adapt to foreign ways that struck as utterly baffling when you first arrived. In Thailand, I was convinced I would die every time I crossed the street with my friends. They had a way of blindly throwing their bodies into traffic, zigzagging through cars with nerve-wracking calm while I covered my eyes and prayed to the gods. Only a few months later though, I was equally traffic-suicidal and convinced that those same gods would shape a divine path for me to reach the other side of the street – never mind the bus that passed within inches of me! Here in Sweden, the opposite thing happened. I was initially surprised at how often drivers stop gallantly for pedestrians crossing the street. Now though, I catch myself casting angry looks at those daring not to stop, muttering vile things and almost shaking my fist at them when they drive on.

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My wardrobe also seems to change imperceptibly to adapt itself to the country I’m staying in. During my first days in Tokyo, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I noticed The. Shortest. Skirts. You. Have. Ever. Seen. Sometimes I even wondered if they were skirts at all or rather fancy belts with pink ruffles! No one is immune to Japanese fashion though, and soon I had my own lovely pair – with rhinestones and a satin bow! (The secret, I discovered, was that the shortest skirts have hotpants attached underneath – to respect the owner’s modesty, I happily assume. I still don’t dare to wear it back home, though.) Here in Sweden too, some of my Belgian fashion-rules have been flushed down the drain. Wearing sneakers underneath a dress, a Michelin-man style down jacket, and a winter hat that makes your face look like an egg? You must be kidding, right? Enter the awesomely practical Swedish mentality, which throws silly fashion concerns to the wind when faced with Nordic temperatures and distances to be covered briskly! I’m still not sure whether I should snigger from the sidelines or admire your good common sense. But I am learning, that’s for sure.

FOTO 3_Christ 73_ Wikimedia Commons

No matter how easily you adapt to certain outward things, there are always some issues that continue to puzzle and even sadden me. Like Japanese public transport. That can get insanely crowded, so you would expect people to throw themselves at the last available seat and gladly sit down besides whoever is sitting there. However, I noticed that a whole bus would sometimes collectively regard one seat as the “outcast” seat and people would mysteriously refuse to sit down next to the poor student beside it, regardless of who this was. As if standing with your nose pressed into someone’s armpit is still preferable to sitting on the doomed-seat-of-the-day! I continue to wonder why this occurred: perhaps a herd-mentality, if everyone follows the others’ choice of not sitting there? A collective decision to reject and dislike the lone student? An unwritten need for an emergency seat in case somebody faints? I never found out.

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A similar thing confuses me here in Göteborg: social rules. Back home, I think we have a back-and-forth way of getting to know people: I invite you, you invite me, and then we keep repeating this pattern and become better friends through our fika dates. Never taking initiative would thus be code for: “Dear person, I think you’re kind of annoying and would love for you to get my hint that I do not want to hang out with you, ever again. Only I’m too polite to say it.” Here though, it almost never seems to happen that a Swedish acquaintance proposes something first. Yeah, I see what you’re thinking: they are hinting! Well, I feared so too, and asked these Swedes in a little voice whether they would like me to leave them in peace. But they appeared surprised, said they’re having a good time and don’t know what I mean. Very strange! One thing is for sure though: the social struggle has multiplied my gratitude exponentially for the people I have gotten to know so far here, and for their initiative when they propose something out of the blue.

Less confusing but more exasperating, is the issue of language for me – and the way parts of my personality tend to get hidden when I end up in a foreign language environment. No matter how hard you try and study, to achieve a near-native level of fluency is no easy feat. Once you get to the point where you can happily converse with the locals, you can still be painfully reminded that you are not quite there yet. I cannot begin to count the times this happened to me in Japan, even though my major at university was Japanese. One night in the local public baths, a tiny, wrinkled Japanese grandma told me a long-winded story with great enthusiasm. I think I understood about 20% of what she tried to say, so all I could do was smile politely and hand her the soap. It made me feel detached and surreal, but mostly frustrated and sad, since it seemed my talkative and chat-happy nature had evaporated in the steam above our hot tub… Here in Sweden too, where I feel I can converse reasonably well in Swedish, it often takes me hours to get to the punch line of a story, making me despair that a loss of language also seems to entail a loss of wit, character and charm. Without further verbal progress, I feel so stuck in the moderately-interesting-people zone, helpless without tools to get me to the level of deliciously ambiguous puns or flirty humor. Abroad, I am a more quiet self, defeated by language even before I open my mouth.

So living abroad is sometimes unsettling, as part of who I am seems to get lost along the way, like luggage to be reclaimed. At the same time, when abroad, the physical distance has shown a priceless thing: who my true friends are. The people you thought were going to call you weekly, can sadly drop off the radar fast – but I have been surprised over and over by the kindness of friends I normally only seldom saw back home. Once, I got a surprise delivered in Thailand, from a girl whom I didn’t expect would send me anything. It was a package wrapped in sky-blue paper, with golden stars pasted on the inside. The contents included a wonderful letter, my favorite Dinosaur biscuits, marzipan, and a box of tampons… because my friend had heard how impossible it was to get a hold of those in rural Thailand. Her thoughtfulness and love actually made me cry from sheer gratitude. When someone sends you tampons halfway across the world, you know they are a keeper.

For me, this surprising discovery of solid friendship is worth the endless language battles of living abroad. That, and the reckless freedom that comes from being in a place where no one knows you yet – proudly singing karaoke (off key!) at the top of your voice in a bar in Japan, especially incomprehensible Korean pop songs. Going to the Swedish supermarket with mad, unkempt hair, no make-up and your best hangover face. And wearing the traditional Thai New Year’s outfit without a care in the world: a lurid shirt with floral print, straw hat, and the coolest pair of sunglasses you have ever seen. Hooray for the self you become when living abroad!

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Text: Eva Corijn

Photos:

Arpingstone, Miki Yoshihito, Christ 73 Wikimedia, Tim Boyd, Kristofferb, Corijn

 

 

 

Lend Me Some Water, I Am Your Neighbour

Every few weeks, alarming news reaches us from China about subjects as diverse as corruption scandals, poisoned baby milk powder and train wrecks caused by construction failures. Less often mentioned but equally pressing, is China’s growing water crisis.

According to FAO measures, a region suffers from “absolute water scarcity” when its citizens have less than a yearly 500 m3 of renewable freshwater available per person. China’s average is currently 400 m3, with extremes falling as low as 100 m3 in Beijing – a figure roughly similar to that of Saudi Arabia. Surveys show that over half of the Chinese large rivers have vanished since the 1950s, mostly due to agricultural and industrial overexploitation, but also because of urban overconsumption and climate change. These figures are further exacerbated by sharp regional differences, where the water-abundant south holds four fifths of the nation’s water resources, while the north has less than a remaining fifth – even though 40% of the people and 60% of all farmland are situated there. Not only is the quantity of China’s water a cause for alarm, the quality is also so dismal that the World Bank estimates it chips 2.3% off GDP every year due to health-related consequences. A stunning 70% of all groundwater in northern China should not come into human contact (including washing and drinking) without special treatment, for example, and only half of the tap water sources available to Chinese citydwellers routinely pass drinking water safety standards.

The so-called “hydro-industrial power complex,” a legion of avid water engineers at the state-level, has been trying to tackle these problems by building scores of dams in the past decades. Since the Communist Party’s rise to power in 1949, over 88,000 dams have been built both in the country itself and abroad, where China is a world leader in hydropower. The current number of large dams in China (including the controversial Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze river) even exceeds that of all other large dams in the world put together. The most recent mega-project being constructed is the South-to-North Water Diversion Project (or SNWDP, ??????Nánshu? B?idiào G?ngchéng), an 80 billion dollar scheme in which the two biggest Chinese rivers (the Yangtze and Yellow River) will be connected via an intricate system of more than 3200 km of tunnels and canals. Divided in an eastern, central and western route, the project will in the end carry a yearly 45 billion m3 water from the lush south to the arid north. The idea was first mentioned by Mao Zedong who was of the opinion that the south had more than enough water and that “it would be good to borrow some.” Since the SNWDP’s official construction start in 2002, large stretches of the eastern and central route have been completed, but a host of problems have delayed their finalization. As for the controversial northern route, construction has not even started yet since it would have to be built straight across the frail, earthquake-prone Tibetan plateau in extreme climatological circumstances. Even official sources have admitted that more engineering research is needed before any work can commence.

While the project is already well under way, environmental activists remain highly skeptical of the scheme – with one think tank stating that it would even be cheaper to desalinate the equivalent amount of seawater. Alarming pollution issues have also affected test runs on the two first routes: in some places, healthy fish placed in a tank of the diverted water were found dead within 10 minutes. Vast sums of money have already been spent in purifying the water coming from the Yangtze, into which over 10,000 petrochemical factories dump their toxic waste. Furthermore, because of the marked difference in ecosystem between the Yangtze and Yellow River, connecting the two could prove disastrous for their biodiversity. Already, plankton levels in the Yangtze have diminished by two thirds and river-bottom organisms have decreased by half. Other concerns focus on the hundreds of thousands of people being forced to relocate along the routes of the project (receiving only little compensation and a warning not to cause trouble) or on recent droughts in the south, which place a question mark behind Mao’s claim that there actually is excess water to borrow.

Instead, activists say that the solution for China lies not in tinkering with supplies by shipping water across the country, but rather in reducing consumption and managing existing resources. This could for example be done by raising water prices, as current prices (just over a fourth of what the average European pays) are so low that there is little incentive to avoid waste. Another solution would be to fine polluters more heavily, or to increase water recycling – compared to the average 85% in developed nations, Beijing currently treats only 15% of its industrially used water. If these issues were improved, it could already vastly expand the quantity of available water to a nation thirsty for more.

Text: Eva Corijn
Cover photo: Bert van Dijk @Flikr

Bangkok – The City of Angels

Ah Bangkok, my City of Angels!

Even before ever having visited Thailand’s capital city, you can marvel at the fact that its full name is included in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s longest place name. A glorious string of archaic descriptions, it literally means “The city of angels; the residence of the emerald Buddha; the great impregnable city; steadfast and thriving in its gracefulness; the grand capital of the world, abundant with the nine noble gems; a pleasant, happy city; the city which abounds with the enormous Royal Palace, that resembles the heavenly abode where the reincarnated god reigns; erected by Vishnu at Indra’s behest.”

If the name feels a bit overwhelming, it’s nothing compared to the sprawling, chaotic, wonderful urban jungle that meets the eye when you arrive. I use the word jungle intentionally, because the thing that struck me instantly when I first came to Bangkok, was how tropical and alive the place is. Yes: it is humid, messy, polluted and the traffic is madness. But everywhere you look, lush green foliage creeps between the buildings; moss softly covers roofs and gutters; and the grand Chao Phraya river courses like a life-vein through Bangkok, providing it with a steady heartbeat.

FOTO 1_Creative commons - Bangkok, Thailand, view from Golden Mt. - by Milei Vencel

Due to its vast, labyrinthine-like qualities it can be difficult to pinpoint a strict center in this city of 10 million people, with its flashing neon commercials, fine Thai architecture, street food sizzling in roadside stalls, friendly monks in orange robes and crowded markets. If I were to guide you, however, I would first take you to the main commercial area around Siam Square. It’s where the two most important BTS Skytrain lines intersect, creating a puzzle of concrete overpasses, underneath which the busy Rama I road teems with taxi’s, motorbikes, buses and tuktuks.

There’s something to say both in favor and against most of these modes of transportation: the Skytrain is fast, reliable, very clean and air-conditioned (a fact you will rapidly start to appreciate in Bangkok). On the downside, it is relatively expensive and covers only a limited number of stops. Taxis are comfortable, quite cheap compared to other countries and cover every single corner of the metropolis. They do however have to face the insane traffic jams that can occur around rush hours, while the fare meter keeps ticking… Local buses deal with the same traffic situation, but they are dirt cheap, quite rickety and thus offer a more adventurous way of travelling through town. However, their network is seemingly incomprehensible and includes a bewildering amount of bus lines. If you’re feeling reckless and free, I can highly recommend hopping on the back of a motorbike taxi. Just grab hold of a driver, negotiate a price with a mischievous smile on your face and prepare for the ultimate, stomach-churning kick. Helmets are obligatory, but many people don’t seem to bother – racing through narrow gaps in traffic jams, avoiding pedestrians by seconds, and breaking both laws of nature and traffic costs you only a few coins for short distances. The one mode of transport I would not recommend, is the well-known tuktuk. As a foreigner, you will invariably end up paying a fortune for a ride in these loud, noisy three-wheelers that offer next to nothing in the comfort or scenery department.

FOTO 2 _ Creative commons - Christian Haugen_Multicolored traffic jam in Bangkok

No matter how you get to Siam Square’s hustle and bustle, if you’re into shopping, you should wander around one of the many malls the area has to offer. They range from high class, exclusive Paragon and Central World Plaza, to the huge and more local-oriented Pratunam and Platinum – a Swedish friend used to go there with two empty garbage bags which would be stuffed by the time she got out. You have been warned. MBK is the place to go if you’re more into gadgets and electronics, with the top floors offering stalls where you can order illegal copies of entire seasons of your favorite tv series. Return an hour later, and the dvds will be waiting for you.

If you feel tired of the never ending, wordly capitalist craziness, you will be delighted to discover the small Erawan shrine on a busy street corner in Siam Square. This Hindu shrine celebrates the god Brahma and is frequented non-stop by pilgrims who drape the shrine with garlands, light incense sticks that perfume the air, and sometimes even hire dance troops to perform in honor of the gods. If your heart aches at the sight of the shrine birds locked into impossibly tiny cages, you can buy one and set it free with a prayer.

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Another option is to head for the more quiet area just west of Siam Square, to visit Jim Thompson’s house – a must-see for lovers of architecture. This house and its splendid garden are an oasis of calm and silence in the middle of Bangkok and used to belong to an American architect-turned-silkdealer. Thompson’s house is entirely built up of teak wood in the traditional Thai style and filled with many precious Asian art objects. Part of the allure of the place is perhaps also that the man himself mysteriously disappeared in the sixties in Malaysia while on a walking tour, never to be seen again. Whether he was murdered or not, his legacy lives on in this graceful museum.

