A journey of discovery through South-East Asia

Dodging poisonous gases, riots in Hong Kong and the coronavirus pandemic during 6 months’ travelling in South-East Asia, Seya Tansill witnessed first-hand the interconnectedness of everything, an experience that deepened her commitment to sustainability and manufactured design.

Travel broadens your horizons, they say. A cliché, perhaps, but true, as I found out after taking a sabbatical from Stride Treglown. The trip that was meant to simply fill in the gaps in my conversation ended up transforming my world view.

I’d worked for Stride Treglown for about 5 years, leading the Senior Living team. When I say ‘worked’, I mean really grafted to build our profile. With a good stream of projects in the pipeline and our brilliant team working like clockwork, I relaxed enough to admit it to myself: I needed a break.

My boyfriend and I talked. Having missed out when younger, we wanted to travel. Stride Treglown said yes, and in September 2019 I boarded a flight with boyfriend and backpack, excited and nervous to be at the start of an eleven-country journey of discovery.

The trip was extraordinary, with too many highlights to mention. However, something peculiar kept happening. For every glorious, mind-blowing experience, it seemed that there was a sobering counterbalance just round the corner.

Pollution in Kuala Lumpur

Example: we arrived in Kuala Lumpur to meet up with old friends. We made for the park overlooking the city, hoping for a panoramic view of the Petronas Towers. Instead, just haze. Then something odd happened: inexplicably exhausted, we both did something unusual for us: we had a nap.

Later when we told our friends they were shocked – not because we could have been robbed, but that we’d been outside at all. Didn’t we know that it was burning season and that the air quality was 40 times worse than London’s? Palm oil plantations and rice fields were being burned as part of the planned – and legitimate – farming cycle, polluting the air across the whole region. We hadn’t been tired: we’d been poisoned.

Contrast this with our experience in Singapore a few days later. It’s not that far from KL but the air quality was worlds apart. The local government is solving pollution with wide-scale biophillic design, visiting the famous Supertree Grove is like being dropped onto the set of Avatar, demonstrating the healing power of humanity striking a balance with nature.

The Supertree Grove and clear skies in Singapore

Off the beaten path in East Java, we set out at midnight to climb up to a beautiful (but dangerous: you need a gas mask to get close) sulphur lake on a volcano called Kawah Ijen. The place is awe-inspiring: natural gases burn in stripes of blue on the hillside, and as dawn breaks, the brilliant aquamarine lake is revealed.

There is a dark side, though. As a ready source of sulphur (used to make fertiliser), Ijen attracts yellow-tinged miners like bees to a honeypot. Paid a pittance for lugging 100kg loads up a goat track out of the crater, these people do so without any PPE, a shocking indictment of an uncaring and unregulated supply chain.

And the sobering contrasts went on.

On a bus to visit a wonderful orangutan sanctuary in Borneo, we drove past acre after acre of palm oil plantation – the very thing that necessitated the sanctuary in the first place.

In Cambodia, the deeply disturbing history of the Khmer Rouge genocide seemed to jar with our impressions of the gentle people we encountered and the wonder of Angkor Wat.

Visiting old university friends in Hong Kong during a pro-democracy protest, it was clear that our friends’ day-to-day living reality was, in complete contrast to the British media’s histrionic reporting, considered and contained.

We were in Vietnam when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. Again, there was a surreal disconnect between the Western news reporting and what we saw on the street. The cruelty of inciting human anxiety should be mandated, a lesson learnt to do your own research.

In Thailand, the pristine state of the beaches is a mirage: go round the headland and the seas are clogged with plastic jetsam.

And everywhere I went, the way I was treated compared to my boyfriend – expected to dress a certain way, change my behaviour, rarely addressed directly or looked to for a lead – really took a lasting toll on my confidence. As a woman of the world, I have come to the stark realisation that there is still much to be done to address this imbalance.

Before this trip, I was committed to sustainability. It took these experiences to really open my eyes fully to what that means.

I realised that nothing is neutral. Every decision has a ripple effect of consequences, some good, some bad. Of course there are no easy solutions but our responsibility is to be aware and do good.

Returning home just before the COVID-19 lockdown, I am determined to hold onto that insight.

I’ve become a vegetarian and ethical consumer. I’m more likely to question the news and have strengthened my feminist resolve. Back at Stride Treglown – now working for the Schools team – I’m helping to improve our corporate footprint. Best of all though is the influence I exert as an architectural technologist in one of the most carbon-costly industries in the world. By taking a lead on zero carbon, sustainability and developing DfMA to reduce waste and enable the circular economy, I hope to make a lasting positive difference.

I’m excited to continue my journey; will you join me?

Get in touch with Seya if you’d like to join her sustainability journey. And please share your thoughts on our social media channels #TalkingSpaces008