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Southeast Asia, explained

Laos: shaping up a disaster-prone tubing mecca

Is Laos' party town due for a makeover?
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Vang Vieng, Laos. This photo was taken from flickr legally via attribution license. (Nick Hewson/Courtesy)

There is nothing inherently unsafe about Vang Vieng, a central Lao province blessed with a sleepy river and lovely limestone peaks.

But Vang Vieng is certainly a place where dangerous thrills are aided and abetted. Want to pound booze, smoke ganja and then leap from a rickety platform into a river? The whiskey vendor and his platform await.

More from Vang Vieng: Backpacker mecca turned disaster magnet

A Deutsche Presse-Agentur report suggests that officials might be ready to tone down Vang Vieng's reputation for unfettered revelry.

Police have shut down multiple bars accused of selling drinks spiked with opium and hallucinogenic mushrooms. Authorities are also contending with the deaths this year of at least six foreigners in the area. Accidents are largely connected to Vang Vieng's swirl of booze, drugs, tubing and makeshift, high-rise diving boards.

Vang Vieng's lax oversight — and its far-flung, lawless-but-friendly vibe — is its selling point. Most backpackers leave with nothing worse than a hangover.

It will be interesting to see if these deaths and arrests ever swell into a larger state-led movement to rid the area of drugs and drunken diving mishaps. If the tubing mecca comes under heavy enforcement (a prospect I find doubtful) then the party-seeking backpackers will lose their incentive to venture into remote, central Laos.

More from Vang Vieng: Sex, drugs and inner tubes


UN to East Timor: it's time to defend yourselves

Peacekeepers' days numbered in young, unruly nation
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A U.N. peacekeeper aboard an armored vehicle secures an East Timor court in 2009. (MARIO JONNY DOS SANTOS/AFP/Getty Images)

Can East Timor's security forces maintain order on their own?

United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, believes that they can, according to the Associated Press.

Relative stability is a fairly new phenomenon in East Timor (officially titled the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste), a young nation with a bloody history of occupation and internal strife.

Before the tropical nation gained independence from Indonesia in 1999, it suffered a 25-year occupation that, according to the UN, that left 100,000 Timorese dead and led to violence displacing a fourth of the population.

For a graphic, on-the-ground look at the days preceding East Timor's independence, I recommend this frightening account from veteran journalist CM Rien Kuntari.

Ki-Moon's assertion is a major vote of confidence for a nation that, just six years ago, saw its government collapse under what the AP describes as "extreme poverty, gang violence and disputes between the military and police."

East Timor is rich in oil and maintaining calm after a tense round of elections. The departure of blue-helmeted UN soldiers could go a long way in proving Asia's youngest nation can keep the peace on its own.


Cheap, subsidized breast milk in the Philippines

Got breast milk? Donate it for a maternity bill discount
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A woman breastfeeds her baby under a bridge in a slum east of Manila, Philippines, in August 2012. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)

According to the World Health Organization, that "yellowish" and "sticky" breast milk produced by mothers in late pregnancy is the "perfect food for the newborn."

Even if that yellowish, sticky substance comes from a stranger's breast.

Sold on the benefits of breast milk, the Philippines has set up several "breast milk banks" that dole out milk at below-market rates to women who can't lactate or simply can't get away from work long enough to breastfeed.

A new report in IRIN (a news service run by the United Nations) explains how the Philippines keeps milk banks stocked. They offer moms in maternity wards a hospital bill discount if they make a milk deposit.

The concept of milk sharing appears to have taken off in Manila. On Facebook, the Philippines chapter of a pro-breastmilk group (Human Milk 4 Human Babies) runs a lively, Craigslist-style meet-up spot for women who supply and receive breast milk. (Sample post: "I have 10 bags of frozen milk but we don't have electricity since last night. What can I do about this? I am willing to donate.")

Lest you mistake breast milk swaps as a Philippine phenomenon, both ABC News and the Associated Press have reported on the lesser-known world of American breast milk banks.

But it appears that, in the Philippines, government subsidies are radically lowering breast milk's market price. According to IRIN, the Philippines' state-run milk bank charges $10 per four liters.

The going rate for that much breast milk in the Boston area, according to prices quoted by the AP?

More than $600.


Singapore: world's richest country by 2050?

Citibank report says US will sink to fifth-richest nation within 40 years
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A woman in Singapore viewing a casino, the Marina Bay Sands. (ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

If you enjoy peering inside the minds of the world's super rich, take a spin through the 2012 "Wealth Report."

Compiled by Citibank, and a property consultancy called Knight Frank, it's a lengthy analysis based partly on interviews with the super rich. (Definition: people with more than $25 million in investable assets.)

Yes, the report contains musings on why yacht sales are down and the pros and cons of buying a sports franchise. But that's not the most interesting part.

The study predicts that Singapore -- that little Southeast Asian city-state with loads of Type A zeal -- will be the world's richest nation by 2050.

And by that, they mean its per capita GDP at purchasing power parity. (For those who skipped economics class, this attempts to more accurately measure the average income by considering inflation, cost of living and exchange rates.)

