Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Well into Malaysia

Mark crossed from Thailand to Malaysia yesterday and has already reached the city of George town, capital of the island and state of Penang. After several days of following Mark's journey down through Thailand, it is probably now useful to draw back a bit and take a look at Malaysia within the broader context of SE Asia...Malaysia comprises two main areas of land - the Malay peninsula (Western Malaysia) which forms the southern extremity of the continent of Asia plus Malaysian Borneo (East Malaysia) which occupies one third of the island of Borneo. To the south of Malaysia lie the islands of Indonesia, the largest of which (Sumatra) is separated from Malaysia by the narrow Straits of Malacca. This stretch of water is often held to be the most important shipping lane in the world forming the main passage between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. At its narrowest, beside Singapore, it is only 2.5 kms wide. The position of Malaysia, commanding trade routes between India and China, meant that it saw a sequence of colonial rulers (Portuguese, Dutch and British) before gaining independence in 1957. The details of Malaysia's history are well described here.

In terms of relief......the Malay peninsula comprises a series of coastal plains rising to often densely forested hills and mountains. As the map shows, the highest land is a narrow mountain spine about 2000m high in the north and west of the country.

Today Mark has cycled south through the province of Kedah. The web diary reveals that it is still raining and, as explained a couple of days ago in this posting , there is unlikely to be much change! If anything, November will get wetter. Certainly the BBC weather pages suggest rain for the next five days for Penang and by then, of course, Mark will be heading for Australia and back to semi desert conditions.!

Kedah is known as the rice bowl of Malaysia and it produces about one third of the country's total production of the crop. Following Mark's route today, there were several places with good views of flooded rice fields..

Most of the Google images in Thailand and Malaysia have clearly been taken in the dry season when there is less cloud cover. This means that the fields are bare, the rice having been harvested. However, next to rivers, as in this image, it will be possible to irrigate in the dry season and therefore obtain a second crop of rice in the year.

Away from the padis there are mile upon mile of plantations.. Although rubber used to be the main plantation crop of Malaysia, these are more likely to be oil palms . And there's a lot of them !

Tonight Mark is over-nighting in Butterworth, the city on the mainland which is joined to the island of Penang and the city of Georgetown by the 13km long Penang bridge for which there is some excellent high resolution imagery...

...and a nice photo from Flickr

Thailand - over so soon!

I'm still getting used to the time difference on the GPS tracker. I looked at the map today and had visions of Mark cycling in the middle of the night....However, given the 7 hour difference, it was not so early after all! From the air, the most striking feature in this part of southern Thailand is the 100km long lagoon complex on the east coast. A bit of Internet research revealed that it is called Thale Luang (sometimes Lake Songhkla) and it is the largest natural lake in Thailand. There is a good account of it here which includes reference to a small population of river dolphins in the lake which are threatened by the amount of fishing which takes place. Flickr obliged with a photo!
As explained on his web diary, Mark's original intended route into Malaysia through the extreme south east of Thailand is unadvisable due to insurgency (The International Herald Tribune website explains the details of this) and thus he will now be crossing sooner into Malaysia and following the west coast route to Singapore. 13 countries down............

Monday, 29 October 2007

It's the monsoon season in Thailand!

I have just read the latest postings on Mark's web diary.....
'rain this morning and for most of the day'
'torrential monsoon rain all afternoon - rain like Mark has never experienced before' .
Cue some chat about tropical rain, I think!

Firstly, tropical rain tends to be much more intense than the rain we experience in temperate latitudes. The main reason is that it is related to convection activity associated with heating of the earth's surface. Secondly, although there is rain at all seasons, there is generally one part of the year (known as the wet season) when rainfall amounts are much more than during the rest of the year. The climate data for Songkhla in the south of Thailand illustrates the pattern well...
The abrupt change in total precipitation from month to month is another common feature of tropical climates. While temperatures only vary by a degree of two throughout the year, rainfall amounts vary enormously. Here, for example, in the south of Thailand, the rainfall in January is one fifth of the December total. The reason is related to shifting wind belts which can very swiftly swing from one direction to another bringing warm, moisture laden air from surrounding seas and oceans for part of the year and carrying it away for the remainder.

Unfortunately, Thailand is right in the middle of the wet season just now and if anything, it looks like it is about to get wetter! However, with luck, Mark should be in Australia by the time the worst of the rains hit Thailand.

In common with many Tropical countries, the annual rainfall regime dictates the annual agricultural cycle in Thailand. Although there is some irrigation fed cultivation, most of the farming is rain-fed wet season rice cultivation. Fields are prepared in August, planted in October and the rice is harvested in February. The fields then lie empty awaiting the arrival of the next rainy season. The image below shows rice fields in the dry season just to the south east of where Mark was cycling today (in one of the rare areas of high res coverage in Thailand)...

And here is an idea of what that rain Mark describes might be like (filmed in Penang, Malaysia)..

Sunday, 28 October 2007

When does it get dark in Thailand?

On the day when we have put the clocks back and entered our five months of very short daylight hours, I thought it might be worth 'visiting' the subject of daylight in the tropics.

Today Mark's GPS tracker was showing him at approximately 9 degrees north of the equator. Equatorial regions have a very different daylight and darkness regime to that of higher latitudes. Firstly, there is very little difference between daylight and darkness hours throughout the year and secondly, dawn and dusk are much shorter i.e. it becomes light or dark much faster. Regions at the equator can expect 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness all year round. At 9 degrees north, there will only ever be a very little difference between daylight and darkness hours and at present (between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere) it will amount to about an hour more darkness that daylight. However, there is an easy way of finding out whether it is dark in Thailand - or anywhere else for that matter !

If you click on the map above (for 19.22 GMT), it will link you to a website which gives you the answer.

Thai time

Welcome to new readers to the Geo Blog - I am hoping some of you are delegates from the Scottish Association of Geography Teachers conference who attended my presentation on blogging yesterday!

The GPS tracker is now making it seem as if Mark is up with the nightingale but we have to remember that we have 'gone back' to GMT and Mark is now 7 hours ahead....
As I post to the blog, Mark has doubtless finished for the day and is now somewhere 30-40 miles south of Surat Thani in the province which carries that name. Remember that if you are having difficulty with the Thai alphabet, either use an atlas or switch to Google Earth to get place names in a recognisable format!

Although the name Surat Thani will be unfamiliar to most of us, the province is the location of the much better known Ko Samui (the southernmost of the two small islands shown in red off the east coast on this map).
In recent weeks another location in this province also hit headlines around the world when a number of tourists were drowned in a limestone cave in the Khao Sok national park which is in the hills in the west of the province.

Earlier today Mark skirted the town of Surat Thani which is located in the angle of the bay on the east coast and cycled close to one of the few areas in this part of Thailand which benefits from high resolution Google imagery revealing a river delta with some interesting patterns of cultivation.....
This is clearly showing a plantation crop but what is it? A bit of research produced the fact that the main agricultural product of the province is coconut so I guess that is what we are looking at in this view. The conditions for coconut also match closely what is found in this part of Thailand... "The coconut palm thrives on sandy soils and is highly tolerant of salinity. It prefers areas with abundant sunlight and regular rainfall (1,500 to 2,500 mm annually), which makes colonizing shorelines of the tropics relatively straightforward. Coconuts also need high humidity (70–80%+) for optimum growth"

Wikipedia also produces the following about coconut production in Surat Thani... "The coconuts are often picked from the tree by specially trained monkeys, The monkey school of late Somporn Saekow (who lived in Surat Thani) is the most famous training center for these monkeys. " As I said a couple of days ago, you learn something new every day!

Mark's last logged position today places him close to a large reservoir for which some high res Google data is available..

Fish farming perhaps?
Finally, I received a nice, 'geographical' text message from Mark this morning... frequent rain and humid. Lovely mangrove forests, plains and mountains. Looks like Jurassic Park!

Friday, 26 October 2007

Kra Isthmus

You learn something new every day and today's new knowledge for me is the name of the isthmus which joins SE Asia to Malaysia. The eastern side of the Kra Isthmus along which Mark has been cycling today is a narrow coastal plain onto which most of the population in the area is crowded. 10 -15 miles inland, the flat terrain gives way to a mountainous spine which is covered in dense tropical rainforest.....In the view above, you can clearly see a large lake in the middle of the image. This is the Kaeng Krachan Dam. Completed in 1996, it is 58 metres high and 760 metres long, overlooking beautiful scenery of the reservoir and its islands...The reservoir is on the edge of Thailand's largest national park - the Kaeng Krachan National Park. The hyperlink links to a detailed website about the park with 'interesting' English but also a gallery of lovely photos. Sadly, forest fires, mostly started deliberately to clear land, are common in the dry season in this part of Thailand and it doesn't take long to find some examples in the forests round here close to the Burmese border..By lunchtime today Mark was approaching the narrowest part of Thailand - a mere 15km wide between the Gulf of Thailand and the Burmese border...
There are some lovely beaches along the coast here which sadly Mark will not be able to visit. The race must go on!

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Welcome to the Geography of Thailand

It was wonderful to log into the tracker earlier and find that leg 3 is under way...The first problem for those of us who are following the tracker is that place names in Thailand on Google Maps would appear to be written in the Thai alphabet . I may, therefore, have to cross reference with Google Earth as the place names there appear to be in 'English'.... and there is the added benefit, as explained in this posting, of extra layers of information including some excellent photos. Let's hope that road signs in Thailand are at least partly written in the Roman alphabet and easier to understand! The second problem is that the area with high resolution imagery seems to be more limited than in India and Pakistan.

I think Thailand is in the time zone which is GMT plus 7 hours but for the next three days until we change our clocks, Mark will be 6 hours ahead of us.

As we embark on our geographical learning journey through Thailand, it is probably useful to set the scene with a map which sets the country in its context within SE Asia. As Mark has flown into Bangkok and will be cycling down the connecting isthmus towards Malaysia from there, he will only be travelling through the southern part of the country. As the map shows, most of the land area of Thailand is to the north of Bangkok. The isthmus which joins Malaysia to SE Asia is shared in its northern part by both Burma and Thailand. In fact, the first part of Leg 3 takes Mark to a point within 30km of the Burmese border before entering the southern part of Thailand which has a coast on the Indian Ocean (Andaman Sea) and the Gulf of Thailand.

The relief map shows that the Burmese/Thai border follows the mountain spine in the centre of the isthmus and as Mark's route will take him along the coastal lowlands to the east of that, there should be none of the arduous climbs he encountered in leg 2. There will, of course, be other difficulties such as much higher humidity and its attendant problems.
Shortly after leaving Bangkok airport, Mark was cycling south close to the coast through an area with linear land use patterns... it was difficult to decide exactly what they represented until a look at a similar area with high res imagery produced evidence that they are rice fields with various degrees of flooding...
A little further on, Mark crossed a river which flows out into the Gulf of Thailand. Just a few miles upstream is the location of the fabled Bridge over the River Kwai....

P.S. have just read yesterday's web diary. I am sorry to hear Mark had such a traumatic experience at Calcutta airport but immensely glad he and Ted bear made it through - even if they didn't quite manage that cappucino in departures!

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Last post from India

Great to think that Mark might be enjoying a bit of Western comfort in the international departure lounge of Kolkatta airport. I don't know if he drinks coffee but after the adventures of the last few weeks, a capuccino might be a welcome, if temporary, taste of normality.....

The view above (courtesy of Google Earth) shows the terminal block of Calcutta airport otherwise known as Dum Dum airport after the suburban area of the city in which it is located. (It is barely geography but airport names are one of those questions which often masquerade as 'geography' in trivia quizzes).

An interesting, non trivia fact about the airport is that it wasn't connected to the suburban railway system until 2006 and at that time it became the first airport in India to be accessible by mass rapid transport system. We take that type of transport infrastructure for granted!

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Leg 2 retrospective

It is difficult to imagine how you must be feeling when you've almost completed 5000 +miles of cycling through Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and India but I guess, as well as the elation, you do pause to consider a little of what you've seen in the last two months. I thought today, therefore, as Mark approaches Calcutta, it might be worth revisiting what have been for me the geographical 'highlights' of the four countries.

