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?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
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: Delegate Telesales Executive - OTE £21,000 uncapped

£16000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: High quality, dedicated Delegat...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales Consultant - School Playground Designer

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Traffic Planner

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As the successful candidate you...

Recruitment Genius: Junior Designer - Graduate Scheme

£17000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Join one of the UK's leading de...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor