DILI — When Joshua Kohn and Lea Mietzle set out backpacking around Southeast Asia, East Timor was not on their itinerary. But after visiting Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines and then parts of Indonesia, the two young Germans revised their plans to include the region’s newest country, the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste. “We became interested [in East Timor], it was really cool” said Kohn. During their 12 days in the country they took in some of the main landmarks: trekking up the highest peak, the near 3,000-meter-high Mount Ramelau, followed by a bone-rattling motorcycle ride eastwards to Jaco, a tiny uninhabited island. With secluded white sand beaches fronting turquoise seas and kaleidoscopic reefs — all offering lush diving — East Timor aims to triple annual visitor numbers to 200,000 by 2030, part of a plan to diversify an economy that depends oil and gas for almost all government revenue.
SIEM REAP — For an art production house based in North Korea, whose usual stock-in-trade is nationalist-communist propaganda, constructing a museum in Cambodia to celebrate the grandeur of the Khmer Empire might seem a surprising project. While North Korea may be on the verge of a rapprochement with the U.S. ahead of the proposed meeting between its dictator Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump, recent sanctions imposed on the country in response to its missile tests could raise questions about the status of the Angkor Panorama Museum, which opened in late 2015 at a cost of $24 million and sits on the doorstep of the vast Angkor temple complex. When the United Nations Security Council enacted sanctions against North Korea in 2017 in response to its missile tests, it said that states “shall prohibit, by their nationals or in their territories, the opening, maintenance, and operation of all joint ventures or cooperative entities, new and existing, with DPRK entities or individuals.” That suggests Cambodia, other than requesting an opt-out from the council, would be required to close the North Korean-built museum or ensure that it is now fully locally owned. “Cambodia is required by UNSC sanctions measures to close the joint venture or request an exemption,” said William Newcomb of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University.
MELAKA — “Fun” is a subjective concept, as is the even more nebulous “culture.” As for “heritage,” it is a debatable term too, but can be more or less quantified by the range and antiquity of buildings and monuments that make up a place. But how about cruising through a UNESCO World Heritage site in a garish Pokemon or Hello Kitty-decor trishaw, a speaker blaring Taylor Swift from the roof and exhorting passers-by to “Shake It Off,” as a wizened driver struggles to pedal a cartload of tourists along a cobbled street toward the ruins of a 16th century church? Fun?
CASTLEBAR — Sometime around AD 600, a handful of Irish monks decided that the rigors of fasting and penance on the mainland were not exacting enough. Waiting until the seas were calm enough, they are believed to have rowed to Skellig Michael, a small, pyramid-shaped island seven miles off Ireland’s southwest coast. There, the holy men built a monastery and found the raw seclusion they were after. A millennium and a half later, the site’s ruins are one of Ireland’s best-known heritage and tourist attractions, an antique allure made all the more vivid by the colonies of seabirds that flock to the island’s crags and crevices, and by the puffins and gulls sheltering in the monks’ long-abandoned stone structures. But since 2015, some of those visitors are as likely to be dressed as Chewbacca and waving lightsabers as they are to be conversant in the ways of early Christian eremites or the nesting habits of kittiwakes or gannets.
DUBLIN – Irish heritage conservationists fear that a rugged island off the country’s southwest coast could lose its prestigious Unesco listing because of a spike in visitor numbers, after scenes from Star Wars: The Last Jedi were shot there. An Taisce, Ireland’s national trust, is seeking government intervention over Skellig Michael, the site of an ancient monastic settlement described as “Ireland’s Machu Picchu” by National Geographic, but which the trust believes has undergone a “commercial re-branding” after being “swamped” by the Star Wars connection. However, Emma Hynes, press officer for Ireland’s Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht said Unesco was informed of each episode of filmmaking and “has raised no correspondence whatsoever on the matter” “The Unesco status of the island is not in question nor is it contingent on a certain visitor level,” she said.
PULAU UBIN, Singapore — It takes no more than 15 minutes to make the eastward crossing on a juddery old bumboat from Changi Jetty on Singapore’s main island to Pulau Ubin, where gray-barked pulai trees stretch skyward, their pillar-straight trunks evoking the slate and glossy office towers that crowd the Singapore skyline. The 1,020-hectare boomerang-shaped Pulau Ubin is “the last kampong,” or village, and “a living showcase of what Singapore was like in the 1960s,” according to Visit Singapore, part of the country’s official tourist board. Not surprisingly for a place advertised as such, the short boat trip across the narrow strait aims to take visitors back a half century. Pulau Ubin, or Granite Island, is a preservationist’s pearl — a verdant throwback to the pre-industrial, pre-urban way of life still to be found here and there in rural Malaysia and Indonesia. Those old ways are otherwise history in Singapore, where 5.6 million people are jammed onto a mere 720 sq. km. of land area.
GEORGE TOWN – Haja Mohideen is the last of his kind, the sole fashioner of the traditional Malaysian hat called songkok melayu who is still working on Penang island. With that impending finality on his mind, the 69 year old milliner sits at his street-side desk for 11-12 hours a day, cutting and stitching the 5 or 6 hats that make up his daily output. “Most of the orders come when there are ceremonies, holidays,” Haja said.
BALI – As ground zero for Bali’s beach and booze crowd, Kuta has no literary pretensions beyond the bawdy car stickers and smutty T-shirts hawked along the main drag. Wading through the tat, it is hard to believe that this is the same island where literary luminaries such as Amitav Ghosh and Tash Aw enchant crowds with exquisite exegeses of exile, loss, memory and tacky women on the make, as they did recently at this year’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. Ubud, a hillside town of Hindu temples and wind-chimes in Bali’s heart, is a magnet for dreadlocked, tie-dyed Westerners who seem to subsist on little more than quinoa and squirrel droppings and bits of tree bark.
YANGON – Rip-Off Rangoon, where a plate of Lok Lak about half as good as you’d get in Phnom Penh costs US$10. Where a handful of veneered restaurants and bars slap on an extra couple thousand kyat, every few months, for diminishing portions of an exponentially-depreciating quality of fare. Refusing to join the race to the bottom is The Phayre’s Gastrobar a new restaurant with nighthawk aspirations next door to the famous Pansodan Gallery.