2011 in review

1 01 2012

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 190,000 times in 2011. If it were an exhibit at the Louvre Museum, it would take about 8 days for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Advertisements




Floods!

31 10 2011

Okay, my ‘Year in Bangkok’ finished a few months ago but there will sometimes be something worth adding and this seems like one of those things.

Water, water everywhere!

As you may have heard, Thailand is experiencing its worst flooding for fifty years and, as I write, almost 400 people have died as a direct result of those floods. There are less obvious problems too. For instance, the rather aggressive cross-breeds that are used for their skin are escaping from the crocodile farms en masse. Snakes, like us, are keen to get to dry land and snakebite has increased hugely. Much of the water contains leeches and they are feeding off the people wading and swimming in the water, even managing to invade them internally occasionally. The flood water in many places is polluted with sewage and, in Bangkok, that polluted floodwater has now got into the mains water system. It is impossible to buy clean drinking water, supermarket shelves are stripped of produce almost the minute it arrives, smokers are having extreme difficulty buying their weed but, strategically, I have moved my small collection of single malts upstairs well away from any rising waters.

Snakes, usually rarely seen, are becoming a problem.

Another problem is that nobody can agree who is in charge. The prime minister says she is. The governor of Bangkok says he is. The local administrators say they are. The U.S president probably thinks he is. And we, the people, are getting some strangely mixed messages. “Evacuate your area immediately,” says one bigwig. “No, don’t,” says another. “He doesn’t know what he is talking about, wait until I make an announcement,” And so it goes on. Meanwhile, all we really know is that we are in the middle of a unique if dangerous situation. I have so far stayed dry despite several warnings but I don’t know what might happen to me tomorrow. Or the next day. Or the one after that. Friends have been evacuated and don’t know what might happen to their homes. Others have left the city and are renting houses or flats in other areas. No doubt, when it is all over, everybody here will have their own unique flood story.

This is how it looks inside every local Tesco store at the moment.

Yesterday, I looked after an 82 year old visitor from England prior to putting him on his midnight plane home. I live in an area with no other westerners so don’t have much chance of conversation in my own language. I also work almost entirely with Thai people so the same applies there. Usually, I relish the opportunity to natter with another native English speaker but this guy was something else. There were things I sort of had in common with him – he is the same age as my father, he was in the RAF at the same time as my father, we were living on the same RAF base at the same time in the late 60s so there was plenty of opportunity to enjoy some conversation and maybe some reminiscences. But no. This guy talked non-stop about his children, their children and their children for almost the entire 12 hours I looked after him. I drove him down to the coast for a beer as he hadn’t seen the sea while he was here and almost pushed him off the pier. I didn’t of course, my patience somehow held but it was the first time I remember ever dancing for happiness after seeing somebody off at an airport.

You never know what might escape from your local crocodile farm.





A Year in Bangkok – Sacred Ink

23 07 2011

Typical Sak Yant tattoo.

Some years ago, I went to Pattaya for a weekend. I have never seen a place where the sex industry is so ‘in your face’ and I’ve never been back to Pattaya. Like Patpong in Bangkok, the industry apparently grew from the demands of U.S. troops calling there. Apparently, Angeles City just outside a U.S. base in the Philippines is similar, again feeding the demands of the same clientele. Shortly after my visit, the then Thai Culture Minister visited Pattaya and was quoted in the newspapers as saying that she had seen no evidence of prostitution. I guess she gets around with the aid of a white stick.

It's common to see them on monks.

Prostitution is illegal here although you would never guess. I haven’t been there since before the tsunami but I understand that the sex industry on the holiday island of Phuket is now thriving. Enter the outgoing Culture Minister who, at a recent emergency meeting, ordered the Ministry’s Phuket officials to start patrolling the tourist zones of the island as something insidious is going on there which is apparently totally against Thai culture.

A simpler one.

As you can probably guess by now, there are certain things tourists do on Phuket which are a bit naughty and offensive to traditional Thais. You may not know this, but Angelina Jolie is to blame! In 2004, she was over here for some filming (Lara Croft I think) and she ‘discovered’ an already well known tattoo artist called Ajarn Noo. Interestingly, at about the same time, my wife was translating for a Scandinavian film company who were making a documentary about Thailand which included an interview with Ajarn Noo. He seemed to think it necessary to keep them waiting a long time when they arrived for the interview. I have heard from other people that this guy regularly seems to keep people waiting or, occasionally, not bother to turn up at all for appointments. And, if you are a westerner, he will apparently charge you 200,000 baht (four thousand pounds) for a Sak Yant, or temple tattoo that you can get done the traditional way in a temple for around 500 baht (ten pounds). Or so I am informed. Actually, it’s not just on Phuket – it’s all around Thailand. Thanks to that actress, traditional Thai tattoos are very fashionable in certain parts of the west now and the Culture Minister is concerned that people are getting them done on inappropriate parts of their bodies – hence patrolling the tourist areas.

Ajarn Noo

The tattoos are called Sak Yant. Sak Yant is the Thai name for sacred geometrical designs inked into the skin. Sak is the Thai word for tattoo and Yant, or Yantra as it is known elsewhere in the world, is the Thai name for a geometrical design believed to posses magical powers of protection. They can be done in ink or in sesame oil. Traditionally, women often had them done in oil because they were invisible yet still offered the same level of protection. A 17 year old boy, called Boy, was recently stabbed in Saphan Phut – not the nicest part of Bangkok – but escaped serious injury because, he said, of his Sak Yant.

Some of them take several days to do.

The Sak Yant tattoos are traditionally done by Buddhist Monks or Brahmin holy men. Each different design is believed to carry a certain protection and many people believe that when a design is inked onto your skin by a Buddhist monk you then become imbued with that protection. Some designs are meant to give the owner the power to charm a lover or get rich while others offer protection against enemies. I’m not sure what getting rich has to do with spirituality!

Ouch!

Yant tattooing is practiced in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Burma. The prayers tattooed around the Yant are written in Pali Sanskrit, the original language of the Lord Buddha, using ancient Khom or Khmer lettering. The use of magic Yantras and the sacred alphabet to write them has been a common practice with the Khmer race for thousands of years.

A monk again.

Sak Yant tattoos have a very strict application method that must be adhered to and takes many years to master at the training of Yant masters. The tattooist must concentrate very hard while inscribing the tattoo as he must silently chant a mantra that changes with each new element of the design while inscribing the ancient words. The recitation helps to pass on the magic onto the Sak Yant tattoo.

They can be beautiful.

The tattoos the ministry is so upset about are those depicting three particular religious images – the Lord Buddha, Ganesh and the cross so in reality this is about much more than Thai culture as those images are from India, India and Calvary in that order. Worse still, people are getting them on the “arm, leg, ankle and chest, places that are not suitable to the beauteous Thai culture or Thai society’ said the Minister. Hmmm………

 





A Year in Bangkok – Another Old Market

3 07 2011

Who would like a nice fresh rat?

Yesterday, I took a drive along Lat Krabang Road to the point where Samut Prakan, the province I live in, meets Chachoengsao. Soon after passing Suvarnabhumi Airport, the buildings of the city start to disappear and the road becomes lined with rice fields, many of which are populated by storks at this time of year. Along the roadside are stalls selling barbecued rat, freshly caught in the rice fields. To get here from town is easy, you just take Sukhumvit Soi 77 (On Nut Road) and keep going – it will eventually become Lat Krabang Road.

Looking towards Bangkok. Samut Prakan province is on the left and Chachoengsao is on the right.

I came out here to find another old market I had heard about and it is a real gem. It is called Khlong Suan Roi Pee market and is well signed from the road shortly before you get to the Bang Pakong River. This hundred year old market runs along one bank of the Prawet Burirom canal and, interestingly, straddles two provinces: Samut Prakan and Chachoengsao.

Saphan Aswanij - this wooden bridge is over a hundred years old.

Having passed on the barbecued rats, and it being lunch time, I was ready for a bite to eat when I got here. The choice of food is almost overwhelming and all of it is cooked right there in front of you. I settled for a Vietnamese thing, kind of a stuffed omelet I suppose. It was chock-full of bean sprouts, nuts, pickled radish, bean curd and goodness knows what else served with lightly pickled shallots and cucumber on the side. I have never come across this before and it was delicious.

Lots of wonderful fresh cooked food.

