A plastic problem for a genuine people: how rubbish is threatening south east Asia’s future

March,  2017.

Plastic bottles, plastic bags and the stench of rubbish greeted us as we left a suburban train station in Kuala Lumpur to spend a few hours at one of Malaysia’s most revered Hindu temples and natural attractions, Batu Caves. It was a sign of things to come as we made our way past filthy souvenir stalls, more rubbish and tacky attractions to the temple. The Malaysian Hindu women were dressed to the nines in their elegant, colourful and immacuate saris, but their overwhelming beauty was tarnished by the litter they passed as they made the trek up 272 steps of the temple which has been built into the side of a huge and impressive limestone range and cave system.

Rubbish greeting tourists and pilgrims as they make their way to the world’s most prominent Hindu temple outside of India.

 

The Hindus removed their shoes for their pilgrimage while the tourists kept theirs on. As we climbed past a huge gold statue of Lord Murugan, the pavement and steps were wet and dirty rubbish, thieving monkeys persecuted those carrying food and roosters strutted wherever those chose. The magnificence of the huge cave, now with a cement floor and railings, the partly vegetated cave walls, and the beautiful statues embeded in the cave’s natural ledges were interuppted by the souvenir shop selling clocks with flashing lights that played Hindu chants, minature versions of the statue which stood so valiantly at the entrance to this great contradiction and hundreds of trinkets to remind the traveller of their visit to Kuala Lumpur. My memory won’t be of the Hindu god of war. It will be of filth.

Standing at 42.7 m (140 ft) high, the world’s tallest statue of Murugan, a Hindu deity, is located outside Batu Caves, near the city of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
There is litter beside every one of the 272 steps leading to the Batu Caves temple and shrine.

 

It was obvious religion was cashing-in on both tourists and pilgrims. As a non-Hindu, I felt like I was western, white privileged voyeur. I was invading a special place I had little understanding of. But like most tourists, “it was cool to see”. It was something encouraged by the locals, keen to make a buck.

Without the rubbish, the cement and the souvenir shops, the Hindu pilgrimage to the temple within the Batu Caves is a sight to behold.

My cynicism and sentiment was echoed by a woman I met in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands.

“There is corruption here and religion has sold out too,” she scorned as she explained the unregulated and poorly planned development that dominated this once peaceful and beautiful part of the world. Monstrous blocks of ugly flats encroach on mountainous rainforest that I had a glorious time hiking through in Tanah Rata. Highrise apartments spoil the views of guesthouses that have been operating for decades, nestled unobstrusively into a hill. A local businessman alleges a mammoth sum of US$100,000 would have been made to the person or people responsible for the approval of a large apartment block nearby. He shrugs forlornly as he tells me he’s lived in the small town all his life.

The picturesque and rainforest-rich Cameron Highlands is fast becoming a place of unregulated development which is threatening the tourist potential of the region.

 

Effective waste management is non-existant in south east Asia. And the use of plastic bottles is rampant, with no effort to even acknowledge the problems they cause let alone to manage them. They and plastic bags litter roadsides, streams, culvets, gutters, yards, roads, bloody everywhere.

Bottled drinking water is provided in all hotel rooms with only some of those hotels providing opportunities to refill them with filtered water. You see, few people drink the tap water. And with the ever-increasing number of tourists flocking to these cheap holiday destinations the plastic problem is a looming disaster for both the environment and tourism.

It’s not only visitors contributing to south east Asia’s plastic pollution. Gifts from the locals to their Gods also contribute. A shrine on every corner is littered with food and drink gifts in plastic – chips, cokes, sweets.

The tidiest shrine I saw in my month-long Asian travels. This was beside on of Bangkok’s main roads.

I’m not sure which God would appreciate the destruction of the natural environment and I’m at a loss to understand why people so dedicated to their God and religion would let any place of worship get so ugly. South east Asia is an incredibly beautiful part of the world. You’ve just got to look past the plastic.

In Cambodia my local guide explains “it’s a cultural thing” as I question him about the litter strewn at a pretty lotus farm not far from Siem Reap.

“As a child we were allowed to throw it by the roadside. Everybody did it. It’s only now, as an adult, that I realise how bad it is. But not many people care. The plastic will last 400 years, you know.”

A polluted creek is used to irrigate the lotus plants on a lotus farm not far from Siem Reap.

 

I queried the role of government in offering waste management options as I explained the large emphasis that Australian local governments place on managing waste. He looked at me gob-smacked as he said there was no rubbish collection, no waste management, and no litter education, let alone recycling options.

Another guide told me it is each household’s responsibility to manage their rubbish. As a result most of it is burned in piles that sit close to each house, contributing to toxic dioxin emmissions and the stink of those villages that tourists pay big tourist dollars to see. Even as I sat on a small boat to tour the remote floating villages on the floodpains of Tonle Sap lake at the floating community Kompong Khleang, my tour was interupted twice as the boat’s skipper struggled to remove the pastic bags that has enveloped the boat’s propeller.

Rubbish is burned on the banks of the river that provides the livelihoods of a Cambodian fishing village.

