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Private conversations that you won’t find in guidebooks

August 5, 2009


“One cannot be a good historian of the outward, visible world without giving some thought to the hidden, private life of ordinary people; and on the other hand one cannot be a good historian of this inner life without taking into account outward events where these are relevant. They are two orders of fact which reflect each other, which are always linked and which sometimes provoke each other.”

Victor Hugo

We’ve all done it at some point in our lives to a lesser or greater extent; listened or opened up to a stranger, who just so happened to be next to you waiting for that chance to share. A piece of good news, oddities in daily life, fear of flying, through to a deep resentment for something which has been building over time.  Is it because strange faces and unknown names give off a feeling of comfort? The notion that strangers are people who can listen without passing judgement, who play no role in the daily ongoings of the confiders life other than to listen.  Conversations can make us smile, think and provoke anger. Unless the conversation latches onto a relevant historical event for context, it can fall on “deaf ears” and end up as a rant.  

Some events stand out like Tibet, others are noted but glossed over like Cambodia, but then other events have slowly separated and evolved over time into something new like Malaysia’s Highlands. Events don’t discriminate and don’t fall within Asia, because most of my recent travels are Asia specific, I thought it’s time to share with my readers. Privileged and personal, these are some conversations held with locals during my travels that you won’t find in guidebooks.

 Tibet —  divide and rule  (2005)

Sitting in an empty café in Lhasa’s old Tibetan quarters, I was approached by the owner who was also a Tibetan language teacher. He asked for help with his English assignment in return for a lesson on the Tibetan language…

Historically the Tibetan language has its roots in ancient Indian Sanskrit, but modern Tibetan language has been divided into three main oral dialects: Central (Lhasa) being the lingua franca, Amdo being the northeastern dialect and Kham being the eastern dialect. With the arrival of the Han Chinese came the assimilation of Tibetan culture and language to Chinese. In keeping with China’s one language policy, Chinese is taught throughout all levels of school in Tibet, written upon every shopfront and Tibetan business, spoken widely by urban dwellers often as a means of communicating among themselves and doing business.

There is debate about whether Tibetans are losing their language through China’s policy, Tibetan leaders agree, western Tibetologists disagree. Marginalisation has not been debated. Numerous petitions have been presented to the Chinese government on behalf of Tibetan educators and leaders seeking one common Tibetan dialect: Central Tibetan. To this day, little progress has been made.

 Angkor Wat, ancient monument to the Khmers – money spinner for the elite (2008)

On the way to visiting a small orphanage around the outskirts of Angkor (temple complex), an orphanage director who was inwardly frustrated with the continual impoverished state of his country, shared his private thoughts, pointing out the neglect of the villages and the historic sites, by the national government…

The beauty of Angkor Wat lures tourists who are willing to pay the set fee (around $20 USD per day).  Anyone who has scrambled and climbed around the temple site knows that little of this money is evident in the upkeep of the site, also a concern of international archaeologists. 

Around sixty million dollars US was collected from temple site visits in 2007 — from this ten million dollars US went back to the state. A large portion of the remainder went to the business running the concession rights of the temple complex. These sole rights are held by tycoon Oknha Sok Kong, personal friend of the country’s president. Cronyism underpins Cambodian business and to a large extent its politics. Resentment is felt within the local communities as the trickle down effect continues to trickle, slowly.

It is difficult to ignore the signage advertising foreign aid projects, foreign charities and donations, foreign NGOs, wherever you travel through Cambodia. International organisations have heavily funded the preservation of Cambodia’s temple sites, NGOs perservere with the task of keeping Cambodians above the absolute poverty line, and grass root groups struggle to stay on top of staple food costs. 

Although the government receives money from tourism and, yes, local operaters have benefited around tourist centres like Siem Reap, the life for the ordinary Cambodian continues to be subsistant. The new addition of night lights to the large temple of Angkor Wat is an attempt by officials and business to bring in more tourists; and more money to the concession owner. 

 Malaysia – goodbye ancient rainforests, hello market gardens (2009)

Standing on top of what seems the world, the crisp mountain air meets the warm valley inversion and mist sets in.  A young passionate tour guide stands broad stance, hands moving wildly as he talks about the was and now of his homeland in Malaysia’s Highland’s.


Progress has led to a demand for hotels and apartments, restaurants and terraced market gardens. People come here to enjoy the views, the climate and the hydroponics.  Road construction and urban development have contributed to the decline in the hunting grounds of the native Orang Asli, the encroachment of market gardens en-force, the clear felling of native forests and destruction of natural habitats of some of Malaysia’s rare flora and fauna. 

Tour guides can be both good and bad, depending on where you go. Sometimes it’s just better to go alone and take the sight in without having someone constantly talk in your ear. But guides who walk you through bush, teach you things about the native habitation of plants and animals, and tell you what not to do while walking around, have a relationship and respect for the place they live in. And they are the ones who care enough to share.

 Advice if you’re thinking of travelling to areas of democractic instability or uncertainty

Conversations have taken me into the private thoughts of strangers, who for some unknown reason, placed their trust in me. Some confiders have taken risks to share their opinions given the political circumstance they live in. 

Tip: if someone places their trust in you, don’t abuse it. These discussions can be highly sensitive and put the confider into a compromising situation. Wait for the confider to come to you, let them speak, avoid interrogating them and don’t seek them out. Not all confiders are legit, some are there to uncover disloyalities. Finally, these discussions should be placed in the non-tweeting box until you are out of the country where it occurred.

This is not a self gratification post, I don’t classify myself as a special confidante as there are numerous travellers like me who have shared in similar conversations. My objective was to share with my readers some insights and experiences into places where I’ve been other than photos and blog posts.

All comments and thoughts are very welcome about this post. If any errors have been made, I’d be happy to correct.

Caffeinated Traveller

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  1. Bear permalink
    August 6, 2009 6:27 am

    It is those small moments of sharing which we best remember over the thrilling moments of seeing the sites, isn’t it?

  2. August 6, 2009 8:59 am

    very useful notes that people should heed in their travels. Especially if one is lucky to have a local confide personal views and depth of knowledge to you. Thanks for stopping by my blog. I’m having difficulty with replies to comments on my blog so have to visit people who leave comments on theirs. No worries there I’m sure.

  3. August 7, 2009 10:02 am

    Bear – true it is the conversations that make the trip more personal and memorable.

    TC – nice to see you back! I really enjoy reading your blog, it has a lot of info I never thought about before. You do research well.

  4. October 13, 2009 10:17 pm

    such inspirational pictures. great words. thank you. I am feeling very stuck in my own house and head these days. It is great to read you and travel in that way.

  5. October 16, 2009 10:34 am

    Thanks Charlotte! I wanted to be able to bring these travel stories to people who can’t go themselves and it’s nice to know that I have been able to accomplish that with you. Hope you become unstuck soon.

  6. February 22, 2010 10:23 am

    Greetings from sunny South Africa.

    Nice site you have! I’ve enjoyed reading some of your stories.


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