Travel Notes: Myanmar Revisited

By Douglas Clayton, August 2010

Over dinner, one of our European investors tells me he's building his retirement home in Myanmar, of all places. "You should come see it", he says, and goes on to describe a housing estate so that sounds nothing like the Myanmar I remember. It doesn't take much to convince me to join him there for a look.

I fell in love with Myanmar on my first visit there in the late 1980s - a simpler time when Yangon was called Rangoon, Myanmar was Burma, and mainland Asia was all an irrelevant frontier market to most foreign investors. Burma's exotic countryside seemed like a living museum, a place to see how people lived before machines were made, when energy was delivered by hand and hoof. Misty images linger of Inle Lake's floating villages, the long rickety teakwood bridge near Mandalay, the storybook English cottages around Maymyo hill station, and the sight of hundreds of ancient pagodas stretching out under Bagan's shimmering sunset. On a few subsequent visits it felt like not much had changed in Myanmar, as if it was content to remain a spectator to the Asian Miracle unfolding around it.

Travel Notes: Sri Lanka's Liberated East

By Douglas Clayton | May 2010

We're on a marathon investment inspection tour of the South and East coasts of Sri Lanka. Locals like to say the East has the island's best beaches, natural harbor, fishing, farmland etc. so it's time to put such claims to the eyeball test. The East also provides a preview of what reconstruction programs may lay ahead for the North, since the East was liberated from the separatist LTTE Tigers a few years earlier. On the way East, we also want to tour the South which the government has made another priority area for investment.

Leaving Colombo, our first stop is in Galle, an intact port town from the wooden ship era. We enjoy a sunset stroll along the Dutch fort's elevated waterfront ramparts, from which one can soak up much of Old Galle's historic architecture.A few of the nicer buildings have already been spruced up and it's not hard to imagine Galle becoming renowned as an atmospheric tourist hangout.

Travel Notes: Luang Prabang

By Douglas Clayton | January 2010

We have journeyed to the Land of a Million Elephants, also known as Laos, to visit the old royal town of Luang Prabang. Luang Prabang is one of those places where even before the plane lands you already know you’re going to like it. The scenery as you descend is dramatic, with rugged, forested mountain ridges studded with gold and white pagodas, bisected below by winding mud-brown rivers. The airport turns out to be delightfully miniature and antiquated, and the immigration officers seem overwhelmed with the task of processing a small planeload of arrivals. Slow down folks, you’re in Laos.

A short drive to town brings you into the Southeast Asia of yesteryear; an architectural time capsule radiating with ambiance. The sprawling collection of colonial-era buildings led UNESCO to declare Luang Prabang a World Heritage Town in 1995. The New York Times named Luang Prabang the world’s top place to visit in 2008, and tourism dutifully spiked to 600,000 arrivals

Travel Notes: Kep

By Douglas Clayton | November 2009

This weekend I’m with my family in Kep, 180 kilometers southwest of Phnom Penh, where the Cambodian coastline butts up against Vietnam. One of Cambodia’s time-warp towns, Kep was established as a French resort a century ago and until the 1970s served as the getaway of choice for Cambodia’s rich and famous when it was known as Kep-sur-Mer. Sadly the swanky villas of that era became war booty in the 1980s, with everything reusable, from the floor tiles to the roof tiles, hacked out and hauled off in departing Vietnam Army trucks, or so the old-timers say. Of most just a few walls remain but even then you can usually spot the mod styling of the “Austin Powers” era. Fortunately Kep’s more natural charms remained intact; its mountain slopes still sport their splendid jungle canopy unlike the hills of rival Sihanoukville.

