Category: Thailand

(From the archive) Tha Uthen, Thailand 2014

8 September 2014

Tha Uthen/Nakhon Pahnom

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Tha Uthen is a small village on the Mekong about twenty-five kilometers north of Nakhon Pahnom in the northeastern area of Thailand that lies on the border with Laos.  I’ll be here until February which will make it a bit over a half of a year and I plan on making the most of it, after spending ten years in Bangkok.  This area has been known for two things: fighting off the communist insurgency in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and smuggling. What a charm to be living in a small village after escaping the jaws of Bangkok.  You can actually have conversations with neighbors here.

Wanjan, the co-owner of the Siriporn Homestay where I stayed my first month regaled me one evening about growing up in this town in the fifties and sixties when the United States was working closely with Sarit Thanarat, Thailand’s notorious post War War II dictator, to stop communist aggression in Southeast Asia.  I had no idea that route 212, that runs all along the northeast border of Thailand and the Mekong River was built with US money in the late fifties as part of the US Army’s infrastructure plan.  The airfield in Nakhon Phanom was small yet big enough for F-4s to fly from during the Vietnam War.  During the Vietnam War he saw US navy riverboats with big 50 caliber guns patrolling the river all the way north to Vientiene, Laos and saw B52’s bomb Laos across the river. Another interesting fact is that Ho Chi Min stayed in Nakhon Phanom between 1928-1931 and his house is still there.

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In Nakhon Phanom there is a big border crossing between Laos and Thailand and thus the potential for transport of a lot of illegal things.  Every year dogs, cats, methamphetamine, marijuana, tigers, elephant ivory, and other exotic animals are smuggled either from Laos to Thailand or from Thailand to Laos to all points eastward to Vietnam or northward to China. Unfortunately there are bribes and kickbacks to the police and the army so much of these items gain easy access to their destinations.  At night Wanjan told me the police and the army let their boats drift with no lights on the river trying to catch smugglers.  The Thai Border Patrol is also on the riverbanks looking out and in cars all along route 212.  Wanjan has said that he has seen the DEA shooting at smugglers from planes on the Lao side.

Tha Uthen is in a separate universe than Bangkok with its pollution, exhaust plumes, grit, grease, traffic, and overcrowded everything.  In Bangkok everyone is going somewhere, working, making money, studying or iphoning at coffee shops, taking taxis, waiting for taxis, going home to their apartments or condos. Tha Uthen feels like Zen retreat in comparison with its simplicity.

An older woman asked me the other day about swimming in the Mekong. “Mai me crocahdie!”(there are no crocodiles).  Not something I heard often on my bike in the traffic in Bangkok.

Bangkok-Tha Uthen.  What a dialectic.

 


(From the archive) International Cycling 2013

18 February 2013

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“Come, gentle night, come…

Tragic news from today about British cyclists Peter Root and Mary Thompson who were killed after being run over by a pick up truck outside of Bangkok.  Their website here.  A story in the Telegraph here.  A video of theirs here.  A Facebook memorial here.

When I first read this in the Bangkok Post at lunch I immediately recognized their website: twoonfourwheels.com as the website referred to by either recent cycling guests of mine or the Dutch cyclists currently staying with me.  Sure enough, my Dutch guests, Moniek and Arian (post below) told me when they got home that they indeed not only knew this couple but had ridden with them for six weeks and were in contact with them up until their accident on Friday around 2:30pm.  Moniek had wondered why they hadn’t responded.  How unbelievably tragic.

And what a small world it is.  And how brief.

…and when they shall die,

Take them out and cut them into little stars,

And they will make the face of heaven so fine

That all the world will be in love with night

And pay no worship to the garish sun.”

 ****************

 

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Moniek & Arian: February 2013

Warning: Those two people above really look like what you would think of when thinking of two Dutch people.

This month of February brought with it two Dutch cyclists nearing a year on the road, Moniek and Aryan, two very fit and pleasant adventurers from the cycling capital of the world.  Taking a break from their day-to-day routine they feasted on air con, sleeping in, showers, DVDs, tinkering with their Dutch bicycles, and getting lost in Bangkok.

Within three days they had picked this city clean of useful bicycle shops.

They started in Holland and went south to Turkey and Iran and had many nice things to say about both.  They couldn’t get through Tibet because of visa restrictions so they went north and around through China with extended visas onward to Laos and Thailand.  They recommended Kyrgyzstan as a place to go.

My only reservation is with Aryan’s lack of appreciation for Apocalypse Now.

 

 

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Honore and Fanny: November 2012 & January 2013

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They are from Lyons, France, way in the Alps, and are taking a world tour.  As I am writing this they are in Laos and will be returning sometime this…month?  They arrived the day after Obama got elected and high fived me after learning that he had won.  Obama is popular around the world.  What a delight it was to hang out with two French people, not a common occurrence in my life.  Most of the expatriates I am in contact with here in Bangkok are from anglophone countries so these international cyclists from Brazil, France, and Brazil that I have hosted have offered a much welcomed contrast.  Honore and Fanny shared an evening with me and a fellow US citizen at a Democrats Abroad event downtown the Friday after the election.  Not that I am a Democrat, but I did vote for the ticket so I made the trip to listen to Obama’s acceptance speech, which was great to watch as I intermittently whispered quick summaries to my French friends, who were profoundly touched by the whole experience.  After we all hopped into a taxi to go clubbing. I spoke in my best frenglish to sound impressive using words like raison d’etre and bete noir sounding more Turkish with my vowels.  I spent the rest of the evening playing drums with Honore.

The next evening I took them to the wine and French cheese bar at the Pullman at King Power and they went into convulsions when they first saw the mounds of French cheese scattered about like Ancient Roman ruins.  What a marvel it was to eat French cheese with them and have them explain the importance of the salt in the butter on the bread and how it interacts with the cheese.  They both bit into the French bread like it was the Eucharist.

Vive la France.

A few words from their travels after leaving me (poetically translated by Google):

“We leave one of South East Asia which we will together for more than three months, with  smiles, its rice fields, mountains, sun burning, small greasy greasy and rice, miles of bike, its great moments of happiness, her laughter and her tears then. And now the ride rotates like the earth that we follow.”

 

Links

Grum Goes Global    Travelling Two   Frank Revelo

While Riding Out


King Bhumibol Adulyadej 1927-2016

 

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A few selected links from Denis Gray, Paul Handley, and Christine Gray reflecting on the death of Thailand’s King Bhumibol after a 70 year reign:

Denis Gray described his encounter with Bhumibol on a trip up north with him:

The king clearly savored such encounters, bantering with rural dwellers and trying to solve their problems, even marital ones. He once told me the story of a hilltribesman whose wife ran away after he had purchased her with two pigs. The king decided the husband deserved compensation which would allow her freedom. “The only trouble was I gave the money,” he joked. “So the woman belonged to me.”

Paul Handley offered a more sober account of Bhumibol’s reign:

Yet like Tito, Bhumibol failed at securing a stable future for his kingdom. He had made his throne dependent on its alliance with the military, an institution that remains thoroughly corrupt and convinced of its right to arbitrate power. Amid this, the other key institutions of a modern parliamentary democracy have shriveled.

While Christine Gray was more optimistic:

The end of Bhumibol’s reign is an incredible historical moment, one of genuine grief for the late king, if not for opportunities missed during his reign. But also an opportunity for change.

 


The Future of Thai Politics at the FCCT

The Future of Thai Politics talk at the FCCT on March 11th with

• Alongkorn Polabutr, senior member of the National Reform Council & former deputy leader, Democratic Party
• Chaturon Chaiseng, former Education Minister, Pheu Thai Party
• Kasit Piromya, former Foreign Minister, Democratic Party
• Phongthep Thepkanjana, Former Deputy Prime Minister, Pheu Thai Party

A great evening and great responses from various stakeholders in Thai politics. The FCCT did a great job with this one. A few tweets below and the full discussion in three videos at the bottom.

 


Thailand’s Tainted Robes by Pailin Wedel

 

A brilliant video about Buddhism in Thailand.

 

 


Buffaloes, Crabs, Lizards: Thai protests October-November 2013

 

 

Thailand is a land in perpetual protest about, well, just about everything.  Thai protests bring new meaning to the expression “24/7” as their stages don’t stop at all during these protests.  It’s all day and all night talking, speaking, cajoling, screaming, singing.  Thailand also brings an entirely new meaning to the Occupy Movement where one doesn’t merely occupy a street or an area around a symbol of corruption—one actually occupies the symbol.  And of course a Thai occupation must be in style with proper protest food, music, and branding of all sorts: clappers, t-shirts, whistles, wristbands and the sort.  Profanity and politeness exist together closely at these protests with nasty graffiti about Yingluck and her brother, insults at police officers, the next minute it’s prayers and flowers for everyone.  Monitor lizards and buffaloes are seen all throughout the artwork.

Below are propaganda images from the anti-Thaksin protests:

At issue is a majority in parliament pursuing its interests over the will of the minority, corruption, and vote buying.  The commentariat has provided an array of perspectives from both sides.  Thai mainstream commentators from the English language press have offered much of the same in their treatment of Thaksin as an evil octopus with his tentacles reaching every part of the realm poisoning everything he touches.   The Nation’s Pornpimol Kanchanalak, editorialist and fugitive from American justice, weighed in.  In an editorial she lectured the Western media about the assumptions that cloud their understanding of Thai politics.  Ms. Kanchanalak discusses Thaksin Shinawatra’s role in Thai politics, conceding that Thaksin had his strengths:

“His adviser, Pansak Vinyarat, genuinely cared about the rural poor, and together they executed numerous populist policies and hand-outs, including the Bt1-million village fund, one village-one bicycle scheme, one village-one scholarship, one village-one buffalo, one village-one product, welfare housing, welfare taxis, and so on. Thaksin’s first year in office was his finest as a public servant. The rural poor looked to him as their saviour, someone who really cared. They knew they were only getting the “crumbs” of Thailand’s wealth, but at least they were getting something for a change.”

She then goes on to discuss where Thaksin went wrong when the lure of power and money blinded him.  She makes many allegations, but offers no evidence, save for this bit about specific jobs for Thaksin’s cronies:

“Please also look into those who occupy the boards of state enterprises. You will find plenty of red-shirt leaders, their families and cronies among them. And please take the time to read the well-researched accounts of just where the rivers of money have flowed from all the government subsidy programmes.”

Much is said about “corruption” but we see little evidence in the form of statistics, state jobs and political affiliation, or charts and graphs of where “populist” monies go.  Kanchanalak’s argument is thus dissipated.  Thailand could use some quality investigative journalism in this area.

Thai protest propaganda

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a professor at Kyoto University, offers a different point of view of the recent political turmoil:

“The Thai crisis has partly echoed the anxiety of the Bangkok elite as Thais are approaching the sunset of the Bhumibol reign. This shift of political landscape will cause an impact on their wealth and social status. The anxiety has served as a driving force behind the hatred campaign against Thaksin, seen as an adversary of the monarchy.”

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a moderate observer of Thai politics offers a middle path:

“In the future, the forces of elected power will have to show more integrity and policymaking skill. They will need to bolster the trust of voters and avoid abuses of power. The forces of appointed and unelected authority will have to come up with electoral legitimacy and policy delivery to cater to the vast majority of the electorate. They need to at least have a chance at triumphing at the polls.”

Lizzie Presser  offers a great view of a woman from Isan who has been helped by Thaksin’s programs.

Thai protest propaganda

Yes, those are chopped off heads!

Thai protest propaganda

1. Thai people pay tax so prostitute can have a holiday (criticizing her taking so many trips)


Sangwan

Another great video about Thai royalist ritual, this time in light of the death of Sangwan, King Bhumiphol’s commoner mother.  Her humility and humble origins offer a refreshing respite to the relentless rituals and glorification of the world she inherited.  The narrator’s retelling of Rama IX’s reign is also interesting with its take on the role of the military.  Sulak Sivaraksa, as always, offers illuminating commentary.


Soul of a Nation, BBC 1979

I have heard about this documentary before but have never had a chance to see it and came across it on youtube.  Narrated by the illustrious Sir John Guilgud, we see the mystical Thai monarchy in all its glory with its Brahmin and Buddhist rituals, the king’s service to villagers, and his support of the Thai army’s fight against the Communist insurgency.  I’ve never heard King Bhumibol speak in English so it was a delight to finally hear a voice to all of the images I’ve seen of him in Thailand.  At forty-seven, Queen Sirikit had lost none of her beauty.  There’s a natural humility in this Thai king that you can feel listening to him that is absent from the flat images of him around Thailand that project a more distant persona.