Turkey kept the best until last and it was the sheer size of extinct volcano Mt Ararat, four times the height of Ben Nevis, which made the most lasting impression..You can re-read the posting about Mt Ararat here .It is harder to choose an Iranian highlight - probably because so much of what I saw there was a revelation! The salt deserts and the sand deserts described in the postings of 17th September and 23rd September respectively were intriguing....
But the most beautiful was surely what I called 'the painted desert' in the mountainous terrain close to the Pakistan border described in the posting of 24th September ..
On and into the Pakistan part of Balochistan was a stretch of desert, described on the 28th September which sticks with me because there was just nothing there. This has got to be the emptiest, most featureless view you can find on Google Earth...
In a recent radio interview Mark described the descent through the Bolan pass from Quetta as a scenic highlight of his journey and I certainly recall being impressed with dry river torrents which featured on that section of the route as described on the 1st October...
And, finally, India where almost every posting was dictated by the Ganges and its tributaries. The Ganges first got a mention here in the posting for 13th October....
... and from that day, the whole of Mark's journey across the Indo-Gangetic plain seemed dominated by water - and lots of it - from exquisite oxbows described here on the 16th October..
... to vast floodplains like this on the 19th October .
Volacnoes, mountains, deserts and vast rivers ......Leg 2 will be a hard act to follow geographically.

Monday, 22 October 2007

More water!

It seems that in this part of the world, you just can't get away from water! Every day it has been a recurring theme of Mark's journey across the north of India and today, that theme continues... Mark is now about 200km north of Calcutta and about to enter the part of the Ganges delta which lies within India. Contrary to what many people believe, Calcutta does not lie at the mouth of the Ganges but rather on a 'distributary' of the river called the Hooghly. The main channel of the Ganges heads east into Bangladesh to be joined by the Brahmaputra before heading out across the delta lands (called Sundarbans) into the Bay of Bengal. This image of the delta, which comes courtesy of NASA, gives a particularly good impression of the way the river disgorges huge quantities of sediment into the waters of the Bay of Bengal.
Earlier today Mark was cycling through an area of 'tank irrigation'. Tank irrigation is one of the oldest sources of irrigation in India and depends on the storage of water from the rainy season rather than the drilling of wells to tap into the groundwater supply. Tanks are often regarded as more 'sustainable' as they are low cost, do not depend on energy to pump water to the surface and don't compromise groundwater supplies.

Water management is clearly an important feature of life in northern India and this afternoon, shortly after crossing the Ganges for the last time, Mark will have cycled past the controversial Farakka barrage.....

The sluice gates which are clearly visible above opened for the first time back in 1974 and now divert a large part of the discharge of the Ganges into the Hooghly river and out through the port of Calcutta. The reason for building this barrage was to flush out the silt from the river bed in Calcutta and improve the navigability of the port. However, the project is a classic example of how interference with a river regime has knock-on effects elsewhere - in this case in Bangladesh where the withdrawal of the Ganges water has had serious implications. There is an article here which explains what has happened in Bangladesh.

The view below shows is a photo of the Farakka barrage taken from a train crossing the Ganges bridge . As the bridge carries both road and rail it will be an identical view to the one Mark would have had earlier....

Sunday, 21 October 2007

'Down' to Calcutta

After almost two weeks crossing the north of India in a predominantly easterly direction, Mark is now finally heading south for Calcutta....After crossing the last major tributary of the Ganges, the Kosi, he is now in the state of West Bengal only a few miles from the border with Bangladesh.

The last stretch through north eastern Bihar today produced some good high resolution imagery and views such as this one ....

There is just SO much geography in that view , much of it finding expression in the interaction of the physical and human environments.

After 11 days of 'crossing' northern India with Mark, the one recurring theme, particularly in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, has been rivers and water. The lives of most people (who in this part of India are rural dwellers) are governed by seasonality of rainfall and by the regimes of the Ganges and its tributaries. These massive rivers are both a blessing and a curse bringing fertile silt to support huge populations and floods which help spread the silt but threaten lives. The flatness of the terrain and the deposition of alluvium results in river channels which are very dynamic ...... I have seen more ox bow lakes in the Ganges plain in the last two weeks than I have seen in my life! I will certainly know where to look for examples the next time I am teaching them.

Back to the view above. This is the question I might set senior pupils based on an examination of that view..... "Explain how the physical environment influences the pattern of land use shown in the photograph?" Can you answer it?!

And finally, before we head for Calcutta, here is a view I captured a few days ago which shows the seasonality of the climate in this part of India...The view shows an area where low res gives way to high res imagery. However, the left part of the view was clearly captured in the wet season (June to September)while the right hand portion was photographed in the dry season . What a difference a bit of rain makes!