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.





A Year in Bangkok – Why Are We Flooded?

16 11 2011

My first real experience of Thailand was 2004 when disaster hit in the shape of the tsunami. Moving here in 2005, I quickly became aware of the many problems in the education system. Then in 2006 there was the military coup. By 2007 I was fully aware of the rampant corruption. In 2008 the yellow shirts occupied the airports then, in 2010 we almost reached a civil war between red and yellow shirts. Now we have the floods and I have come to realise that the average Thai must be as resilient and flexible as my mother’s old handbag.

Watch out for snakes in the water.

Of course, added to the flood issue is the danger of snakes and crocodiles in the water, infection and just the sheer filth of it. Amazingly, there are even fish swimming around in it. On the English language news the other morning the newsreader said: “Residents in northern Bangkok are terrified of the large number of escaped crocodiles in the flood water. Authorities are trying to recapture them but meanwhile they have armed themselves with swords and sticks.” I’d have thought those big mouths and teeth were enough! So when are we going to enjoy some peace and a little prosperity?

The school I work at has got wet!

Loy Kratong, my favourite festival here, was cancelled in many places. That’s when people pay respect to the Goddess of the Water showing gratitude for their plentiful use of water and ask for forgiveness for the ensuing pollution. Well, there is plenty of water to be thankful for – hundreds of millions of cubic metres more of it than we want really. Because my area hasn’t yet been flooded, we still celebrated Loy Kratong. Maybe the Goddess has actually put a curse on Thailand.

Loy Kratong

Now, I don’t want to be harsh but it does seem as though Thailand has, yet again, been let down by its leaders whose main concern seems to be bringing the de facto leader back to the country without him having to face jail for his crimes. The people who desperately need help with evacuation, food, medical supplies and so on take second place to the needs of the rich industrialists who have businesses here. Misinformation is rife. There are allegations of serious corruption. For example, the government-supplied flood relief packs are allegedly seriously over-priced. Further, the two companies providing them to the government allegedly have the same telephone number. And the owner of one of those companies allegedly has the same name as a senior member of the government.

My engine is a little damp.

We have a young and totally inexperienced prime minister in charge of this country of over 60 million souls. That is the farce of this version of democracy, supported of course by the UK and US. The task she faces is monumental, one which seriously experienced politicians would struggle with. There are allegations here of serious incompetence. Allegations have been made that the reservoirs which are normally emptied to take the excessive monsoon waters remained full. I don’t know if that is true or not but you have to question why a country which receives massive rainfall every monsoon season is suddenly overwhelmed by it.

Inside a friend's house.

Then there is tourism and yet another downturn – this time caused by western governments advising their citizens not to come here. Why not? Most of the places tourists go to are nowhere near the floods. Krabi, Phuket, Koh Chang, Samui, Central Bangkok, Hua Hin, Pattaya, Chiang Mai, Kanchanaburi are all as normal and open for business. Contrary to some reports in the west, Bangkok’s international airport is NOT closed and hasn’t been closed by the floods. The chances of that happening are almost nil. So please don’t cancel your holidays, you really don’t need to.

At least the pets are dry.

We did our bit for tourism the other day and went to one of the islands for lunch. It was lovely, even though we were surrounded by water. Of course, that water was clean, a beautiful blue colour and smelt good. After lunch, we sat on a pier built by King Rama V and watched shoals of fish swimming in the water. Not a crocodile in sight!

"Hello.......anybody home? Don't worry, I'm unarmed."





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 – 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.








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