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South East Asia
In April 2010 we travelled to the previous French territories of Cambodia and Vietnam: ‘French Indochina’, as they had been called when I started school; until 1954. Since then many things have changed. But of course, this has been a region of change for tens of thousands of years. Our trip ‘filled in’ areas of the map between our previous trips to India and China and did not disappoint. There is certainly a sense in which Indochina is a blend of China and India; with differences tangential to both. Both have recovered from recent conflicts of which there is still evidence everywhere, like the smell of gunpowder after fireworks.
As the Ganges dominates north-eastern India so the Mekong River dominates this region. From the Tibetan Plateau it flows through China's Yunnan province, Burma, Laos and Thailand meandering more slowly as it crosses Cambodia and on into Vietnam. Its plain is flat and fertile and numerous societies, cultures and religions have left their marks here.
Not so long ago, in geological terms, Indochina was a lot bigger. When humans first arrived it was possible to walk all the way to Java. The Gulf of Thailand across to Borneo and Java was a low-lying plain probably intersected by substantial rivers.
Stone Age and early Bronze Age humans lost this territory and overland routes to inundation due to sea level rise and tectonic activity (making Australia even more isolated around ten thousand years ago); this rise continues slowly today, ever-changing the shorelines.
With the advent of metals technology and organised agriculture, civilisation began to develop across these lands spawning trade routes, great empires, great tyrants and maybe a few benign rulers. In turn, these cultures were a great breeding ground for religion; to give meaning and succour to the disadvantaged; to justify power and the rule of law; to give the powerful hope that their power would never end; and maybe, to encourage the well off to help those less so. As one empire fell so another took its place; from dust unto dust; ‘for all is vanity’; to borrow from another religion.
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