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Our overnight stay in Bali allowed us to see more of East Bali, including the fabulous scenery at Sidemen, and a visit to the new museum established in the main palace of Karangasem (Amlapura). East Bali still gives a sense of what made Bali so attractive before rampant over-development, you can actually see the rice fields and villages, rather than an expanse of wall-to-wall artshops, hotels, coffee shops and villas.

The Puri Karangasem Museum gives a great insight into palace life, although you have to imagine the royal family, courtiers and servants in residence, since the palace is beautifully quiet, and most people have moved to Denpasar. The Museum has a nice introductory explanation sheet, and some wonderful old colonial photographs in the restored main buildings, although some of these images need labels to explain who is who and what their significance is. Interestingly our driver, a Padang Bai local, came in to see the Museum too, since this was a new experience for him.

Anchoring at Padang Bai was fascinating, since this was the spot where the first Dutch ships stopped in 1597. Great views, but it’s amazing how much the whole coast of Bali, once pristine, is now covered in little housing developments and hotels. And let’s not talk about the desperate hassling as you step onto the jetty. Despite all the shows of government planning and marketing, the poor distribution of tourist income means that tourism is stuck in a time warp in which poorer Balinese crave the instant tourist dollar, and can’t understand why shoving a bit of ugly tat in someone’s face doesn’t produce instant wealth. In a competitive market such as exists in Southeast Asia, the poor experiences of Bali that many tourists encounter can have long-term consequences.

After Bali we sailed through the Makassar Straits, with small dolphins alongside, and a high traffic in industrial shipping going both ways. The next stop was Sandakan, very much your average out-of-the-way Southeast Asian port, although the old town had been completely flattened in World War II. We visited the memorial to the Sandakan POWs who died in the camp and on the death marches. The memorial is a park on the site of the camp, disturbingly beautiful for something so awful. The main display brings home the suffering of the nearly 2,500 prisoners who died in camp or on the forced marches, or at their destination at Ranau, over 200km away. My father had been in the Australian Army during World War II, and as part of the Pacific Command ended up in hospital at Morotai in this period. There he heard a first-hand account from Jack Wong Sue, the Z Force commando who had observed the March and helped three of the six survivors. As much as I know about the history of Japanese militarism, I cannot comprehend how such inhuman brutality could be possible.

Cruising through the South China Seas to Hong Kong was another great experience, although given the history of piracy in the area, I felt a little nervous as we passed through the Sulu Zone. The ship docked in the Ocean Terminal at Kowloon, and I couldn’t think of a more brilliant location to enjoy the delights of that complex city. The new History Museum in Kowloon gives a very good sense of Hong Kong’s social history. I particularly liked the recreation of colonial street-scapes, where you could walk in and out of tea shops, hop on trams or see a tailor’s shop. There was good attention to the lives of ordinary Chinese, as well as to the class differences of the colonial city.

After Hong Kong came a short trip to Cai Lan, one of the ports for Hanoi, but located in Ha Long Bay. The junk ride through part of the nearly 2,000 islands was another unbelievable experience. Even though you’re aware that this is a form of mass tourism, it’s all managed very well.

We’re currently en route to Saigon, making a circuit of the South China Seas.

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A series of notes and discussions about current research I am undertaking about Indonesia.
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