What's it like to visit Kazakhstan?

"I'll have the T-bone horse steak," I said.

The waiter looked at me, a little confused.

"Foreigners don't normally oder that. Are you sure?"

"Quite sure," I replied.

Twenty minutes later I did indeed have a T-bone horse steak before me.


By all accounts, this was not a typical Kazakh dish. Sure, they eat a lot of horse there, but normally in a form a little more traditional than a T-bone steak. Still, it tasted pretty good, like a cross between liver and beef. The meat also had a peculiar smell that seemed to fill the room. I received a satisfied nod of approval from the waiter after I'd finished my meal.

Welcome to Kazakhstan, I thought.


I was in Astana, capital of Kazakstan, for a work trip. The Asian Development Bank was holding its Annual Meeting there and I was helping out with the youth engagement part of all that, working with a group of young people who had come from around the region to be part of a youth forum and a Civil Society Program.


This was probably the first time I'd been to a country and not really known a single thing about it. What struck me immediately upon arrival was the people. Many of them really epitomised this kind of meeting of Russia and Asia in everything from how they looked to how they spoke. I just didn't expect to hear these thick, Russian/Kazakh accents coming out of the mouths of people whom my ignorant mind was trying to place in East Asia.


Fickle observations were about as far as I got with the people. I spent a lot of time walking around and exploring Astana and was generally viewed with indifference everywhere I went. Saying hello to people was usually met with looks of confusion and mild panic, even in the hotel where I was staying. So I didn't exactly make a great deal of friends among the locals. Nobody speaks a lick of English, which makes even the most basic communication difficult.


The closest I got to making friends was when a colleague and I hitched a ride across town with a young chainsmoking couple who insisted on showing us pictures of a car they were trying to either restore or sell to us, I'm unsure which. When I say "hitched a ride" I actually mean "caught a taxi". There are real taxis in Astana, but you rarely see them. Instead, you just hitch a ride with anyone who happens to be going in the same direction and give them a couple of bucks for their troubles. I don't know how this figures into safety briefings and whatnot, but that's the only way to get around unless you plan walking everywhere, which I did from time to time.


Walking around was great for two reasons: the climate and the scenery. The climate is out of this world. It's cold — like, really cold — but the air is so crisp and fresh that you don't really mind. There's none of this miserable wind and rain that makes the British cold so uncomfortable. It was actually a pleasure to go out and to feel weather.


Then there was the scenery. Astana is the most peculiar place I think I've ever been. It's a largely empty city with very few people. But there are these enormous, remarkable structures everywhere. You cannot go from one street to another without seeing a building that takes your breath away. The architecture is incredible. I can't imagine the amount of oil money that has been put into making Astana look like this. By the end of the week, it kind of dawned on me that I'd only really been taking pictures of buildings. Nothing else.


That's the thing about Astana. All these buildings are recent developments, a result of the capital city being moved there in 1997. At that time, the place was virtually empty. Now, it looks like something from a sci-fi movie. As soon as you get to the outskirts of the city, however, you see that there's just nothing else around. Visitors to the capital are in awe of the magnificence of everything they see, but it's not really a reflection of the country as a whole, so in this way it's a little misleading. I'm not sure if I really got to visit Kazakhstan, as such, or more, a weird futuristic gateway.

This was reflected in the kind of activities that were organised for us. We saw a ballet in this remarkable, extravagant opera house, the likes of which I'd never seen. We were treated to fine food and wine. We saw stunning performances of opera, ballet and music. It all felt strangely inauthentic though.


There are only about 800,000 people in Astana, while the whole country is home to about 18 million. The country is massive though, so on average you only have about 6 people per square kilometre, making it one of the least densely populated places on earth. You can't escape this emptiness, even in Astana.


Kazakhstan gets most of its money from oil and gas reserves. The energy sector is huge. In 2012, exports were close to $87 billion, 59% of that were oil and oil products. So there are a lot of people getting rich in the country. Despite that, the services sector is the biggest employer, followed by agriculture. Corruption is an issue that remains a problem.


Then there's the politics, or lack of it. President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been the leader of the country since 1991, when the country became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He's a dictator. There's no other way to put it. And with that come limits to freedom of speech, political freedom, corruption and more. Yet the country is stable and per capita GDP has increased twelvefold since 1994. Life is generally pretty good for a lot of people and it doesn't look like there's much in the way of an anti-Nazarbayev movement in the country.


Kazakhstan, or the bits of it I've seen, is an interesting, diverse country, but I would not say it's an obvious choice for a holiday, despite curiosities like military parades and missiles being driven through the streets. I would love to go back and spend a little more time travelling around the country, but it's not the kind of place where you can just rock up with a backpack and expect to get around.


Thailand's first tweets

All right, these are not really Thailand's first tweets, but they are the first tweets of some of Thailand's most well-known tweeters, in English, at least. This list was selected just off the top of my head really, so I'm sure there are heaps of interesting people I missed out. If you find any funny ones that aren't posted here, let me know in the comments and I'll add them.

Park life

So what's it like to be back? That's the question I keep asking myself. It's been about a week now, but to be honest, it could have been a month or a year. It just feels normal — not in the sense of falling into an old routine, but more like this is where I'm supposed to be.

