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.