Dim Sum Dialogues: Kowloon Walled City

Today, it’s one of the most peaceful locations in the city. The gardens are beautifully landscaped and connected by long, low archways that are remnant of the Qing Dynasty’s architecture. There are ponds, waterfalls, dragonflies; everything you might associate with traditional Chinese gardens.

But just less than two decades ago, the same soil was the foundation to a very different environment; a lawless territory that was born out of Hong Kong’s identity crisis and foreign occupation. A 6.5 acre plot of land that was home to nearly 33,000 people and a collection of brothels, opium dens, casinos, cocaine parlors, and secret factories. Kowloon Walled City, or Hak Nam…the City of Darkness.

At the peak of the Walled City’s existence in the 1980′s, the streets were lit by fluorescent bulbs 24 hours a day. The ground level rarely received full sunlight because of the density and height of the buildings that were haphazardly constructed without formal building permits. There were only two guidelines for construction in the city: the height of apartment structures could not exceed 14 stories because of its presence on Kai Tak’s flight path, and apartments had to be wired with electricity, to prevent the use of open flames.

Beyond that, there was no governing body or police force; it was run by drug lords, organized crime syndicates, and unlicensed dentists that held practice in cramped apartment spaces.

The city started as a fort in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), to help defend against pirates and protect locally produced salt. The fort played a minor role in Hong Kong’s existence until additional land in Hong Kong was handed to Britain in 1898. The Chinese excluded the Walled City from the treaty, with the intention to keep troops stationed in the fort.

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However, when the British attacked the fort a year later, they found that the Chinese soldiers had deserted the fort, and thus claimed ownership of the land. The British left the city mostly intact until 1933, when they demolished nearly all of the buildings and compensated the 436 squatters that were evicted by giving them new homes.

With the events of World War II, and Japan’s 3 year and eight month occupation of Hong Kong, Japanese immigrants began to occupy the Walled City. Even after Japan’s surrender, the new residents resisted attempts by Britain to reclaim the city. Because of the 1898 treaty, the Hong Kong Police had no right to enter the grounds, and mainland China denied any responsibility to the area.

With both governments avoiding sovereignty of the area, an organized crime syndicate known as the Triads stepped in to rule the tract. As the Triads were overthrown from the city by a series of 3,000 police raids, the city plunged into lawlessness. It began to grown into a monolithic web of illegal activity, because it could go unregulated and unchecked. Slowly, modifications to the buildings were made by inexperienced construction workers, with no supervision from architects or engineers – further complicating the dense network of dwellings.

The Hong Kong government supplied basic services such as mail delivery and water piping, but applied a “hands off” policy to the rest of the dealings in the city. Oddly enough, the reported crime rate was lower than that of the rest of Hong Kong. However, the sanitary conditions were far inferior and poor living conditions eventually led to the Chinese and British governments agreeing to demolish the city and construct a park in its place.

The government spent 2.7 billion HKD to compensate nearly 33,000 residents and business that were located in the city. Evictions took place from 1991 to 1992, and in 1993, the city was demolished. The construction of the park began soon after, and was opened to the public in 1995.

Today, the center of the park is occupied by a beautiful restoration of the city’s Yamen, where the main bureaucrat would live and work in ancient Chinese towns. There are several interactive pieces about the history of the City, and preservations of the original wall & South Gate.

As I walk the carefully pebbled paths through the gardens, I’m struck by how easily the chaos and lawlessness of the Walled City have been erased from the face of Hong Kong. I can’t help but think of the Chungking Mansions, and its similar reputation for unlawful activity. I fear that a hub of culture and diversity like the Mansions might suffer the same fate as the Walled City in an effort to “clean up” and develop the Tsim Sha Tsui shore.

With that thought, I exit the park and hop on the MTR, destined for the Chungking Mansions to get my weekly fix of vindaloo curry.

Dim Sum Dialogues in Thailand: The sounds of Siam

Monks chant at Wat Chana Songkhram, near Khao San Road.

It’s my last day in Bangkok and I’m not ready to leave Thailand. If I had another two weeks, I would have opted to stop at Ko Phi Phi and then cut north to trek through Chiang Mai, but my time is up. In my preparation to leave, I get the feeling that I’ll be back soon enough – there’s too much that I love about this place to not come back.

A couple memories stand out above the others.The utter serenity of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, right after a mid-afternoon rain shower. The polite, genuine smiles of school children and street vendors. The new friends from the Khao San, and Diow. The breeze through the open window on the train to Surat Thani. The feeling of freedom at the Full Moon Party. The dangerous scooter maneuvers. The flavors of the food. The upbeat greeting from Thai women “Sawadee kaaaaa”.

One of my favorite ways to remember a place when I’m traveling is to record audio. Then, thousands of miles away from the point of capture, to sit with headphones on and let my mind recreate in the rest. So, to end this series, I though that I’d share that experience with you. Below you’ll find pictures and their accompanying ambient sounds, with a brief description for context. If you have headphones, please use them to get the full experience.

For those that have been, I hope it brings back the same good memories. For those that have yet to go, I hope the open road is calling your name…

Visitors drop 1-satang coins in 108 bronze bowls that represent the 108 auspicious characteristics of the Buddha. Doing so brings good fortune and helps the monks maintain the wat.

A gong is hit at Wat Pho. Nearby, two young monks check for mobile phone service.

A Secondary School band performs in the courtyard of the school. Typical noisy Bangkok traffic passes in the background.

Chimes at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha blow in the wind.

A riverboat operator signals to the driver with a whistle, indicating when to reverse and when to stop the boat on approach to the riverside docks.

A tuk tuk rumbles through the streets of Bangkok.

The lounge car on the train to Surat Thani enjoys an impromptu DJ performance. Techno blares over the rhythm of the train tracks.

The train to Surat Thani pulls out of a station at midnight.

The night of the full moon party, competing soundtracks of electronic music are observed from a hillside bar.

If you’ve missed the previous articles in this series, be sure to check out the entire Dim Sum Dialogues column for more on the road from Bangkok to Ko Pha Ngan.

Dim Sum Dialogues in Thailand: Ko Samui

My ears are still ringing from the stacks of speakers that exhilarated Haad Rin all night. The lack of sleep is making my eyes heavy, but the lurching of the ferry refuses to let my body sleep.

I’m departing Ko Pha Ngan and am en route to Ko Samui – the largest island in the Surat Thani province, and the third largest island in Thailand. It’s a forty minute ride from the beaches of Haad Rin, and when we arrive, there is another entourage of taxi drivers and hotel workers with signs and suggestions for lodging.

The island was first inhabited by Malay and Chinese settlers, the name is thought to have come from a degeneracy of the Chinese word Saboey, which translates in English as “safe haven”. A welcome thought for those looking to escape the aftermath of a full moon party.
With a population of 50,000 people over an area of 228 km2, Samui is considerably more developed than Pha Ngan, and lacks the quaint charm of the smaller island.

Riding on a scooter through the town of Baan Chaweng, it’s easy to see that tourism is the island’s main source of income – especially in this area, which is known for attracting rowdy backpackers.

The streets are an overwhelming barrage of polychromatic signs that advertise hostels, restaurants and luxury beach resorts. I dodge a few bikini and boardshort-clad tourists, weave past tuk tuks congesting the road, and inhale the sharp scent of thai food being grilled up near the street.

I park the scooter near the sand and walk past countless oceanfront resorts. The establishments are guarded by sun-beds and banana-leaf umbrellas in neat rows. Older couples lie stretched out in the sunshine, eager to work on their tan. They thumb through paperback books, only to lay their head on the sun-bed and close their eyes.

There are fancy swimming pools. Security guards. Valet attendants. Buffet lunches. There are families here. It’s a vacation destination – a different vibe than the island across the channel.

But it wasn’t always this way. Until the 1940′s, there were no roads or cars on Samui. There was no outside influence. The inhabitants traveled everywhere by foot or by boat. Then, in the 1970′s, backpackers began to access the island by way of coconut boats. A handful of bungalows were created and travelers on the island began to increase.

By the 1990′s, ferries of passengers were arriving on the island, and investors began to build five-star resorts in order to compete with Phuket as a tourist destination. Once Bangkok Airways committed to fund and build the island’s only airport, Samui’s fate as a tourist destination was sealed.

It’s a great tourist destination at that. Beautiful, large beaches. Several waterfalls. Plenty of day-hiking & trekking. Golfing. Kayaking. Boxing. ATV’s. Elephant riding. Paintball. The list goes on – there is no shortage of things to do on the island. It’s just not the low-key hippy haven that it once was.

Parts of the island reminds me of Phuket – pockets of upscale resorts are interspersed with areas containing cheap bars and a more rowdy atmosphere. But my general feeling is that Samui is cleaner, less tacky, and more family friendly than Phuket. The beaches are just as beautiful, and Samui will still be less developed in 5 years than Phuket is now.

If I were forced to choose between the two for a week long vacation, there is absolutely no doubt that I would head to Samui over Phuket.

After a little over 36 hours on the island, I have to catch a flight back to Bangkok. As much as I would like to stay, I’m also looking forward to one more night in Bangkok, and on the Khao San.