It’s cut off at the end which is unfortunate as I wanted to hear Bhumibol’s candid answer to a provocative question.

This is a must see for anyone interested in Thai culture.


streetphotothailand.com

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Came across a great website today, streetphotothailand.com, in BK Magazine. There’s a photo exposition, “Unposed Bangkok,” a collection of street photography, opening up October 1st and running to October 27 at the Bangkok Art & Culture Center.  This exhibition is curated by Manit Sriwanichpoom, of Pink Man fame.

Mr. Sriwanichpoom is a performance artist with an international presence where he uses the medium of photography to subvert consumerist culture. I guess it’s not surprising, after taking a gander at some of these photos, that irony and juxtaposition emerge as a central theme, as these elements figure prominently in Mr. Sriwanichpoom’s work.  And yet my favorite photo is Nappadol Weerakitti’s smoking man (below).  A simple photograph, accentuated with a vivid purple, of a candid moment of an elderly man.

I look forward to visiting this exhibition right down the street and talking to the photographers.

In the words of the organizers:

These images, along with their hidden nuances that reflect our society, its humor, satire as well as perfectly-timed coincidences, are created by a street photographer.

Selected photos below:

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Akkara Naktamna

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Noppadol Weerakitti

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Naruepol Nikomrat

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Visit Kulsiri

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Chatchai Boonyaprapatsara

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Piyatat Hemmatat

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Vinai Dithajohn

Tha Prachan, 2011

Manit Sriwanichpoom

 


Anti-government protest in Lumpini Park

It’s protest season in full swing here in Bangkok and today it was anti-government protesters who assembled at Lumpini Park who provided the entertainment.  Under the majestic Rama VI statue there was ideology splashed everywhere.  With the Thai parliament opening this month, an Amnesty Bill is the first order of business, this bill is sponsored by the Pheu Thai Party to give amnesty to anybody accused of politically-related crimes from the time of the military coup that ousted Mr. Thaksin in 2006 to May 2011.  Royalists fear that this would pave the way for Thaksin Shinawatra to return.

Below are images from the protest:

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 “Government project loan: 2 million million baht…debt… debt…”

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“Populist plan for Peu Tai — nationl debt: 100%”

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“Morality &  conscience…government power & benefit”

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“Confucius Peace Prize—debt, failed water management, agricultural price fixing, corruption 3 million for floods…”

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                           (Based on a Thai proverb:  “Cannot cover the whole elephant with a lotus leaf.”                                                                   Lotus leaves are placed on the deceased.)

“Threaten court…failed water management…cannot cover with democracy…”

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“Hello, Thaksin…Nahmahsahkahn (นมัสการ: Thai honorific for monks)”

Wirapol Sukphol and Thaksin are having a conversation.  Wirapol Sukphol was a monk who lived a scandalous life and was subsequently defrocked in absentia.

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“Things are so expensive…The government is trying to fix the problem…

 What is the government doing now?… Trying to reduce the cost of living?…

…The only thing the  government is reducing is Thaksin’s punishment…”

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“Politicians! Stop corruption!”

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“Government corruption with rice program…farmers are in trouble everywhere…

คนหนักแผ่นดิน  kohnnakpahndeen (deadwood)…

…White masks try to help the country!”

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“We stopped slavery a long time ago.  Red Shirts are just like the slaves of Thaksin.  So pathetic.”

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“Thaksin the prisoner has gone mad… he dreams of being a president…

He wants to be a dictator…Go to hell!  Go die!  …Don’t ever come back!”

(image of coffin)

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“Toxic rice phenomenon…

…rotting

…This is the greatest cheating ever in Thailand…

…This disaster is 10 times worse than the tsunami…

…Keep your eyes on this issue.  Don’t blink.  This evil regime will come back again.”

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“If you want to see the light (Dthahsuwan: ตาสว่าง) listen to the radio channel by Mr. Choopong Teetuan (ชูพงษ์ ถี่ถ้วน) (Guest speaker)”

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“How can these Red Shirt leaders have graduated from military schools and not pay respect (jongratpakdee: จงรักภักดี)  to royalty—understood in Thai culture…”