 

But all is not lost. There is a very small movement starting to bubble in the dirty and polluted streets of Cambodia. Driven by international interest there is evidence that at least some people recognise the looming disaster. There is at least one campaign encouraging businesses to join the “war on waste”.

Refill Not Landfill is working to minimise the one-use plastic bottles that the initiative says amounts to “355,000 bottles discarded by tourists every day”. It aims to offer refilling opportunities but, during my travels throughout Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia, I saw few establishments that offered a filtered water refill opportunity.

Cambodia is an evolving tourist mecca, with predictions tourism numbers will more than double to 10 million per year in just a few years. Any waste initiative will only work if more business come on board, and quickly.

By far one of the most encouraging example of waste management education in Cambodia is by non-government organisation HUSK. Funded by a popular local tourism venture that offers guided tours, HUSK has built two schools made of plastic water bottles. Yes, the school walls are made of bottles filled with plastic bags covered by a concrete render. The local community in Kompheim was paid for their plastic rubbish and, with the help of generous western donors, a school was born. The locals call it the plastic bottle school. I call it a good place to start.

South east Asia has a monstrous plastic problem. As tourism continues to boom it’s a problem getting worse by the day. It’s not going to go away until governments offer waste solutions for their people. The plastic problem is threatening the health of villagers, their agricultural production and their tourism lifeblood.

It’s a beautiful part of the world, filled with lovely people, great adventures and memorable experiences. But, for me, what I will remember about the month I spent in south east Asia is poor countries drowning in plastic thanks to ignorant and allegedly corrupt governments who would rather count their short-term tourist dollars instead of encouraging the long-term economic, agricultural and ecological prosperity of their people.

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You look like a movie star!: cheeky tuk tuk driver swoons exhausted traveller AKA me.

MARCH 10, 2016

It’s been a big day. A good day. Ten-and-a-half hours of travel has seen me travel from Siem Reap to the Cambodian capital. It’s only a few hundred kilometres but it took an overloaded bus, two “speed” boats (read two old wooden boats without a life jacket between them) and a tuk tuk to get me to a US$30 hotel in the heart of Phnom Pehn. It’s cheap, cheerful, clean and safe. And breakfast is included. Winning!

The hotel pick-up bus to take a bunch of tourists from their hotels to the ‘harbour’ was over capacity. Uncomfortable giggles ensued as close friends got ever closer and strangers huddled together.

We clambered onto the “speed boat” an hour past its designated departure time and off we went south on Tonle Sap, a huge freshwater lake that is the lifeblood of Cambodia’s fishing industry.

It’s like suburbia but on a lake. Fishing villages, schools, shops and markets – all floating!

Fast forward the EIGHT HOUR boat ride, give or take a boat change in the middle of the lake during which their was NO communication from the skipper as to why and how, and I find myself wandering the streets after dark in the centre of the bustling Phnom Penh. It being DARK is an important piece of information in this story.

Making up for a long day. 

Sun-kissed and tired, I really am a sight to behold. So bad I actually put makeup on to go wandering in the DARK. And a dress. A $10 dress I bought in Siem Reap, made in Thailand. My thighs have rarely had the opportunity to rub together during the past month’s travelling so wearing a dress makes a nice change from the long shorts and hiking boots that are my staple adventure wardrobe. It’s only the second time I’ve worn makeup on this trip so one could say I’ve gone all-out to look human-like today.

Cue the jovial call from a young tuk tuk driver which I belly laughed at as I walked past on the opposite side of road.

YOU LOOK LIKE A MOVIE STAR!

My blonde hair often attracts looks here in Asia (even had a lady take a photo of me from behind in Malaysia), even if I am middle aged. It’s freshly washed and has grown substantially of late so it’s bouncing on my shoulders tonight. (As much as fine hair with split ends that hasn’t seen product or a hair dryer for a month can bounce). I even washed it using my Aussie shampoo. No cheap hotel shampoo for me tonight! #classy  #fluffy

So it seems even a middle aged, exhausted blonde can look okay when it’s DARK.

I continued to exchange polite banter with said tuk tuk driver as I walked away. “How long you been here? How long you stay? You from Australiaaaaaa?

They can be annoying but they’re only trying to make a living. Once you engage with them other than a ‘no, thank you’, they smell blood and an opportunity to play tour guide. It may be a tuk tuk eat tuk tuk world here in Cambodia but the drivers remain polite and jovial if knocked back with a smile.

Nek minnit the young, chatty and cheeky driver is behind me. He’d turned the ignition on in his tuk tuk and sped the 30 metres now between us faster than you can “Asian gastro”.

He was vying to be my tour guide and played a hard, knowledgeable game. He suggested he would take me to the killing fields and the genocide museum. Short but good looking and charming I told him he was being cheeky and was playing me. With a glint in his eye he knew he had me.

So Tom is meeting me at my hotel at 11:30 tomorrow where, for US$20, I’m not only sure to learn about the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime, but also have a lot of laughs getting to know a young lad working hard to make a living on the tough, competitive streets of Cambodia.

Oh, and he invited me for a beer tonight. I declined but did wonder if he’s moonlighting as a gigolo. He’s certainly got what it takes. Too bad I’ll be wearing my long shorts, hiking boots and no makeup tomorrow.