A Wednesday Whimsy

Parasols in the SunA little background on this photo. It was taken in early October of 2008 in Chiang Mai. As a matter of fact, I think it was the day of the Vice-Presidential debate between Joe Biden and Palin. I spoke with Cenk that night for an interview. It was a pretty amazing day. This was one of the first shots. I didn’t post any of the warm-ups to the photo on Flickr, but this shot was cropped slightly. But there is no other treatment to it.

Before I arrived at the parasol factory I’d visited the floor of a jewelry manufacturer, which was a fascinating experience in itself. It rained much of the morning. By noon I was ready to turn around and had told Thanakorn, my driver, that after the last stop we should head back. He disagreed. “Sun come soon. You watch.”

The sun did come. I took several proof shots of the parasol factory but none really caught my fancy. They were all lying their on the ground, in the sun, the smell of lacquer tickled my nose and made shooting more difficult than it should have been. I wonder how the women who make the parasols deal with the poisons they ingest every day, (scroll forward form the linked photo to see how the parasols are made) day in and day out. This photo looked uninspiring from the view finder on the camera and I almost deleted it. But then I uploaded it to the Mac. “Wow!” I muttered to myself that night when I uploaded my days work.

Tracy, my former editor at the San Antonio Express News put it on the front page of the travel section that weekend, with the story of the snakes and elephants after it. I’ve probably gotten more compliments on this photo than just about any other. And it was really an accident, as all good photos often are.

Final Thoughts On South East Asia

ReflectionsI just had duck rice for dinner, which will no doubt be my last duck rice for a while. I’m in my hotel room and the usual packing ritual awaits. I can’t bring myself to do it, just yet.

First things first: this will be my last post for at least a week. I will be on a boat in the middle of the Indian Ocean and I doubt I’ll see an internet cafe floating by.

I’ve been in South East Asia for almost seven months now, three of which were spent in Singapore. I’m not ready to leave. And I’m not sure why. Is it because I’m not prepared for India? Or is it because South East Asia exceeded my expectations? I would imagine it is a combination of both.

I remember that first Saturday, July 5th, 2008 when I took this shot of Singapore’s Central Business District and it seems like an eternity has passed since then, both chronologically and emotionally. Have I put the time to good use? Yeah, I have. Seeing the things I’ve seen, doing the things I’ve done and most especially meeting the amazing people along the road have made this leg of the journey special. I never expected to enjoy, much less find a facsimile for paradise in South East Asia. If Lake Toba was the highlight, these last two and a half weeks spent in Malaysia have been eye opening and extraordinary.

(Today’s photos can be found here.)

More after the jump.

I mentioned before that most South East Asian countries are very homogeneous–at least the ones I visited on this trip. But Malaysia is the very antithesis of homogeneity. What makes Malaysia work is its diversity. Take a look at the shots from today, especially those labeled ‘faces of Kuala Lumpur.’ There are Tamils, Malays, Buddhist monks, Westerners and Chinese. They are old, young, men and women, covered and not. But what’s most impressive about Malaysia isn’t its dynamism, it’s that Malaysia has done it Malaysia’s way. No ‘Washington Consensus‘ here. Their economy works for Malaysians and the common good, something it shares with Singapore, although Singapore is all about an open-economy, Malaysia’s is just different. And that’s one of the reasons the country didn’t slump as hard and as long as so many others did during the Asian Financial Crisis of 1998. Indonesia has never recovered.

Malaysia is relatively clean, cleaner than Thailand, but not yet up to Singapore’s exacting standards. The countryside is gorgeous, palm plantations, wild jungle, tea farms and many, many mountains. All of it is green, tropical, wet and humid. ‘Tropicalness’ is much more pronounced in Malaysia than it is in Vietnam, or Laos or Thailand–but not as strong as Indonesia, although I didn’t get to see Malaysian Borneo–next time I hope.

And Malaysian food has distinct differences between those of the other South East Asian states. It’s much more Indian and frequently ‘halal’ food is de riguer in most places. Sure, you can find bacon in Chinatown, but that’s about it for pork and other haram foods here. However, the Malay’s aren’t hardcore Muslims. They aren’t Saudis, for sure. Women seem to get on well here. I imagine a part of that is because there is such a significant minority of non-Muslims in the country that hard core sharia law wouldn’t work here anyway.

It’s funny to think that I blew right through Malaysia when I left Singapore, heading strait to Chiang Mai. It’s probably a good thing too. I might have wasted a bunch of time here. There is still so much to see. I can’t believe I missed Pulau Perhentian! It’s the one beach I was willing to travel to in South East Asia, mostly because it’s not like Phuket and filled with a bunch of beer swilling hoodlums, or Bali, which is just too overdeveloped for my taste. I found Toba, and for me that is enough.