On my previous trips back to the UK, I've always felt this overwhelming, depressing sense of nostalgia. Even during my year studying in London, it was as if I was struggling to fully reconnect with my environment, stuck in the mindset that I'd soon be leaving again. This time, I haven't needed to reconnect and readjust. Everything has just kind of clicked.

Sure, it's fun doing little things again, like catching a bus or riding the tube or going to Tesco to do some shopping, but I'm doing it at the kind of pace that means it's barely noticeable. I'm in no rush. I have no restraints. There's a great deal of time for soaking it in and reflecting.

Today, we went for a walk around our local park. Yeah, I could do that in Bangkok, sure, but I rarely did. Most weekends I'd end up in a mall or some other kind of manmade monstrosity, dazzled by special offers and bright lights.

London park

I'm lucky to live in southeast London, away from the hipsters and the central city life. Life is really easygoing here. People are friendly and the transport links are decent. If I have to go to the city it's normally a £4.40 day fare on my Oyster card, which is manageable as I don't need to travel all the time.

Speaking of travelling, I have rediscovered the joys of walking. In Bangkok, I barely walked anywhere. There was hardly ever a need to and the hot weather made it so uncomfortable. Now there is a great deal of walking to be done and the cool climate makes it rather pleasant. I'm hoping these long walks from place to place will save me the joys of putting on weight in my 30s. I'll let you know how that goes.

On leaving

People keep asking me if I’m leaving Thailand because of the protests. As dramatic a swan song as that would be, my reasons for heading off are far more mundane. It’s just time to go home. I landed in Thailand nearly nine years ago and have since spent about half that time in Bangkok with stints based in Phuket, Timor-Leste and, even, London. It has been a curious, often-times surprising, life-changing journey from A to B, but that journey has come to an end and it’s time to begin a new stage of my life.

When I moved here, fresh out of uni and with an overwhelming desire to rebel against "the system" as I perceived it, I vowed that I would never return to the UK. It felt good to up sticks and leave. I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do, but I knew I needed to go somewhere far away and explore the world a little. It was all rather cliché, but that didn’t negate how empowering it was to me.

So what’s changed? Well, a great deal has happened in that nine years: I’m now 31 years old, I have some solid work experience behind me, I’m married and I have a dog. These all sound like relatively grownup things, and while I still feel like I’m barely out of my teens, the reality is that I’m not as young as I used to be. I’ve lost that urge to be an expat and I’m kinda missing home.

In the time I’ve been away, friends from home have got married, been on stag weekends, had children, bought houses and done all manner of other things. For the most part, I’ve missed it all. There’s only so far Facebook can bridge that gap. My closest, best friends are almost all in the UK while the bulk of my family are there or near enough and it’s only as time has gone on that this has started to bother me.

There are a handful of interconnected reasons why people choose to live somewhere: the place, the lifestyle, friends, family, work. For a long time, it was place that was most important to me. Then came the lifestyle, then work and now we are back to friends and family. Of course I’ve made friends while I’ve been out here, some very good ones, but as the pace of my lifestyle has calmed down a lot over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed that I’ve started meeting fewer and fewer people who I’ve really had any connection with, and as a result, I’ve become increasingly antisocial.

I’m not out partying or DJing like I was before and I’m not so keen on tweetups and social gatherings. I just don’t really find myself seeking out new adventures and I feel a little fatigued by the Thailand lifestyle. I’m no longer all wide-eyed and open-jawed, as I was when I wrote The Lost Boy column for Guru mag way back when. Times have indeed changed. I don’t do all that much other than work, eat at places, go on occasional trips and attend a party now and again.

It’s not that I’ve fallen out of love with Thailand, it’s more that I’m just not in the right frame of mind to be here and my life is about more than just me now. Will I be back? Possibly. Not to live, but if work ends up bringing me here, I’ll return. Time will tell.

I don't imagine my life will be all roses and glitter back in London, but I'm certain I'll feel more contented. The cost of living in London doesn't daunt me too much at this stage as I have work lined up already, fingers crossed, but I'm sure I'll miss cheap food and transport. It will be nice to buy a house at some point in the not-too-distant future and, who knows, start a family. Maybe some day I'll even have assets other than my Macbook, Xbox and camera. Maybe.

So, Thailand, and Asia in general really, it’s been emotional. See ya.

Photo: RHiNO NEAL/FlickR

Whistles and clappers: A revolution this is not

Monday was the day of the Bangkok Shutdown. You may have read about it in the news. It's the latest in a series of sad events for Thailand led by a Suthep Thaugsuban, a former Democrat lawmaker who has himself previously been the subject of numerous corruption scandals. Oh and he was also indicted for ordering army crackdowns on Red Shirt protesters in 2010. Ninety-two people died then. Role model he ain't. What we have now in Thailand is a serious attempt to overthrow the government under the guise of "democratic reform". They want less democracy for Thailand.