According to Citibank's 2050 prediction, the top five countries by this measure will be:

1. Singapore: $137,710

2. Hong Kong: $116,639

3. Taiwan: $114,093 (Congratuations, Taiwan, Citibank analysts think you'll make it 2050 without being consumed by China.)

4. South Korea: $107,752

And sliding in at number five, the only non-Asian nation, the U.S.: $100,802

But there are glaring questions about these numbers, which are based on Citibank's own analysis.

According to the report, Singapore is already the top GDP per capita champ with a figure of more than $56,000. But that doesn't account for tiny, oil-rich Qatar, which leads most rankings with an average of more than $92,000 according to the World Bank. And there's no mention of super-affluent Luxembourg either.

Regardless, Singapore is genuinely affluent and the report suggests why.

In interviews with "high net-worth individuals" around the globe, the Wealth Report asked the super rich about their "favorite things."

In response, Indians said cars and gadgets, Latin Americans said traveling and Africans said safaris.

The favored items of extremely wealthy Singaporeans?

"Books and reading materials."


Thai senator shooting allegations tangled in odd details

The accidental "Uzi" shooting that wasn't
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Thai senator Boonsong Kowawisarat, reportedly accused of an "accidental" shooting in northern Thailand. (Thai Senate/Screengrab)

If you've read the BBC's website, the Telegraph, pithy aggregator Gawker or even -- yikes! -- Global Post, you might be under the impression that a Thai senator accidentally shot his secretary with an Uzi submachine gun in a restaurant.

As news tidbits go, this one has all the right ingredients to go viral: absurdity, violence, misbehaving officialdom. 

But the most shocking detail -- a senator pulling a submachine gun suited for an action flick over dinner -- is suspect.

Here's a photo of the actual weapon, displayed on Thai television and captured by Richard Barrow, a veteran blogger on all things Thailand. Barrow deserves most of the credit for spotting this story's inconsistencies and attempting to untangle the mess of conflicting details.

As Barrow indicates on his blog, the actual weapon appears to be a Jericho 941, an Israeli pistol sometimes marketed as an "Uzi Eagle." But it's hardly the menacing, forearm-length submachine gun conjured by the word "Uzi."

The error's seed appears to have been planted by the English-language Bangkok Post and repeated again and again by other outlets. The Post is now describing the weapon as a mere "gun." Perhaps the mistake is owed to bad communication with police.

But the untangling doesn't end there.

Depending on which outlet you believe, the senator, Boonsong Kowawisarat, shot his "personal assistant" or "secretary" (Bangkok Post/BBC). Another Bangkok-based paper, The Nation, reports that he shot his "wife." The Post previously called the woman his "cousin."

As for the Thai-language press, one of the nation's largest newspapers, Thai Rath, says the senator shot his "former mistress." Another paper, the Daily News, is running with "secretary."

Could she be all of the above?

As it stands, this story is about as confounding as they come.


Laos: an eyeless spider with corporate endorsement

Newly discovered creature crawls in remote, pitch-black caves.
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A scientist at the Germany-based Senckenberg Research Institute has discovered a rare, eyeless spider deep inside caves in Laos. (Senckenberg Research Institute/Courtesy)

The clump of bulbous eyes fixed to most spiders' faces is missing from a newly discovered species found in a pitch-black Southeast Asian cave.

Introducing the "Sinopoda Scurion."

Its face is bald but for flecks of hair and a mean set of pincers. (Those teeth are less menacing than they appear: the little creature boats a mere six-centimeter leg span, according to the Senckenberg Institute scientist who found it.) Research suggests that this species inhabits caves so devoid of light that it flung its useless eyeballs aside at some point in its evolutionary past.

More interesting still is that the spider has corporate endorsement.

The other nine spiders discovered by this scientist, Peter Jäger, received relevant names derived from the Lao tongue. "Sinopoda Scurion" has a cousin, for example, with two eyes. It's name is "Sinopoda Soong," the latter word meaning "two" in Lao. Another cousin has the surame "cave."

But "Scurion" is a) a Swiss maker of high-end headlamps used by Jäger and b) a patron of biodiversity programs. As Senckenberg notes on its Web site, "With a one-off donation to (the Patrons of Biodiversity program) it is possible to immortalise a name of ones choice."

Hear that, corporate patrons of biodiversity? For the right price, Sinopoda Pizza Hut or Sinopoda Hyundai could someday creep blindly through Laos' darkest corners.


Pepsi's return to Myanmar

Does a budding beverage battle loom in the impoverished nation?
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Buddhist monks in 1996 walk beneath a billboard advertising Pepsi, which pulled its investment out of Myanmar following political pressure in the 1990s. (DAVID VAN DER VEEN/AFP/Getty Images)

Does this photo of monks ambling beneath a massive Pepsi billboard look a bit dated?

It is. The photo was snapped in 1996, one year before Pepsi ceased all operations in Myanmar, the troubled nation formerly titled Burma. The American sanctions designed to punish the country's abusive military rulers were first laid down in 1997 during Bill Clinton's administration. George Bush's office went to add even layers in years to come.