All the South East Asian countries have their charms. The frank honesty of the Vietnamese, the sweet smiles from lovely Thai girls, glorious Angkor and the mellow Mekong in Laos are but a few. But if it were my choice, I’d recommend Malaysia for the three reasons: prices are excellent, you can see just about anything that South East Asia has to offer in Malaysia and the multi-cultural diversity is just impossible to beat. One never knows what one will see in Malaysia.

Alas, of all the places in South East Asia I loved the most, well, that’s a no-brainer: Lake Toba was simply astounding. But I’m grateful I saw them all, or at least all but two: Burma and the Philippines. Next time, I keep telling myself, next time. And now I am going to go engage in the ritual of packing up, preparing to move on in the hopes that I’m ready for India this time, that I’ll not be too overwhelmed, or get too sick.

I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t a bit anxious. And I’d be an even bigger liar if I told you that I won’t miss East Asia. I will. I’ll miss hearing the languages and the amazing (and sometimes awful) smells. I’ll miss the smiles and I will miss the food. But the first leg of the journey ends tonight and the second begins tomorrow. As the Spanish say, “Traveller, there are no roads. Roads are made by walking.”

Silkworms, Elephants and Snakes in Chiang Mai

I have a short piece in the San Antonio Express-News this morning about Thailand. If you didn’t read my post on the animals around Chiang Mai, Thailand in October, this is a revised version. Enjoy.

Bangkok Tourist Scene Update

This will be my last update on the Thai political situation, barring a serious change in the protest dynamics which currently seem to be lessening. This post also include some commentary from the Nelson Report on Thailand and recent events here.
How rapidly things return to normal. In just a day things here in the tourist enclave of Bangkok, a narrow warren of guest houses, souvenir shops, Seven-11s, tailors and places to do one’s laundry have reverted to their pre-airport crisis normality. Taxi cabs and tuk-tuks have proliferated. Tourist are beginning to fill up the guest house I am staying in again and all the stragglers have already left or are sighing in relief as they will make their pre-planned flights home. There are more tourists on the streets as well, mostly backpackers, as all the stranded older package tourists have disappeared.

But I do wonder about the rest of the city and the country. The current government has been dissolved. There will be elections at some point. Will the current government reconstitute itself and win again, based largely on the rural majority which is its core of support? And if so, what happens then? Will PAD resurrect itself and begin the protests all over again?

Several interesting thoughts to pass on, which were passed on to me from knowledgeable people on the scene. Please note these cannot be confirmed. I’ve been told by many that the PPP’s wins have come from the fact that they hand out a substantial amount of cash for folks to vote. I’ve also been told that the PAD was largely funded by the queen or at the very least some of her proxies on the privy council. There is a very real divide between the rural population of Thailand and the middle classes in and around Bangkok and other major cities. The middle classes made up much of the PAD’s support, as well as portions of the security apparatus of Thailand and some royalists. Thaksin, it should be noted, is very much like a Thai version of Silvio Berlusconi. He’s a media tycoon, controlling on of Thailand’s TV channels and owning a telecom company. And the party he represented and its successor the PPP were both seen as deeply corrupt. He’s also on the lam, rumored to be in Dubai, or maybe elsewhere.

Many ex-pats who live in Thailand despise the PAD, considering them a bunch of thugs, who illegally occupied the airports and drove the economy into a ditch. Others are more ambivalent. One fellow told me, “the corruption here under Thaksin was out of control and the PAD has done some good bringing it to people’s attention. Maybe Thailand isn’t ready for democracy? I don’t know.”

I don’t know what all this means and I am certainly no expert. I’m just passing on what I consider to be reasonably reliable information and interesting tidbits of commentary.

Anyone with experience here in Thailand and more, or better ideas please feel free to jump in and correct or confirm many of the assumptions I’ve made here.

One last note, Paul Watson of the LA Times has what I consider to be the best, most nuanced and complete body of work on Thailand. Seek out his articles at the LA Times for excellent background on the issues facing Thailand.

From the Nelson Report:

THAILAND…here’s how a worried friend and close observer put it this morning, following the dismissal of the government, the end of the airport sit-ins, and the postponement of the ASEAN Summit:

Next near-term event will be the King’s speech on Thursday in advance of his Dec. 5 birthday. Unfortunately, miracles seem to be in short supply in Thailand.

There is no leadership and Thailand suffers.

It is not a good advertisement for either democracy or globalization as Thailand is clearly struggling with both at warp speed.