The fact that the Democrat Party are involved is an immediate red flag. Thailand's Democrat Party are anything but democratic in their intentions. They can't win an election to save their lives so they're pulling out all the stops they can in order to kick out Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand's now-caretaker prime minister whose party won the general election in 2011. She is, of course, the sister of Thaksin Shinawatra. We all know that. Thaksin, as his detractors love to point out, is the root of all that is wrong in Thailand. He also is certainly no angel, but this goes beyond one man. This is about the future of the country.

At the Bangkok Shutdown thousands of people have occupied various busy parts of Bangkok, complete with tents and sleeping mats. It's not really a shutdown, though. Bangkok more or less functioned as normal Monday with the exception of a number of mall closures. About 140 schools also had to close and many people worked from home. The streets in central Bangkok quiet and there were fewer cars on the road, which if anything was a good thing. How many people were out there is difficult to gauge. Reports put it at somewhere in the tens of thousands (up to 100,000 total?). That's near the truth, but it's nowhere near the kind of numbers you'd expect if this movement is something a large section of society support — and it's nowhere near the number Suthep et al have claimed.

This isn't a popular movement. In fact, I think it's incredibly disjointed. I wanted to see for myself just how much of a mess this has become, so I spent some time Monday around Ratchprasong and Asok, getting a mere snapshot, no doubt, but it was enough. It was pathetic. There were a lot of people there, certainly, but it was depressing on so many levels.

At Asok, I listened as a noisy cover band belted out The Final Countdown, We Are The Champions and What's Up by 4 Non Blondes. There were all kinds of people there from all kinds of places. Were they friendly? I guess. They weren't unfriendly. They actually looked bored for the most part. The ludicrous Michael Yon gushed that this this was "the friendliest massive protest ever". He actually wrote that. Taking everything at face value as he does, Yon has apparently made himself right at home acting as the unofficial English-language spokesperson for Suthep and co.

Late in the afternoon, a rabble of marching whistlers approached the protest area. As it drew nearer, this is what I saw.

Yes. A shiny new Merc. That was the vehicle leading Suthep's group as they strolled up the road. You could not have scripted a more ironic scene. A bunch of people claiming to speak for the entire country, rolling up in a vehicle that is the epitome of wealth, luxury and privilege. A few more people passed and there he was, the man the Asia Society proclaimed "person of the year" after an online poll that really served no purpose. Suthep beat Malala Yousafzai by more than 100,000 votes. Now that is ridiculous.

It would be all too easy to get caught up in the theatrics of what Suthep and those pulling his strings are doing. But then you'd find yourself sounding like Michael Yon. Yes, on the surface, democratic reform sounds like it makes sense, but that isn't what this movement represents. What it represents is, dare I say it, fascistic to the core. These people don't want the election on February 2. In fact, many of them don't want elections at all. They want an appointed council. They want to rob the people of Thailand the opportunity to chose who their government is. I'm not saying Thailand's general elections are perfect. The choices aren't great. But they are choices nonetheless.

Many of the people at these protests would rather these choices did not exist. I say "many" and not "all" because I don't believe everyone at these protests is firmly behind the overall goal. I have friends and colleagues and acquaintances who have been out there on the streets at one time or other these past few weeks and I wouldn't necessarily call them fascists. I'd call them confused. They want change, but they don't really know how to articulate this.

Put this in the context of the Bangkok Shutdown and you have a whole bunch of people out on the streets who have come together without really knowing why. At Ratchprasong, there were again a lot of people, but they were mostly asleep, and if they weren't asleep they looked sure looked it, clapping their clappers and whistling robotically after every sentence that came booming out of the sound system, taking selfies all the while

While rhetoric, hyperbole and outright lies rained down from the stages, nationalistic imagery was everywhere. T-shirts, face paint, hats, bandanas, placards, whistles, hand clappers: everything was emblazoned with the Thai flag. It was like being at an EDL rally in the UK without the beer and constant abuse. It was as if reaffirming their national identity was all they had in common, but more importantly, it was like they were thumbing their noses up at the rest of the country, suggesting everyone else is somehow less than Thai.

That's the problem. There is an enormous amount of condescension in this country. Look at the likes of Chitpas Kridakorn, the Singha heiress who said that "many Thais lack a true understanding of democracy… especially in the rural areas". This kind of point of view is common. It's just a shame that Chitpas is such a prominent figure. Some people listen to her. They can relate to her. They feel a connection. It's sad. This whole movement is sad. Just look at the T-shirts that were on sale right next to the main stage at Ratchprasong. Is this something you'd want to be a part of?

How about these placards, particularly the one on the left? Is that cool? Is that a serious political movement?

I don't blog much about Thai politics these days — I don't blog much at all really — but some things need to be said. What happens next for Thailand is out of these people's hands. They're being used. The reasons why they're being used go deep into a subject area that is above my pay grade and something I'm uncomfortable blogging about while I'm in Thailand, but the clues are there. There are those who would stop at nothing — civil war is a possibility — to get what they want here.

I will no doubt take some flak for writing a blog post like this, but I'm frustrated with what's been happening in Thailand and it's been going on for so long now that I don't know how I feel any more about this country. Call me what you will, but these are my personal thoughts. No stress. That's enough words for now.

Note: I took all the pics on this page.