Travel Notes: Kampong Thom

By Douglas Clayton | October 2009

It’s a public holiday and I’m making a day trip to rural Kampong Thom (“KT”) province with some Cambodian friends. It seems all of Phnom Penh is heading to the countryside for the Hungry Ghost Festival, and our driver suggests taking a different route which turns out to be equally jammed. Along the way we pass two long-span bridges being built across the Tonle Sap River; further signs of the game-changing transformation of Cambodia’s infrastructure. But for now our route involves an old-fashioned ferry crossing, preceded by an hour’s wait behind a swarm of bulky Lexus SUVs, the national car of the Cambodian elite.

KT sits 160 kilometers northwest of Phnom Penh, on the way to Angkor Wat. In Cambodia terms it’s a large but lightly populated province, with a half million farmers scattered across 13,000 square kilometers. KT borders the north side of the great Tonle Sap Lake which floods into the province every year, creating some of the nation’s richest topsoil. Much of the countryside we pass is submerged now.

Travel Notes: Koh Tonsay

By Douglas Clayton | September 2009

Since few outsiders have been to them it’s easy to forget that Cambodia has over 60 pristine islands dotting its coastline. I’ve been curious to investigate the Cambodian answer to the Robinson Crusoe question: how do people make a living on an undeveloped tropical island? When I hear that locals are farming seaweed on Koh Tonsay (Rabbit Island) I decide to go check it out. I bring along our trusty driver Sam, and at the small pier in Kep we negotiate a boatman to take us out for the day for $20. He leads us to a “long-tail” boat, which I notice lacks any life preservers or radio, but it does have a red police light mounted on a frame which I guess makes it safe. The boat slices through the waves with surprising stability, and after a 25 minute ride we are jumping off at Koh Tonsay.

Travel Notes: Battambang

By Douglas Clayton | August 2009

To take the pulse of Cambodia’s heartland, Tony, Sarah and I head out to Battambang, Cambodia’s second biggest city. The drive out takes four hours and traffic lightens once we clear Phnom Penh’s sprawl. It’s rainy season now, so the rice fields lining the highway are a dazzling green. As we pass through the provincial capitals of Kampong Chhnang and Pursat, I feel the urge to come explore these towns another weekend.

But our destination today is Battambang, a Northwestern province with an interesting past. Cambodian history is a tale of flip-flopping borders, and Battambang was ruled by Thailand as recently as 55 years ago. After France insisted it be returned to Cambodia, Battambang managed to hold out longer than any other city against Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975.

Travel Notes: Cambodia’s Southern Seaboard

By Douglas Clayton | June 2009

One of Cambodia’s future growth drivers will be the development of its 440 km virgin coastline. We recently visited Sihanoukville to get an update on the opportunities there; here are our travel notes.

After the three hour afternoon drive from Phnom Penh we head directly to our favorite local restaurant to watch the sun set over the water while feasting on Kampot pepper crabs and listening to the mesmerizing waves. Tiny fishing craft float in to unload their catches; one boat heads directly to our restaurant for just-in-time delivery service. Offshore two big ships are visible, the semi-retired cruise ship “Jupiter” which reportedly will one day ferry tourists to Vietnam’s nearby Phu Quoc Island, and a massive sand carrier anchored on the horizon. Sand dredging has become Cambodia’s latest extraction bonanza, encouraged by unlimited-quantity buy orders from affluent Singapore which can only expand its island territory by filling in the sea.

Update from Cambodia: Asia’s Sanctuary of Opportunity

By Douglas Clayton, Published in Dr. Marc Faber's Gloom Boom & Doom Report | January 2008

As deleveraging decimates the world economy, the least damaged are the least developed countries like Cambodia that were left off the guest list of the global liquidity party. Cambodia now stands out by not standing on the brink of financial ruin or a looming “lost decade”. The government’s finances remain sound with just US$4 billion debt, mostly long-term concessionary loans from donors without rollover risk. Private sector borrowings reached only 20% of GDP last year; this is still a cash economy. The small, under-geared banking system continues to function normally and expects record profits this year. Phnom Penh’s feared building boom bubble was artfully pinpricked before most planned projects broke ground, and Cambodia must be one of very few countries now with an undersupply of prime office and retail space.