Out of Malaysia: Modern inferno plays havoc with eastern paradise

KUALA LUMPUR - South-east Asia: drooping palm trees, rice farmers joking with each other as they stoop in the paddy-fields, the smells of frangipani blossom and fermented fish sauce, giant dragonflies, gold-plated pagodas glinting in the setting sun. Conrad, Somerset Maugham and the romantic colonial imagination - you get the picture.

Yesterday I flew from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur. As the taxi left my hotel in the morning, I saw the results of the terrific thumping, clanking and grinding that kept me awake the night before. A long line of palm trees that had been growing along Rajadamri Road, one of the few roads left in Bangkok with any grace, had been torn up. In their place an overhead railway is to be built, a feeble attempt to alleviate the city's traffic paralysis. So be it.

On the front page of that morning's Bangkok Post was a picture of traffic ploughing through floods on Poochao Samingprai Road, outside Bangkok. Pedestrians holding their shoes picked their way along the flooded gutter. According to the accompanying story, traffic jams of six to seven hours are common on that stretch when the flooding gets bad. 'The road to hell' was the headline.

The road to the airport, however, was relatively clear - it was 7am on a Sunday - but there were several bottlenecks where construction of an expressway had narrowed the existing road. This expressway has been under construction for three years now.

Inside the newspaper was a story about possible serious flooding in Bangkok from 5-11 October, when high tides will coincide with increased volumes of water coming down the Chao Phraya river to Bangkok, from rain that has already fallen in the north. The city administration has ordered all road works to be stopped and covered in for that period. Too often in the past, pedestrians have fallen into open manholes concealed by floodwater and have drowned.

But at least one official was being optimistic. 'The capital will be safe from possible flooding' during that period, said to the head of the Irrigation Department, Sawad Wattanayagorn. 'If there is no heavy rain.' It is currently rainy season in Thailand.

Unfortunately, the rains have not yet started further south in Malaysia or Indonesia, where they have a different problem. For the past month forest fires have been burning out of control on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. The smoke has drifted over the peninsula of Malaysia and Singapore, from where it refuses to budge. As the aircraft prepared to descend into Kuala Lumpur, the pilot said that because of the 'haze', visibility from the air was down to one kilometre. 'It shouldn't affect our landing, though,' he added.

In the low-lying Klang Valley, where Kuala Lumpur is situated, the level of air pollution has been officially declared hazardous to health by the government. Motorcyclists and traffic policemen are wearing surgical masks, hospitals are overflowing with respiratory diseases and schools are keeping their children indoors.

The Environment Minister, Law Hieng Ding, has said that if the situation gets worse he will ask the government to take emergency measures. These would include temporarily closing factories, reducing the number of cars on the roads, closing schools and declaring national holidays.

But, although industrial pollution is contributing to the 'haze', the biggest problems are forest fires in Indonesia. The prevailing winds, which are pushing the smoke towards Malaysia and Singapore, are not expected to change until the end of the month.

The Singaporeans in particular are fuming at what is happening to their clean republic. In a country where chewing gum is illegal and dropping one piece of litter merits a severe penalty, the fact that the entire island is blanketed in the smuts from someone else's bonfire is galling to the authorities.

The Indonesians, while cancelling some domestic flights because pilots cannot find the airports they are supposed to land at, have otherwise reacted with tropical urgency. Nothing has been done to put out the fires, which have burnt betweeen 10,000 and 25,000 hectares (25,000 and 62,500 acres) of forest. The blame was initially put on slash-and-burn farmers, but since the size of the area involved is rather ambitious for such primitive cultivation, it is now being suggested that arson is involved.

What to do? According to one news report, officials in the town of Palankaraya on Borneo, where some of the fires are raging, were organising a special prayer ceremony. Thousands of villagers were to converge on the airport runway to pray for rain to come and extinguish the fires. That, at least, would fit into a Conrad novel.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Voices
Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and David Cameron appeal to the audience during the Question Time special
voices
Sport
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living