I then spent a couple of hours wandering around both the market and the canal side community here. Everybody was friendly and several people tried to chat with me in English. This market and community goes back to the reign of King Rama the fifth and there are times when you can almost imagine yourself back in those days. It has survived several fires – a remarkable feat as all of the buildings seem to be made of wood and the wooden bridge (Saphan Aswanij) which links the two provinces is apparently the original.

Beautiful old teak shop houses.

In the past, this market was linked to Bangkok by boat and there was a regular passenger service between Chachoengsao city and Bangkok, terminating in Pratunam. In this small area, you will see ethnic Chinese, Thai Buddhists and Thai Muslims all living peacefully together. If you get outside the immediate market area, you will find not only temples and mosques but even a Chinese canteen offering free vegan food to hungry souls in need.

Who will buy my fish?

If you get the chance, go there. You won’t regret it but make it a weekend as I understand that a lot of the stalls and shops are closed during the week. Keep scrolling down for more photos.

Traditional transport.

 

Lovely canal side community.

 

My lunch.

 

Most of the stalls are old wooden (usually teak) shop houses.

 

Another great old bridge.

 

Looking along the backs of the shop houses.





A Year in Bangkok – Democracy and the Election

30 06 2011

Thailand's Democracy Monument

This Sunday, 3rd July there will be a general election in Thailand. It’s the third one in six years – I know because that is how long I’ve been here. Thailand is a liberal democracy and it seems to feature all the worst bits of liberal democracy U.S style. Lots of spin, strange (and probably empty) promises but no policies of any substance. And, on an unsophisticated electorate, this can work quite well, as it seems to do in the U.S. I get the feeling that this electorate might be getting a little more sophisticated but, of course, all things are relative.

The 2006 coup.

Since the ending of the Kittikachorn dictatorship in the 70’s, there has been a cycle of elections and coups in Thailand. A lot of that seems to be about how democracy fits with other, older institutions like the monarchy, the army and even the civilian bureaucracy and there is something about this election which makes me think it may really be about the country’s inability to agree on what democracy is for them.

The polling booths are starting to appear.

A big difference this time though is the non-presence of an ousted prime minister, currently a wanted and convicted criminal. He was deposed in 2006, was banned from politics and now lives in exile as he was sentenced in absentia, essentially for stealing huge sums of money from the Thai people. He is effectively fighting this election through a surrogate party called Pheu Thai as his own party, Thai Rak Thai was declared illegal and disbanded. He can’t be seen to head up the party so his younger sister Yingluck does and the general feeling here is that he pulls her strings. One of their slogans is “Thaksin thinks, Pheu Thai acts”. The strange thing is that they love him. Huge numbers of people really believe he will give them a better life – a bit like the sheep which liked Farmer Jones better because he fed them more…….and lo and behold, he got a better price for them at market. It is widely believed that if Pheu Thai wins, he will be given an amnesty and that the money which was (allegedly) stolen from the Thai people and then taken back by the courts will go back to the (alleged) perpetrator of the (alleged) crime. Amazing!

I'm sure that's the banned politician/wanted man on this election poster in his northern heartland.

This is a guy who recognized the potential of getting the uneducated poor on his side and, using his vast wealth and charisma, exploited it perfectly. Current populist policies include offering credit cards to farmers and free tablet computers for all school children. Quite how this country’s extremely poor farmers might repay their subsequent credit card debts is, presumably, somebody else’s problem. Financial analysts and academics though have attacked these policies as extravagant and unsustainable in the long term. This man has also been accused, not unjustly, of abusing his power in office for personal gain and of human rights abuses, particularly during his ill-conceived ‘war on drugs’.

And his sister Yingluck, probably going to be Thailand's first woman prime minister.

Then there is the current government. They weren’t really elected by the people but were the result of lots of behind-the-scenes dealing. A bit like the current farce of a government in the U.K I guess. But that is where any similarity ends even though the current prime minister is an old Etonian. Basically, he is viewed by those who oppose him as a front for other, more extreme and conservative interests and, as we saw just over a year ago, he is willing to use violence against demonstrators who oppose him politically.

The current, embattled prime minister, Abhisit.