Continue your journey to the old Rattanakosin area close to the river, where you will find the city’s most famous temples (“wat” in Thai) and perhaps Bangkok’s top tourist destination: the large compound which includes the former Royal Palace and Wat Phra Kaeo. The palace is a maze of halls and courtyards in a mix of European and Thai architecture, abundant with intricate details and gold-leaf. Today the royal family no longer lives there however it is used only for ceremonial events. In Wat Phra Kaeo’s dazzling interior, you can see a small, very famous and very holy Buddha statue (the emerald Buddha from Bangkok’s name!) that was carved from a single block of jade in the 14th century. Every season, the Thai king himself lovingly performs the important ritual of decorating the little statue in one of his three cloaks, to ensure good fortune for the nation.

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A ten-minute walk from these two sights, you find the more quiet Wat Pho, one of the oldest and largest temples of Bangkok. Allow yourself to soak up the peaceful atmosphere and enjoy seeing the 46-meter long golden statue of the Reclining Buddha, whose foot soles are decorated with auspicious scenes in mother-of-pearl. Wat Pho also includes the country’s leading massage school, so if you want you can book a treatment here. Beware! A real Thai massage can sometimes be anything but relaxing, with some serious, painful stretching included to improve your blood flow!

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Not far from the Royal Palace compound, you can stray into Yaowarat and suddenly find yourself in a completely different culture: welcome to Bangkok’s Chinatown. Walking along Charoenkrung Road, one store after the other sells vast quantities of shiny gold, interspersed by restaurants with all-Chinese menus or shady stores offering unrecognizable packages of medicinal herbs. Allow yourself to get lost here, without being surprised that Chinese temples FOTO 6astand side by side with portraits celebrating the Thai king;

or that a market stall seems to sell both bloody chickens, cheap underwear and sleeping dogs…

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If you feel you need a breath of fresh air, an excellent option is to hop on the nearby Chao Phraya Express Boat, a cheap and useful water ferry that crosses Bangkok’s main river. Not only is it a more efficient way to traverse the city than chartering your own long-tail boat, it also provides you with a nice view and a fun experience.

If it is now nearing sunset and you are up for a surreal experience, head to the seedy, carnivalesque red-light district of Soi Cowboy, just across the road from the Sukhumvit Skytrain station. Everyone knows about the Thai bar scene, frequented by middle-aged Western men with beer bellies and sorry life stories,

Wat Arun Sunset

and Bangkok is no exception. Writing about these areas is difficult, as they are a very ambiguous feature of Thailand. On the one hand, when you are strolling past the many venues with their pumping music and you are invited inside with the promise of attractions like “pussy cuts banana” or “pussy smokes cigarette,” you feel sick. You bite your lip and look away when you see girls dancing on bars, wearing nothing more than a bra and hotpants (or less), knowing that most of them are both very young and very poor, and often came from the arid northeast of Thailand in hopes of making a better life for themselves. At the same time, you are easily drawn to these areas, like a moth to a flame – whether to verify if the shameful stories of expat men leering at young bodies are true, to engage in gawping disaster-tourism or simply to have a drink in this most surreal area, surrounded by the energy and life of the city. I don’t know whether I should advise you to spend some time here so you know that the City of Angels includes all kinds of fallen angels, or to shake my head and lead you somewhere else.

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Let me finish with an almost magical, not-to-be-missed weekend destination: Chatuchak, or JJ Market! This is hands down the best market I have ever been to. I know Istanbul’s bazaars are famed, as are Morocco’s souks – but never have I been to a place where they literally have everything. Every single thing you can imagine: silk scarves, rusty Buddha statues, plastic flower lights to decorate your windows, t-shirts of Homer Simpson talking Japanese, bubble tea with cinnamon flavor, old maps turned into wallpaper, … You name it, you find it. The thing is that Chatuchak is so huge and confusing, that I can only compare it to Hogwarts – whenever you decide you like an item “but I’ll come back for it later so I don’t have to carry it around all day,” forget it. The chances are close to zero of you finding your way back to the exact stall you are looking for. Shopkeepers seem to magically vanish, little hidden alleys turn up where before there were none, and all the while you discover new, exciting trinkets that you didn’t know existed. That Homer Simpson t-shirt I mentioned? Yeah, I never did find it again and regret it until today. If you want the world’s most hardcore shopping experience, head to the north of Bangkok armed with a big bottle of water and a good pair of flip-flops, and go wild.

 

FOTO 9 - A Narrow Soi at Chatuchak Weekend Market, Bangkok, Thailand_JJ Harrison Creative Commons

 Text: Eva Corijn

Bilder: Milei Vencel, Christian Haugen,Mark Fischer, JJ Harrison and Eva Corijn