01. To The Rescue

  1. 01. To The Rescue
  2. 02. Last Minute Minutia
  3. 03. Spiritual Me
  4. 04. A New Approach
  5. 05. Cruising Cambodia
  6. 06. Ox Cart Aerobics and Buddhist Blessing Yoga
  7. 07. My Great Cambodian Depression
  8. 08. A Day on the River Limbo
  9. 09. Lies, Damned Statistics, and Tourism
  10. 10. Saigon Reunification
  11. 11. The Way to Huế
  12. 12. A Hot Time in the Old Town
  13. 13. An Hanoi-ing Experience
  14. 14. Southeast Asian Rescue

When disaster strikes, start looking for bargains.

Mere hours after the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center, Frank was planning a visit to Manhattan. A week after the 2002 Bali bombing, our holiday in Sanur was booked. A month after George Bush The Lesser invaded Iraq, I was flying over Persia.

Callous? Insensitive? Reckless? Perhaps.

Compassionate? Thoughtful? Courageous? Maybe.

Smart? No doubt about it.

In October 2001, no one in New York City suggested our attendance was insensitive. The beleaguered restauranteurs of lower Manhattan were particularly glad to see us in their near silent bistros. Moreover, the events of 9/11 went a long way to shatter the hardened façade of New Yorkers, offering a rare glimpse of their humanity, humility, and vulnerability.

Likewise, the Balinese were delighted to see us after the Kuta bombing. The General Manager at our five-star hotel in Sanur, about eight miles from Kuta, personally greeted each guest at his near-empty resort. The Imam at the adjacent mosque gave a friendly smile as we walked past, beckoning us to come have a look-see. Certainly neither viewed our patronage as callous.

The British Airways flight attendants didn’t find us reckless, calling us “heroes” for skirting the Iraqi border with them on the flight from London to Singapore at the outset of the 2003 war. That was undeserved praise in my view, yet the 747, designed to carry well over four hundred passengers, had maybe a dozen on board. We were served business class food and drink in economy, and spread out over four seats each, enjoying the best service I’ve ever had on a flight.

Fear brought on by tragedy ravages places and businesses including those that had little to do with the place or cause of the tragedy, supplementing the violent injury of the direct victims with financial insult to those on the periphery. People, organisations, markets, even governments overreact, irrationally cancelling everything, inflicting local depression and organisational insolvency at the very moment help and support is in order. Prices plummet.

With terrorist acts, the economic havoc might be viewed as a measurable manifestation of the achievement of terrorism’s objective: terror. The Madrid train station bombing. The Mumbai bombings (take your pick). The Boston Marathon bombing. The list, sadly, is a long one.

Terrorism is not the only source of terror. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Hurricane Katrina. The Black Saturday bushfires. The 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan. There are endless examples of isolated natural events wreaking economic havoc on entire regions, havoc that could largely be avoided but for irrational fear.

The most fascinating form of disaster is the unintentional manmade economic disaster. Financial crises, for example, can create many rich travel opportunities to do the right thing by the innocent victims. The Olympics tends to leave the host city’s hotel industry a disaster, oversized and under-booked for years afterward.

Whatever the cause, disaster can offer the opportunity to travel to places you might not otherwise be able to afford, to show solidarity with the victims, and to support their economy and survival. Best of all, one often gets to see a people at their best, sometimes in extraordinarily trying circumstances.

I am not suggesting anybody make a beeline to the most war-torn or storm-ravaged places, although Anderson Cooper seems to have fashioned an enviable career of it. Just because the hotels are cheap is no reason to visit Syria. Nor is it a good idea to show up, say, the day after a major earthquake at the epicentre. While I generally have little good to say about George W. Bush, I tip my hat to him for staying aloft in Air Force One, waving, over New Orleans immediately after Hurricane Katrina. The last thing the people on the ground needed was the President showing up with a massive entourage. Bush knew that, did the right thing, and paid much in the way of political blood for it.

I am suggesting, however, that one needs to discern between ongoing and isolated events, as well as between the local and regional impacts. The 2004 tsunami effected a small part of Indonesia, yet tourists stayed away from the whole country in huge numbers. After the Boston Marathon bombing, school groups from all over the country cancelled trips to all of New England, as if the singular act of two malcontent brothers signalled the start of a Yankee Jihad.

As with so many things involving misery, the English lead the world in appropriately responding to disaster. London has hosted a major tragedy once every decade or so for two thousand years. The English have made staying calm and carrying on a cultural moniker. Unfortunately, not all of us are cut out for a life of damp restraint.


“Honey, the chances of another plane hitting this house are astronomical. It’s been pre-disastered.”  T.S. Garp

At the risk of devolving into a discussion of statistical probabilities, Garp was wrong about that. Lightning can and does strike twice or more – or less. The occurrence of an event does not make its recurrence any more or less likely. Some argue a tragedy creates vigilance, making recurrence less likely. Others point out that disaster proves proclivity, so such events are prone to recur. I conclude there’s just no telling, which keeps us on our toes, but also that Garp could get a really good price on that house.

On 8 March 2014, Malaysia Airlines misplaced flight MH370 somewhere south of the North Pole, near as they can figure. Oscar Wilde observed “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” To lose 239 passengers and crew would appear to be gross negligence at best, and wilful misconduct at worst.

Just as we were getting over our shock and utter disbelief regarding that ridiculousness, Garp was proven wrong on 17 July 2014 when Malaysia Airlines had an even more stunning stroke of luck. Our building anger at Malaysia Airlines’ obfuscation was diverted towards Vladimir Putan (who has an impressive capacity for diverted anger) when flight MH17 was blown out of the sky over Ukraine. This event was relatively easy to pinpoint, yet it has been only slightly easier to investigate the demise of its 298 passengers and crew.

On 18 July 2014 I tweeted “I’m on the lookout for a big Malaysia Airlines airfare sale.” I was immediately scolded by a caring souls decrying my inappropriateness and lack of compassion, some saying “too soon”, some calling me callous or worse.


To take advantage of such opportunities, it helps if you have time on your hands and money to spend. Having both quit our jobs a few months back, Frank Lee and I now have time on or hands. Being in complete denial about our long term financial future, we also believe ourselves to have money to spend.

Frank became aware of an eight-day, everything-except-airfare-included Mekong River cruise from Siem Reap (home of the spectacular Angkor Wat) to Ho Chi Minh City (a.k.a. Saigon) for – get this – $1,900 total, for the both of us. Not surprisingly, Malaysia Airlines had the cheapest airfare, by far. The only other time we visited Vietnam, we only squeezed in two night in Saigon to finish up a dash around the globe. This time we are determined to get to the imperial capital, Hue, and the current capital Hanoi, so have added them to our itinerary.

If anywhere or anything can be described as pre-disastered, I imagine Malaysia Airlines, Cambodia and Vietnam all qualify. In this context, on Monday Frank Lee and I are starting a three-week trip that might be described as entirely pre-disastered.

I am hopeful that Garp wasn’t entirely wrong.

Stay tuned!