There are twenty four other parties and I know little or nothing about most of them. One of them, which you can’t really fail to notice here, is the Rak Thailand party headed by a guy called Chuvit. Chuvit is known as the “massage parlour king” because he owned a chain of these dubious establishments, the biggest of which are almost industrial-scale brothels. I’m told he was Bangkok’s biggest massage parlour owner. He has re-packaged himself as a crusader against corruption, exposing the bucket-loads of cash (and maybe other payments in kind) he presumably made to police and politicians to keep his sex businesses running smoothly. Chuvit appears angry in his election posters, which urge the public to let him fight corruption. Think about it, does he sound suitable for fighting corruption? His posters are great though. One shows him carrying a baby with the message: “Politicians are like nappies, the more you change them, the better.” Another one shows him clasping his head. It reads: “Bored with politics but have to vote? Let me be in opposition to fight corruption.”

Chuvit.........would you let him hold your baby?

The other one I’m aware of, thanks to the posters, is the nationalist party which is urging the electorate to reject all of the candidates. Their posters are lizards, dogs, monkeys and other animals dressed as politicians. They read: “Don’t let the animals into Parliament”. But other parties have complained to the election commission that portraying politicians as animals is undemocratic and the Thai Veterinary Medical Association has claimed that the posters are offensive to animals. When the Bangkok Post reported that, their headline was ‘Beastly Posters Vex Vets’.

One of those beastly posters.

In effect, Thailand has two choices. An Abhisit government which has proven itself competent but, in my view, effectively represents ‘old’ money and risks a backlash in the streets from the red shirt faction. In other words, a conservative government. Or (the most likely outcome) a return to a Thaksin-inspired government which, in my view, represents ‘new’ money and which risks the staging of another military coup. In other words, a conservative government which claims to be something else, rather like the U.K’s ‘new’ labour some years ago which successfully convinced the terminally stupid that it was not really conservative.

Are the military awaiting the outcome of this election?

The passions which are aroused here suggests to me that finding a liberal and democratic way forward is going to be fraught with difficulties. Neither major party is really comfortable with the freedoms and compromises associated with liberal democracy but most Thai people themselves are. So where will that leave us? I, for one, really don’t know.

A recent newspaper report described the streets as having forests of election posters.





A Year in Bangkok – Back to School

5 06 2011

Happy to be at school.

This may seem a strange thing to say, but I’m happy to be back at school. I’ve missed the kids during the long holiday but will doubtless be fed up of them by the end of the semester! The school I work in is seventy one years old this year which may not seem too impressive by European standards (the school I went to in England celebrates its 500th anniversary next year) but it is certainly quite old for Thailand. It is now on its third site and during those seventy one years, has produced several heads of government departments and no less than six prime ministers.

The top of primary - literally!

We had a big celebration for the ‘birthday’ last year with a sit down meal and performances by all the students. The meal was really sumptuous and mainly Chinese as Bang Khae, where the school is, is a largely Chinese area.

Let's get serious.

For starters, we had the unusual mixture of prawn crackers, French fries – I suspect the fries might have been for my benefit – and dim sum. This was followed by a rather nice pork and quail egg soup and then spicy spicy squid. Next came roast duck with sweet plums followed by a prawn and glass noodle salad. Finally, for dessert, we had hot beans in sweet syrup. I felt happily bloated.

Preparing for that meal.

I get lots of love and affection from the students, who showered me with hugs and kisses for the first few days but the other teachers and the local people are all delightfully friendly too.

They start to learn about their culture in kindergarten.

People often offer to share food with me (maybe they feel sorry for me because I’m so skinny) and one day, as I was walking down the street, a local beggar sitting on the pavement having what was probably his only meal of the day offered to share his sausage and rice with me. Occasionally, one of the teachers in the school will prepare a Thai dish for me and shyly present me with it at lunch in the canteen.

We get silly at staff parties.

On the first day of this semester, colleagues produced small gifts for me from their holidays, all of which were edible and sweet and the parents of a new student have just provided me with some very tasty sweet coated peanuts. All of which might explain what happened at the tailor’s shop I go to.

A student 'luk thung' singer.

I needed new school trousers and I always get them from the same guy. He provides me with made to measure black trousers made from good quality natural fabric at a remarkably good price. All of my adult life, I have had a thirty two inch waist but when the tailor checked my measurements, he claimed that my waist was thirty six inches. I said he must have got that wrong so he measured again and showed me: thirty six inches. I suggested his tape measure had shrunk in the rains so he got another one out and came up with the same measurement.