Now, as Western sanctions fizzle, Pepsi plans to reintroduce its sugary wares to Myanmar. Coca Cola announced its plans for an official return in June. The stage is set for a beverage battle to claim favored status on Myanmar's taste buds.

Both Pepsi and Coke are helping establish an unwritten rule for Western investors in Myanmar: if you want to do business in the still-reforming nation, which is still under the military's sway, you've got to pair your investment with a big dose of philanthropy.

Coke dropped $3 million on "women's economic empowerment job creation initiatives" in Myanmar. Pepsi is teaming up with the United Nations to fund vocational training programs, according to its press release.

Both will need to stimulate the economy if they hope to sell sodas. Cans of black-market Coke in Yangon, Burma's largest city, have recently sold for the equivalent of 55 cents. To that average laborer in Myanmar making $1-2 per day, Coke remains a fizzy, brown luxury.


Why the Philippines' deadly typhoon has two names

Manila's meteorological name game
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A soaking wet child sits on a post on a flooded street in suburban Manila on August 8, 2012. More than one million people in and around the Philippine capital battled deadly floods on August 8 amid relentless monsoon rains. (JAY DIRECTO/AFP/Getty Images)

Most meteorologists will tell you the flood crisis now paralyzing the Philippines' capital was started by a typhoon named Saola.

But not in the Philippines. They'll tell you the misery in Manila is the work of a typhoon named Gener.

So which name is correct?

Both are.

Internationally recognized names for major weather phenomena are approved by a United Nations agency, the World Meteorological Organization, which has carved the planet into multiple zones. Countries within that zone get to offer up names from their native tongue.

That's why storms that terrorize Asia aren't named Paulina or Patrick.

They might be called "Gulap" (Thai and Lao for "rose") or "Nangka" (Malay and Indonesian for "jackfruit"). Both are pulled from the current list, which shows that the name Saola was submitted by the Vietnamese government. (You can check out the full list of names here.)

But that's not good enough for the Philippine government, which is adamant that its yearly barrage of typhoons receive names familiar to Filipinos. The nation's central weather agency, which goes by the acronym PAGASA, maintains its own list.

The result: the Philippines has been hit this year by storms named Enteng, Ambo and Carina. 

More from Global Post: In submerged Manila, Filipinos form digital rescue squads

Or, as the rest of the world called them, Khanun (a Thai name), Mawar (a Malaysian name) and Talim (a Filipino name).

Yes, that's right. Even when the rest of the world uses a name submitted by the Philippines, the government still insist on using a Filipino-friendly name of its own choosing.


Cambodia: a newly discovered killing field?

Roughly 20 skulls found at Khmer Rouge mass grave. Will teams unearth more?
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Skulls of Khmer Rouge victims are displayed at the Choeung Ek killing fields memorial in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP/Getty Images)

There are not many places on the planet where villagers can stumble upong mass graves by accident.

But Cambodia, the scene of a mind-bogglingly violent communist takeover in the mid-1970s, is one of them. According to the Associated Press, excavation teams notified by locals in northwestern Cambodia have unearthed 20 skulls from a newly discovered mass grave.

That's 20 skulls discovered as of this report. They may very well find more. A Cambodian expert quoted by the AP cites that, in that area alone, at least 35,000 died during the Khmer Rouge's horrifying 1975-1979 reign. In total, nearly two million died from killing or malnutrition from the cabal's bid to install an anti-modern, agrarian-centered communist utopia.

If excavators do find the remains of thousands more beneath this newly discovered site, it will be interesting to see whether officials open the area up to the viewing public.

In an odd twist of history, foreign tourists now flock to this former hell on earth to walk among the so-called "Killing Fields," a major mass grave near the capital where clothing fragments and bone shards still fleck the ground. (Though the subject matter is unsettling, the site offers a well-designed and tastefully rendered self-guided tour.)

This macabre fascination with Cambodia's bloody history -- along with resorts, temples and wild nightlife -- actually plays a role in drawing tourists. They are now are arriving in record numbers: according to the China Daily, Cambodia's tourism is up a full 27 percent compared to last year's first half.


Vietnam: instigator of monkey torture photos fired from military

Rare primates skinned, forced to feign smoking in Vietnam.
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Photos posted online of Vietnamese troops abusing rare monkeys and forcing the primates to smoke have pressured Vietnam's army to fire a soldier. (Facebook)

What's dumber than buying extremely rare primates, forcing them to feign smoking and having them skinned?

Snapping photos of your monkey torture session and posting them on Facebook.

That unfortunate chain of events has prompted Vietnam's army to dismiss a soldier whose Facebook-uploaded monkey torture snapshots have gone viral. According to outlets Asia One and the Associated Press, it appears the monkeys were bought off villagers and abused for kicks.

What's worse is that the monkeys -- according to an expert quoted by VietnamNet -- belong to the species "pygathrix cinerea," more collouially known as the grey-shanked duoc.

That is a species that simply cannot afford to lose numbers to cruel thrill seekers.

The monkeys do not exist outside a limited zone in Vietnam. And, according to this academic study from the Vietnamese Journal of Primatology, fewer than 1,000 remain on the planet.