In trying to get a handle on the crisis in Bangkok, Samuels International’s Managing Director, Andy Durant, outlined how he sees the questions, and in tonite’s Perspective, former Amb. to Thailand Will Itoh, a consultant with McLarty & Associates, kindly takes on the task of responding.

Here’s how Andy cited his concerns:

It seems to me that from an economic perspective, what’s happened in Thailand is actually more harmful than what’s happened in India. In Thailand the political elites are taking extra-legal steps to try and throw out a democratically elected party based in poor rural areas.

Thaksin rode to power promising things to rural voters like cheaper medicines and development, and largely made good on his promises. As a result, his brand (whatever the party or coalition) is quite strong. Rather than try to chip away at this support by making promises of their own to these voters, the PAD (elites) have resorted to sit ins, protests, etc. Thankfully, until yesterday at least, there were no fatalities.

The military has declined to intervene – undoubtedly a good thing. Police haven’t acted and are quite weak. The courts – a tool for the elites? – can disenfranchise and call new elections, but it’s likely the results will be the same. So, now the airports will start functioning again, and things will get back to normal.

But what is the long term damage to FDI, tourism, political risk? Will air carriers look to move their maintenance and hubs to other locales, such as Singapore or Hong Kong?

The crisis cause hasn’t been resolved, and a resolution can only come from the King (if then), getting on in years and with no popular successor in the wings.

PERSPECTIVE: Amb. Will Itoh, a consultant now for McLarty & Associates, was Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Thailand, and has stayed “up” on all things related, including ASEAN, Burma, etc.

At our request, Will prepared this analysis on the current situation in Thailand. After he sent it over came news that ASEAN has postponed until March next week’s scheduled Summit…clearly hoping Bangkok will have settled down enough by then to play out its role as Chair:


The Constitutional Court’s decision today to ban the PPP from politics and force the resignation of PM Somchai Wongsawat may be seen as a victory for the elites and anti-Thaksin forces but at what cost?

After the court decision the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) declared an end to the occupation of both Bangkok airports, following their withdrawal from Government House last week. PAD hailed the court’s decision which ended the short tenure of Somchai (Thaksin’s brother in law) as prime minister, but warned that if the “anti-democratic” forces continue in power they will return to the streets.

The mis-named PAD, which has rejected the concept of one man, one vote as the basis of parliamentary government, thus continues to threaten mass demonstrations to advance their political aims.

Meanwhile, the members of the PPP not banned from politics (i.e. all but the 59 members of the party’s executive committee) will regroup under the banner of the Puea Thai party and will try to create a new government. Parliament may reconvene next week to try to reconstitute itself and elect a new prime minister.

If these attempts fail, new elections will follow but not for at least 60 days (MPs must be members of their political party for at least 60 days before taking their seats).

In today’s Constitutional Court decision, the elites have again succeeded in bringing about change, this time using the courts to remove a prime minister associated with Thaksin (PM Samak, Somchai’s predecessor, was forced to resign over corruption charges).

In the political drama of the past few weeks the military have remained on the sidelines, hoping to avoid further damage to the army’s reputation following the 2006 coup. The police have been either unwilling or incapable of removing the protestors, underscoring the perception that PAD could do what it wanted where it wanted, and highlighting the weaknesses of the government.

The drama will continue as parliament seeks to reconstitute itself. All will look to the King’s birthday speech on Friday for inspiration if not guidance and direction.

In the meantime Thailand’s reputation has suffered immeasurably. The occupation of the airports which stranded over 300,000 travelers has generated incredible media coverage. Thailand’s reputation as a stable and economically prosperous country which welcomes tourists, businessmen and students has been severely damaged.

I recall the haze from the forest fires in Indonesia in 1998 which reached Phuket. A single photo in the New York Times resulted in the cancellations of thousands of tourist bookings. I can only imagine what the impact of the recent media coverage will have on the Thai economy.

All the best, Will

More Explosions In Bangkok Today

Apparently the ‘Red Shirts’ are taking the fight to the airports now. The early hours of Tuesday saw more grenade attacks. This time at the second of two airports the ‘Yellow Shirts’ are occupying here in Bangkok. I don’t know how many grenades were lobbed into the protesters this time. But one protester has been killed and up to 30 wounded. The ‘Yellow Shirts’ announced yesterday they were abandoning their overnight stays at the Prime Minister’s office in favor of focusing on the airports, mostly out of safety concerns. Apparently this move hasn’t worked out as the ‘Yellow Shirts’ had hoped. The violence here in Bangkok continues and I imagine it will intensify in the lead up to tomorrow’s High Court ruling.