Dancin' in the street? Almost!

It was time to gracefully accept the inevitable so, along with school wear, I ordered some new casual trousers too. Now, less than a month later, they are all feeling rather snug and this morning found me in Tesco Lotus buying some cheap off the rack trousers!

Traditional dance.

There are many things I like about the schools here in Thailand and one of those is the way they keep the culture here alive. Traditional dance for instance is taught in all of the schools I have worked in and there are regular performances. Traditional music is also highly regarded within the school system as are other arts.

Drummer boys.

But my favourite moment of the semester so far has to be walking to a nearby organic shop for some strawberries when somebody grabbed me from behind and hustled me down the next sidestreet. Was I being mugged? Was I about to be raped? Of course not. I hadn’t noticed it, but a truck was advancing along the road using a mini water cannon to water the plants along the roadside, regardless of who happened to be walking along. A thoughtful passer-by had just saved me from a soaking!

Modern version of a traditional dance.





A Year in Bangkok – Wat Tham Yai Prik

28 05 2011

Welcome!

In the late sixties, the Venerable Prasit Thavaro had a vision. An old lady called Prik, who was King Chulalongkorn’s (Rama V) nanny, came to the master and invited him to a cave on Koh Si Chang. In 1970, he went there to meditate and he subsequently spent almost ten years meditating there alone.

A monk's room.

In 1983, he went on a pilgrimage to India and Nepal to visit Lumpini Park in Nepal, where the Buddha was born; Bodhgaya in India, where the Buddha became enlightened; Deer Park in Sarnath, India where the Buddha proclaimed his first sermon and Kushinagar in India where the Buddha passed on. He brought back soil and water from those four places, mixed them together into a ball and kept the ball in the cave. Supposedly, a Buddha relic appeared at the base of that ball and then proceeded to multiply of its own accord. In 1996, when a pagoda was built there, the relics were placed above the ceiling to show respect.

A meditation class.

But now I’m getting ahead of myself! For many years, Master Thavaro taught meditation using the cave as his centre. Over time, particularly in the 1990s, several buildings were added to the site. In the year 2000, it was established as a monastery with Master Thavaro as the first abbot. It is a wonderful place which I hope to visit again before too long.

A bodhi tree from India, under which the Buddha found enlightenment.

The atmosphere is calm, what I would expect from such a place, but it is also much truer to what I think of as real Buddhism than most temples are. For example, everything here was built by the monks and nuns rather than by outside contractors. Those monks and nuns live a simple, self-sufficient monastic lifestyle which was normal during the time of the Buddha but is not so now. Also, the abbot was opposed to the commercialisation of Buddhism so, unlike most temples in Thailand, Wat Tham Yai Prik does not offer services such as fortune telling, amulet selling or even the sprinkling of holy water. It is a policy which means the temple doesn’t get much by way of donations.

Everything here has been built by the monks and nuns.

Meditation is still taught here and anybody can go. You can even stay here although the accommodation is basic. If you fancy the idea of learning to meditate, I can’t think of a nicer place to learn. If you’ve practiced meditation before, come and try it here. You can call them on (+66) (0) 3821 6104. At least one of the nuns even speaks English! Surprisingly, the language doesn’t seem to be a barrier. I met a Russian woman here who was on a five day meditation course. She couldn’t speak any Thai or any English but was really pleased she had come for the course.

Part of the vegetable garden - they are not just self-sufficient here, they even give the surplus to members of the local community!

Sadly, Master Thavaro passed on in March 2007. In June 2008, Nopphadon Khunesako was appointed abbot and, although nuns are no longer ordained here, he seems to be continuing to run the monastery in the spirit intended by its founder. He says he is also influenced by the late reformist monk, Phra Buddhadasa of the Suan Mokh forest monastery in Surat Thani and his belief that being mindful in everything we do amounts to the same thing as practicing Dhamma – essentially a path of self imposed discipline which includes the cultivation of mindfulness and a wisdom which comes from understanding the nature of things.

Lunch break for course participants.

Incidentally, during building works in 1998, they found a picture of Prik which is now in the original cave that Master Thavaro meditated in.

In the cave, the black and white picture below and at the right of the Buddha is Prik.








%d bloggers like this: