As a retired teacher from London, England, I am fortunate enough to have the time and money to visit South East Asia for a couple of months every year. My wife and I rent cars or motorbikes or use public transport and visit remote mountain areas and coastal plains far from the usual tourist haunts. Sometimes we stay in hotels, but usually we camp in a small two-person tent and cook our own meals over a gas stove.
This visit I was especially struck by the colours of south-east Asia. Four colours in particular seem to sum up the area, both its good and not-so-good aspects: green, blue, black and red.
Every country in the continent, from Malaysia to Sri Lanka, is covered in vast expanses of paddy. The fluorescent green rice plants provide food for all, whether the basic white rice grains or the high-end red and black grains which I adore. The species Oryza glutinosa, or sticky rice, is easier to handle with chopsticks as the grains adhere to each other. The storks and egrets which feed on the frogs and fish in the flooded fields are in fact helping the rice-plant-eating bugs which form the next step down the food chain. As long as there are enough insectivorous frogs left, not too much damage is done to the crop, there’s enough for all. In Bangladesh a problem arose when the French ran out of European frogs to eat a few years back, and enterprising Bengalis decided to help out by catching and exporting their local frogs to Europe. Unfortunately they were so efficient that the herbivorous bugs had a population explosion and the crop suffered. Solution? large quantities of expensive insecticides were applied which harmed both the farmers and the consumers.
Like all travellers, I love a bit of beach. A blue ocean, white sands, palm trees, not too many people – Thailand’s got it all if you know where to look. On the west coast is the Andaman Sea; and the Gulf of Thailand is on the east. However, this is not paradise: sometimes the sea is dirty, and all sorts of rubbish wash up on the sand. The fishing boats lose a lot of polystyrene floats off their nets and even the gloves the fishermen wear when handling scaly fish wash up by the dozen; not to mention giant light bulbs off squid boats and plastic bottles. Thais are aware of the problem and there is an ‘anti-foam’ campaign to tackle the omnipresent polystyrene/styrotex.
There’s a catch in my third colour too. Black hair is a sign of longevity. The longer your mane stays black, the longer you will surely live. In a Bangkok barber’s yesterday, my wife suggested I superglue the shed black hair on the floor to my balding pate instead of trimming the sparse brown locks I have left! Advertisers were quick to spot a way of cashing in on the desire for black hair. They suggest that black hair (and thus longevity) come about as the result of eating black food: especially black sesame seed breakfast cereal and black beans. As my favourite bean, grown in my back garden, is green, this would surely mean that my hair should turn green?!
Red is for revolution. The eight red flags flying over Tien An Mien square in Beijing (Post 700) reminded me that not only China but Laos, Vietnam, Mongolia, Cambodia, Tibet and North Korea are run by communist governments of one sort or another. Red for them has, at one stage or another, symbolised hope, brotherhood, an end to capitalist oppression and a brighter future. Sadly, red revolutions also stand for intolerance, imprisonment of dissidents, and authoritarian central governments complete with censorship and suppression of artistic freedoms.
So, my four colours of Asia all stand for something beautiful, but all have a shadow cast over them too. Even in the symbolic world of colours it seems that life is never completely straightforward.