I step into the welcome area of the tiny tropical airport, and any last doubts that I have between Phuket and Samui are completely gone. The airport is a beautiful, well laid out, and very easy to access from almost anywhere on the island. The waiting lounges feature comfortable couches under large wooden ceiling fans. There is live news broadcast on brand new TV’s. Free coffee, juice, chocolate rolls, and WIFI. After a long week of questionable toilets, ferries, buses, and train transit – it’s heaven…or in the least, a safe haven.

If you’ve missed the previous articles in this series, be sure to check out the entire Dim Sum Dialogues column for more on the road from Bangkok to Ko Pha Ngan.

Dim Sum Dialogues in Thailand: Full Moon Party

The big night has finally arrived – a fact made tangible by the surreal moon strung up in the sky by wispy clouds.

Legend has it that the first party was held in 1985 for a crowd of 25-30 backpackers. Word of mouth spread and caused the gathering to escalate with every new month and every new full moon.

Tonight, anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 people of the world will converge on sands of Haad Rin in a few hours. For the second night in a row, the streets are teeming with young backpackers.
The buzz in the air that I felt yesterday is even more feverish. Vendors are setting up their stalls on the beach, neatly laying out rows of colorful plastic buckets that contain playful displays of drink combinations. They have crude signs that cash in on phrases that have become popular with tourists, such as “I love you long time”. There are sodas, liquor, and the infamous energy drinks that are probably illegal in most western countries; Shark, M150, and the infamous Krating Daeng.

The latter, which is marked with two red bulls charging each other, inspired the development of worldwide energy drink Red Bull when Austrian entrepreneur (and now billionaire) Dietrich Mateschitz found that it cured his jet lag on a trip to Thailand in 1982. Mateschitz partnered with Krating Daeng’s owner and in 1987 launched a reformulated, carbonated, and more sexy version of the Thai drink…but don’t be fooled – the original is still the most potent, and the better option if you plan on seeing the sun rise over Haad Rin.

Nearer to the water, more vendors assemble canvases lit by black-lights that promote colorful body art. The available paintings range from the magnificent and inspirational logo of 7-11 to more logical images like dragons, stars, and butterflies. I pass on the paintings – I’ve only brought out a few hundred baht that’s wadded in a secure pocket, because pickpockets are notorious for getting close to dancers and running off with whatever camera / passport / wallet is in reach.

Further down the beach is a section of sand that is fenced off. Signs hung on the plastic fence indicate it to be a designated “sleep area” and medical tent. A few eager partygoers have already managed to fall asleep fully clothed, with plastic buckets just out of reach and heads resting on plush pillows of sand. A necessary power-nap before the main festivities begin.

I drift closer to the music that’s slowly and steadily increasing in volume. It’s a thumping, bass-rich beat that causes my head to involuntary start bobbing. Maybe it’s the M150, maybe it’s the friendly vibe, or maybe it’s the colorful light and decorations of the various “dance stages” on the beach – either way, I have an increasing desire to dance – and in my 23 years on Earth I’ve rarely ever been known for wanting to dance. I’m momentarily distracted a bright flash of light, and I keep drifting.

I find my way to a circle of people that are gathered around a giant jump-rope. When I arrive, a few Thai men are dousing the rope with some liquid, and it’s not until I see a spark that I realize what’s about to happen. The rope ignites, and immediately the men start rotating the rope.

As it gains momentum, there are dozens of young men just steps away, eager to show their courage by jumping into the center and hopping over the now blazing obstacle. Some make it unscathed until the rope fizzles out. Others trip up, a result of one too many buckets – and are grazed by the rope, but remarkably make it out without combusting.

But these scars will only later become supporting evidence to familiar backpacker war-stories that will be told again and again to new friends in hostels around the world.

The most shocking occurrence is a naked man that dashes into the center and enjoys a few successful revolutions of the rope that are echoed by gasps and laughter from the crowd. The laughter quickly stops when the rope is accidentally caught between his legs, and he is brought to the ground, yet again (mostly) unharmed.

There are several more fire dancers close by that twirl lit poi, staff, or nunchakus. Their talent is amazing, and it occurs to me that this skill is the result of a daily dedication – it is their sole existence – spinning fire for the entertainment of wandering nomads.

A few European amateurs get into the fire spinner’s circles and perform slow, clumsy moves that make me fully appreciate the Thai performer’s talent. The Europeans assume that the clapping is for them, and so they continue to gracelessly defame the delicate practice.

Finally, the crowds have all found their way to the beach. I weave between a mass of bodies that throb in unison, connected by music and perhaps also by the journey that it took to make it to this exact moment. I dig my toes into the sand and let my limbs move freely. I’m suddenly not a bad dancer – but possibly now even a mediocre dancer. Everyone is moving together. Everyone is having a good time. The energy flows to the steady, thick beat for hours.