Three articles out on today’s news in Bangkok worth reading. The New York Times has good background on the issues before the High Court. The Guardian has a decent, if short, overview. And Paul Watson at the LA Times has a good piece on the role of the King’s Birthday celebrations in relation to the protests and on the role the King has played in the past and what he might possibly do in the current environment. Watson’s reporting on Thailand has been the best I’ve seen so far.

More as it develops.

Bangkok Update

Update: Two articles of note everyone should read. This one from Agonist reader PH. And the other, here which Tina found.

As of right now this is the information I can confirm. Sorry about the garbled nature of last night’s post. I was blogging via iPhone.

There were two explosions about 30 seconds apart last night. After the explosions gunfire erupted. The area of the gunfire was no at Parliament, but at the Prime Ministers office, as I erroneously reported last night. My mistake. First night in Bangkok and still trying to orient myself as to the space of the city. Up to 40 people were wounded and three or four of them seriously. There were two explosions, not one, as the Times reports. I heard them both.

Here is where the politics of the situation lie, as I understand them. One general and one police chief thus far have been fired. The working assumption here is that they were canned because they were unwilling to storm the airport. Pleas note, all of this information is suspect until I can confirm it. My judgment and assessment of the situation may be very incorrect. If there are any readers out there who are in Thailand or Bangkok and have more to add, please do.

There is a very real fear about storming the airport right now because so many of the protesters are middle-aged women. No one in Thailand wants that blood on their hands. The protesters are extremely well organized. Food, medical supplies and water are being brought in regularly to the airport. Furthermore, many in Thailand are very sympathetic to the protesters, even though, the tourist area is suffering–even amidst thousands of stranded tourists. More protesters continue to swarm towards the airport. They are growing in number. This does not bode well for the government. The protesters want the current Prime Minister, Somchai Wongsawat, gone. And fast. The High Court is supposed to rule on the viability of the current coalition government on Wednesday. Before I got here I would not have been surprised if the military or police had stormed the airport. But now it has apparently grown to large and so we wait.

There is a planned rally-cum-protest of government supporters today called the ‘Red Shirts’ that I will endeavor to find. I’m trying to track down the location now. I figure for now this is the best use of my time. I will attempt to make it out to the airport tomorrow or Tuesday.

As for the stranded tourists: some are being ferried out of a military airport here in Bangkok to Singapore, Chiang Mai and other regional airports where they can make connections home. But many also are taking buses and the trains south are booked solid for a week.

I’ll report more soon.

Bangkok: Explosions, Gunfire Into the Night

Just heard what sounded like two large explosions and then several loud bursts of gunfire here in Bangkok. I hear sirens now. Don’t know what is happening. But the gunshots are continuing and getting extremely louder as I type. They are clearly gunshots and coming from the area near parliament. Will report more.

Oh shit. That was loud! Sirens everywhere. Loud gunshots. Oy, this might be serious.

Update: That is confirmed. It is 1223am here in Bangkok. This is the second night of gunfire. The shots have stopped for now. Sirens ring out across the city. I hope to see the airport tomorrow. Will update as things develop. Right now were waiting to see if the High Court Dissolves the government. The PAD seems to have the upper hand and the army is sitting on the sidelines. Very difficult times right now. More soon.

The Road To Phnom Penh: On Border Crossings and Bus Travel

Me and the Mekong FerryOne of the best aspects of traveling by bus is border crossings. No, not the bureaucratic bullshit you have to endure, but the chance to see almost instantaneous changes in culture, architecture and politics. Take the Cambo-Vietnamese border for example: one moment everything is orderly, almost militaristic, clean, surrounded by high-Asian Communist architecture of bland, blocky lines. And the next moment everything is immensely poorer–and Vietnam is not a rich country–and dirtier–and Vietnam is not a clean country. The architecture on the Cambodian side is a crazy blend of Hindu and Buddhist, much more baroque than Thai or even Laotian temples. Everything is now a disorderly free for all and as you pass further into Cambodia the houses change from the well mannered small farms with pens for all the different animals and sheds for farming machines to houses on stilts, thatch roof huts, pigs, chickens, goats and humans all sharing the same space. Whereas agriculture in Vietnam is more mechanized than that in Cambodia this means that water-buffaloes proliferate. So do cows, the Indian kind.

House on WaterA lot of the Cambodian countryside lay fallow too. It’s obviously been farmed before but it has the tell-tale signs of two or possible three decades of neglect. Brambles, thatches and weeds cover an older layer of well plotted paddies that now look like swampy wastes. Seldom is my window view broken by a free holder reclaiming the land. It’s obvious, just by the distress in the countryside that Cambodia is still a broken land, whether it’s ‘killing fields’, UXOs, or the memory of Pol Pot’s atrocities. And the widening disparity between wealth and poverty has grown into a perverted chasm of gluttony and suffering.

As one approaches the city the gap widens again, becoming ever more obvious. Large, huge homes, newly built, sit behind great barricades and fences. Next to the fences shanties and lean-tos betray the needs of unemployed men and youths who gather by as Mercedes’ rush by with armed motorcycle guards. As always, urban poverty is much uglier than its rural cousin. Children with one arm, or both mangled from UXOs are an all too common sight on the streets on Phnom Penh. There aren’t many smiles, as the dark wind of history has only recently blown through Cambodia, it lurks just under the surface. I’ve seen haunted places before, but never an entire society.

Phnom Penh is a dangerous city too. Petty crime is on the rise and tourists are advised to leave all their valuables inside hotel safes. Offers to buy ‘little girls’ are almost as common as those to buy ‘skunk weed’ and ‘heroin.’ The runny noses of addicts, jonesing for their next fix are visible on almost every turn. And even though Cambodia isn’t as intense as India it runs a close second here in the capital. It’s filthy and the smells are less than salubrious, a combination of human, animal and vegetable waste wafts over the city.

As for the provenance of all this grief? Some would point their fingers in righteous anger towards Nixon and Kissinger. But like all historical morality tales it’s just not that simple. One must also look to the Vietnamese who started the chain reaction of Cambodia’s implosion by using the country as a sanctuary on the road to liberating the South, in a sense forcing Nixon’s hand to bomb the country, thus further destabilizing it to the point where a monster like Pol Pot could flourish. Sure, America played its part, but it is far more complicated than the one-off ‘black and white’ narratives which dominate the discussion still.

Meanwhile, back in the capital, a barge fights the strong current of the Tonle Sap, creeping slowly upstream with a cargo of bricks. Colorful flags ripple in the breeze along the waterfront and I’ve ordered too much food. I feel ashamed. I leave two spring rolls on the plate, while not 25 meters away a woman holding a naked child begs.

Cacaphonous shouts ring out. “You want tuk-tuk Mr,” yells one young man. Another says, “Motorbike?” And another asks if I want the ubiquitous ‘skunk weed’ on offer. Lots of construction machinery is everywhere. Making a hell of a racket on the riverfront. But the Tonle Sap ignores it all, flowing relentlessly downstream towards its union with the Mekong and then the South China Sea.

It’s a completely dollarized economy–ATMs dispense dollars and everyone takes them. Naked infants, toddlers and young children run amok. The Cambodians, I think to myself, resemble the Mayans. They are short, stocky, stout and dark. Even the architecture reminds me of some of the big lipped, big eared Olmec statuary of Mexico.

The language shares clear affinities with Thai and Isaan and sounds very, very little like Vietnamese. Words have many more consonant clusters and syllables than Vietnamese, which has a morphology based on mono-syllables.

The Hindu influence, as I have already mentioned is extremely prevalent. Much more so than in Thailand, Laos or Vietnam. It’s like parts of the country have been preserved in amber since the fall of the last great Hindu kingdom in the 14th Century.

Every country has its travel rhythms. Those in Thailand are laid back. You go to the bus station to move from place to place. No hard sell. It’s similar in Laos–except mopeds are difficult to rent in many places. The buses and roads in Laos are atrocious as well. About as bad as Georgia and Ethiopia.

Vietnam was pushy, aggressive–they want to get you from one place to the next, especially as there is always a commission involved. They pick you up at your hotel and take you to the bus. And the buses are nice–comparable to a Greyhound back home. The buses in Thailand run the gamut from awful, as in Laos, to plush, like the VIP cruisers in Mexico. Three rows, a TV and they recline almost like a bed.

In Cambodia, however, travelers are guarded. The fear, while not palpable, isn’t too far from the surface. The buses that make the main travel run, Ho Chi Minh City-Phnom Penh-Siem Reap-Bangkok are nice. They come equipped with a toilet, unlike those in Vietnam and Laos where you are at the mercy of the driver’s bladder not your own. They also collect you at your hotel. All in all, buses are a nice way to travel here in South East Asia, especially with the closure of Bangkok’s airport.

Finally, getting around Phnom Penh is rather easy. The tuk-tuk drivers are always in your face, but as supply way outstrips demand haggling is a breeze. If you walk away they melt, immediately. You can then climb in and drive away to whatever site awaits your attention.