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Upon returning…

We endured fifteen hours on an Airbus. No TV or other distractions, and all food to be paid for. Add to that the quite uncomfortable seats and you’ll guess that this was a budget airline. Air Asia is a very good low cost airline, we’ve flown several times with them now and the service is always very good. The ticket price was half that of BA so it made sense to go with them, it was just a bit tedious.

Back home then. Obviously the most striking thing is the cold; you forget how it chills your bones when you live in the heat. The lives people live in hot countries and cold differ enormously. In the European winter we shut our ourselves away at home, venturing out as needed in heavy clothes. Going out through necessity, rather than the desire just be out interacting with the throng. Most of our daily social interaction seems to be via the TV, telephone or internet. That’s why I prefer hot countries; being outside is not different to being inside. Life in the street is comfortable and often cooler than inside, so people live far more outdoor lives. I enjoy sitting on the pavement and watching the world go by with a coffee or a beer. Not really an option here in the winter. I’ve always thought that ‘Rain stopped play’ would be an accurate strap line for our country. Any activity that takes place outside, from garden barbecue to royal parade is likely to be quashed by appalling weather, whatever time of year. In hot countries things can be planned knowing that they won’t be a washout, therefore they can be more elaborate. I’ve noticed that people are generally happier in the sunshine. I’ve never been a fan of the British climate and our trip has underlined that for me. Some like it hot, including me.

Although I’m sure our climate and weather is at least part of the reason we have such a strong media and arts scene. I think our TV, Radio and Newspapers are among the best in the world, because during our cold indoor winters we need something to focus on, and a way to connect with others. Our media is certainly streets ahead of the countries we visited on our trip, even though several of them pad out their TV schedules with BBC programmes much of the time.

Let’s go shopping…

Your bum WILL look big in this. All sorts on offer at the shopping mall.

The world’s favourite pastime so we’re told. During our trip we’ve visited very many Meccas of retail. The American invention of the shopping mall has spread everywhere, and I have to say that those in the UK are inferior to almost everywhere else we saw. Why so? From Auckland to Darwin to Kuala Lumpur shopping malls have a food court. UK malls also occasionally have food courts, they consist of overpriced KFC and McDonalds and perhaps a few more big chain cafés. Abroad, a food court often has ten or twenty options, offering good quality affordable food from Thai to British, Italian to Indian. In Australia and NZ these places offer the best value meal out, cheaper than cooking it yourself. Our first food court was in Auckland where we had an excellent Korean meal for very little money. In Darwin we had excellent Indonesian food, in Asia every city spoiled you for choice with the offerings from the shopping mall food court. Often the food court in the eight story shopping mall wasn’t even advertised, it’s just a given that on the top floor you’ll find it. The one near our hotel in KL took some finding, tucked away with the karaoke lounge and amusement arcade, but again it was excellent. We had fantastic and plentiful local food for next to nothing. We did eat at proper restaurants most of the time in Asia, but food courts were always a welcome alternative.

The 'Grand Mall' in Java. Everyone said hello and smiled at us as tourists are a rare sight here.

Even the swankiest shopping mall in Asia has an affordable and none too upmarket food court. I think this is the problem in the UK. The rents are so high in our shopping malls that only the large chains can afford to be there. Whether food or fashion outlet, few independent local businesses can afford the big rents. The result is less choice for us, and all shopping malls being clones of each other from Glasgow to Southampton. In Asia the small shops and market style stalls sit along side the big western chains. The small fresh coconut stall sits alongside the McDonalds. The choice available to shoppers is vast; the rents in Asia are obviously not exorbitant. These places offer a choice of food and products unseen in the UK. Out of town shopping is coming to Asia, we saw a few big Tesco stores out on the side of the motorway in Malaysia, we didn’t visit needless to say. It’s also curious how Western fast food is aspirational in much of Asia. I sat in a place that was a local copy of McDonalds in Cambodia (to get a nice coffee). The patrons were exclusively well to do families, parents spoiling their ‘little emperor’ offspring with the finer things in life…chicken nuggets. I kid you not but this place also had the most podgy, chubby, fat faced children I’d seen in Asia. Proof that aspiring to fat laden fast food is bad news for kids. The nutritional future does not look promising for these nations of lean and mostly healthy people…if the marketing departments of the big fast companies get their way. There’s no visible obesity problem in Asia, but no doubt it will emerge as the opportunities for quarter pounders with large fries increases.

Also in Asia we saw a proliferation of designer labels shops; Gucci, D&G and all those overpriced luxury goods for the well heeled. There are certainly more of those than in the UK, but then there are probably more millionaires per capita. Whether the wealth comes legitimately, or from worker exploitation and/or corruption there’s clearly a big market for these icons of global aspiration.

Of course when something is successful others emulate it for a share of the spoils. Copyrights and patents do apply in most of Asia; most countries in the region are members of the World trade Organisation. This means the government has a legal duty to prevent fake goods and piracy, you wouldn’t know it though. Cambodia is the worst offender, in the poshest shopping mall in their capital there are many big shops selling fake watches and bags etc. They look like good copies too. In Cambodia books are photocopied and you see entire bookshops of photocopied books. They are in colour and often good quality, wrapped in cellophane on the shelves you can’t tell the difference. Except that they are about one quarter of the price. Every Lonely Planet guidebook is available for £3 instead of about £20. We saw some of them with pages missing and unreadable maps, and others that were almost as good as the original. It’s very ingenious if nothing else. You can buy a fake Casio watch (why bother) or a fake Zippo lighter (to look like a US soldier). You can buy fake Nike shoes and Levi’s. Most places had shops and stalls selling DVDs for a dollar. All the latest films, including some not yet released, are available. Hundreds or thousands of films are sitting on the shelves. We saw a box set of BBC documentaries in one shop window, David Attenborough etc, for only £5. It was well packaged and contained 29 DVDs, I’d guess an original of that would cost a few hundred pounds at least. The same places sell computer software, everything you could want. A hacked Windows 7 disc is about £1.50.

The market for fake goods is worth more than the market for the real McCoy in these countries. The mostly American companies that lose out do complain, but little seems to be being done. Perhaps they are being too greedy though, most Asians couldn’t pay full price for a Windows disc. In global markets goods are priced the same all over the world, a Windows disc in New York costs the same as one in Saigon. But few could afford that in Saigon, so locals innovate and produce something they can afford. Yes it’s illegal, and is denying revenue to some of the world’s biggest companies, but it enables these countries to get on, to develop their skills, business and products. I can see both sides of the argument. In a way you could see this illicit trade as a form of western economic aid. Bearing in mind that much of the money officially given as aid for development is used to pay contractors and business in Western countries to deliver these development projects. Therefore the aid money, the 0.7% of GDP that most Western countries pledge to give annually but don’t, actually benefits the donor countries as much, or more, than the recipient countries. So maybe this piracy crime is no worse, seen in that context.

So variety was the spice of life when it came to shopping and retail on our trip. Even though the price of everything in Australia, slightly less so NZ, was a fair bit more than the UK. Purely because of our weak pound and their strong dollar. The smaller populations in those countries is reflected in the lesser range of products on offer, in supermarkets especially. The range of products is good, but not the cathedral of choice we’ve come to expect in the UK.

Sometimes you come across strange anomalies when you travel, in Australia and NZ washing your clothes transports you back to the 1970’s. The washing machines you come across are all top loaders and most are cold water only. There were a few front loading automatics in the shops, but only a few. The European brands were mostly absent and those you could buy were about double the price we’d expect to pay. This was a problem in that we did need to wash our clothes as they do get dirty when camping. A top loader cold wash with soap powder just didn’t work; clothes came out almost as dirty as when they went in. A local woman told us that they usually put in some nappy san with the powder to try and get the dirt out, the stuff that’s designed to clean soiled nappies. This all seemed very retrograde to us. The problem of washing your clothes properly was solved years ago, but the required technology has not yet made it to this part of the world. Conversely we noted that in Malaysia and Indonesia the washing machines are the modern ones we are familiar with, and they work. So why are Australia and New Zealand languishing in the washing machine dark ages? All very strange, slightly quaint, but it also means you go around looking a bit like a hobo. And smelling like one too.

That’s all for this instalment, next time a bit about transport and hotels.

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2 Responses to “Upon returning…”

  1. Margie says:

    Hi, nice to see you home again, not so nice for you, a bit cold. Hope you had a great time. Catch up soon
    Mag xx
    pps Happy Christmas and all the best for the New Year xx

  2. Candice Marie says:

    Yes, lovely to be back thanks Margaret, weather excepted. Mm, cheddar cheese and affordable drinkable wine here I come!

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