Finally, a husky glow begins to appear over the water. The sun rises, and the crowd dissipates. Newly united couples run down the beach hand in hand. People sleep peacefully on the sand.

The rest retreat to their bungalows, and another Full Moon Party comes to an end.

If you’ve missed the previous articles in this series, be sure to check out the entire Dim Sum Dialogues column for more on the road from Bangkok to Ko Pha Ngan.

Dim Sum Dialogues in Thailand: Ko Pha Ngan

After what feels like hours, the ferry disembarks on a small dock that ends where a group of Thai people in hats and sunglasses are standing. They’re holding signs for connecting rides to hotels or offering cheap bus fares to various beaches on the island.

I suppose one of the pitfalls of not booking anything ahead of time is suddenly realizing that you have no idea what your next move should be. Haad Rin? Haad Yao? Haad Khuat? Haad Salat? Names of beaches barraged my eyes and ears.

With one full day before the full moon party, all hostels were rumored to be fully booked, so it didn’t matter where I started the search. I only knew that it would be better to stay close to Haad Rin since it’s the center of activity, and staying there would mean avoiding late night taxis or buses when it was time to go home. A couple of tourists waiting to leave the island point to a woman that they recommend for a taxi bus, and I take their suggestion.
I jump in the back of a covered truck and am heartily greeted by a loud American with a southern accent and a t-shirt tied around his head. He uses a slew of expletives to describe just “how [ridiculously] crazy Thailand is” and asks the group of passengers if we can believe how “cheap [stuff] is here”. He says he might not want to leave and mentions that there’s nothing to go back to at the moment anyway. Eventually, he’s drowned out by the sound of the struggling engine as the truck strains to make it over a series of steep, twisting roads that lead to Haad Rin.

The island’s area is roughly 168 km², with an estimated 50 km perimeter, so it really doesn’t take long to get to get anywhere on the island. From the ferry to the beach where the once-a-month festivities are held, it’s about a fifteen minute drive.

We arrive in Haad Rin, and I make a dash for the first cheap hostel in my guidebook – Mellow Mountain Bungalows. The view is gorgeous. Bright sunshine, sparkling water, green hills and white sand. Luckily, there’s one bungalow available and the price isn’t bad – 350 baht per night ($10 USD). I force myself to overlook the fact that the toilet and shower are both out of commission – the likely explanation for the room’s late vacancy – and decide that the communal shower will do just fine. If that fails, there’s always the ocean, right?

Once I’m settled, my initial instinct is to rent a scooter and explore the rest of the island. In retrospect, this should have been my first decision after arriving on the island – and would be my recommendation for anyone traveling without bags that require a taxi. It’s cheaper and more fun to explore the island by yourself. Just remember to wear a helmet and drive cautiously – I think calling the roads of Thailand “unpredictable” would be an affectionate understatement.

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Regardless, Ko Pha Ngan is probably one of the best places in Thailand to rent a scooter for the day. All of the roads on the island are quiet, two lane strips of asphalt that snake through beautiful forests and picturesque hills. There’s a few waterfalls that are easy to access, and enough beaches to sample to keep you busy for a few days. On my way around the island, I stop at a small restaurant owned by a Thai woman and her British expat husband. A crowd of British men are huddled around the bar, halfway through a “proper Sunday lunch” of roast lamb and mushy peas.

My favorite beach of the day is a spot on the Northern end called Haad Salad. There are giant rope swings, quaint guest houses and warm, shallow water. If it wasn’t on the opposite side of the island from Haad Rin, I’d opt to stay here for hours, but I’m short on time and decide to head back on the road while the sun sets in the west, and a full moon rises in the east.

I gun the scooter over the final few hills that descend into the beach. I’m relishing every moment of riding the curved pavement, the moon high in the sky, cutting through a paper thin layer of clouds. When I pull into the town, I can feel the buzz of energy in the air. By now, most of the tourists that are staying in Haad Rin for the party have arrived, and the tiny streets of the towns are packed with people.

A group of dutch tourists get neon paint patterned on their arms and legs. Four youngsters huddle around a friend in a tattoo shop. A pair of girls get their hair done at a salon. Hordes of people have already started dancing on the beaches to deep, resonant music.

Internet cafés are filled to capacity. I stop at one and count the number of screens that are logged into Facebook – 19 out of 20…and it’s the same at almost every cafe that I pass. Truly the mark of our generation. Maybe they’re making those last minute rendezvous from the Khao San?

I have no idea what to expect for the next 24 hours, but by the excitement that I feel in the streets, I have a good suspicion that I’ve come to the right place.

If you’ve missed the previous articles in this series, be sure to check out the entire Dim Sum Dialogues column for more on the road from Bangkok to Ko Pha Ngan.