August 2008 Archives

A few family and friends have contacted me to ask me how I am doing in the midst of all of the current political turmoil in Thailand, so I thought I'd write a quick post to say that I am doing OK. Granted, the political atmosphere is a huge mess, but away from the protests downtown in the government quarter, life is going on as normal in the rest of Bangkok.

I have been trying to keep up with what is going on. But as an outsider, this has been a very difficult task. What are the protesters really aiming for? Who is supporting them? Who are the big groups that are struggling for power here? That is basically what this is all about -- a power struggle over who will control the country, and the type of government that will have that power. So who are the big players in this drama?

We have the protesters who say that they want the current government to step down and for radical changes be made to Thailand's system of government. We have the current recently-elected Prime Minister, who so far has shown a surprising amount of restraint, but refuses to budge. We have the police who have tried unsuccessfully to break up the protests (but also are being very restrained in the face of a very difficult situation). We have the military, who have their own motives and power spheres to protect. And we have the symbol that the palace represents, and who everyone mentions in their rally cries.

The AP published a very interesting article called "Thai protest alliance not so happy with democracy" that seems to cut through the confusion and explain what is going on to the layman. I pulled out some of the interesting parts:

Saying that Western-style democracy has allowed corruption to flourish, the protesters have said they hope to repeat their success of two years ago, when they helped topple former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra...

"After the current government is ousted, we will propose a totally new political system with those corrupt guys prosecuted and we will have a clean and efficient political system," protest leader Sondhi Limthongkul told The Associated Press...

The "new political system" Sondhi is referring to includes a Parliament that made up of members of whom 30% are elected and 70% are appointed. What is the reasoning behind this thinking? As the article explains:

The protesting alliance and its sympathizers -- monarchists, the military and the urban elite -- complain that Western-style democracy of one man, one vote gives too much weight to Thailand's rural majority, whom they consider unsophisticated and susceptible to vote buying.

In such a system, they say, money politics fuels corruption and bad governance.

I'll leave the analysis of Sondhi's quotes as an exercise for the reader.

(The AP article was brought to my attention by the Bangkok Pundit blog, which I have been continuously refreshing in my browser over the past few days.)

What If I Never Moved to Thailand?


Chris asked me an interesting question in a comment on this site a while back. I was talking about how I just celebrated my 6th anniversary in Thailand. He asked: "Amazing how one decision opens a whole new series of doors and opportunities in life. Do you ever wonder where you would be in your life had you not chosen to move to Thailand?"

And my answer? Yes, I do think about that often. Although my life in the US was good in many ways, I think that moving to Thailand and living here for six years has made my life even fuller. I feel very lucky to have experienced the things that I have.

I think we can all look back at our lives and see crossroads where there were decisions that we made that impacted the rest of our lives. For me, choosing what university to go to as an 18-year old -- should I go to 250-year old, 1,500 student Washington and Lee, or 40,000-student Home of the Fighting Florida Gators -- was a huge decision that affected my life. There is no doubt that if I had gone to UF, my life would have turned out differently for many reasons.

Perhaps another big decision point was choosing what graduate school to attend. I chose NC State, perhaps partly for the wrong reasons, but it was there where I got my life back on track and put me on the path I am on today. The work I did there as a student a decade ago has a direct link to the work that I am doing today. If I had never made that decision, I wonder where I would be now. I have a feeling it would not be a better place.

And moving to Thailand was of course a life-altering event as well. I came here not knowing what I was getting myself into, and not understanding anything around me. Everything I saw was new: new food, new locations, new faces, new friends, new rules, new standards. It has taken a long time for the exotic to shift into the normal and, without me realizing it, I put down roots like I never had before.

So back to the question posed: Do I ever wonder where I would be if my life if I had not chosen to move to Thailand? I would probably still be in San Francisco as I was before. Eventually, the dot-com industry picked up after the bust and I would have found a job very similar to what I was doing before. I'm sure my job would have been well-paid and enjoyable, and I am sure that I would have been surrounded by fun, creative, interesting people both in and out of the office. I am sure that I would be enjoying the beautiful Northern California terrain, I'd be eating at fabulous restaurants and my wine cellar would be of monumental proportions by now.

But at the same time, there was something missing when my life was like that. I was restless, yearning for some freedom or some environment or some experience that I didn't yet have. I still don't know exactly what it was that I was looking for, but I seem to have found it here in Thailand.

And looking ahead, I wonder what decisions will be coming up. I like the idea of a crossroads in one's life, even though it is very scary when you don't have any idea what is actually down the road you are choosing. But perhaps there are more life-changing decisions still ahead of me? Who knows?

Work Permits for Beggars, Part 2

This is a follow-up to the Work Permits for Beggars post that I wrote yesterday. I was compelled to write it after reading someone else's take on the situation.

I have been thinking more about the proposed law to deal with homeless beggars on the streets of Bangkok. It seems to me that the point is not to make sure that all homeless people have ID cards and work permits. Hopefully the government knows that this is impossible. Some of these people can barely keep up with their clothes, let alone ID documents.

I think the main point of the law is to crack down on the exploitation of others. As I said yesterday, I have heard that some beggars are put on the streets and forced to beg by others who simply take the majority of the money collected. This is especially evident around Siam and MBK, where I see the same beggars year after year, except that every year or so they get a new baby to hold or a new puppy dog all in the hopes of eliciting sympathy from Thai shoppers or farang tourists.

I don't know the details about Thai law on this subject, but perhaps they are closing a loophole or getting this kind of language in the code of law so that they can go after those who exploit others for their own gain in this way. I think that these people are who the law is directed at, not at the elderly or the physically or mentally disabled that I see on the streets every day.

At least I hope that is the case.

Work Permits for Beggars

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Like most big cities in the world, Bangkok has its share of people begging on the streets. It seems to be focused in the Silom/Sukumvit business district, and although it is not as big a problem as other cities (San Francisco, I'm looking at you), it seems to me like I have been seeing more and more begging this year than before.

I have heard rumors that many of the beggars are actually Cambodian or Burmese. Other rumors say that the people are placed on the street by individuals who use them to make money for themselves. I don't have any proof to back up these rumors, but they seem entirely possible to me.

In any case, there was an interesting article in the Bangkok Post today that said that a new law is being drafted that will require beggars to register with the government, so that the government can make sure that they are "qualified" to beg, with qualifications including being disabled, or elderly with no children to take care of them. (There are a few heartbreaking old grandmas, and a few guys who have terribly distorted bodies from who knows what malady who beg for money near my office. Very sad.)

The article, called "Qualified people only may apply", was written by Anucha Charoenpo and is reprinted here:

Being a beggar will not be so easy anymore if draft legislation approved by the cabinet yesterday becomes law. The bill proposed by the Human Security and Social Development Ministry sets conditions for people who want to be beggars.

They must provide proof they are underprivileged, disabled, homeless or elderly without children to care for them. And this will be a reserved occupation, exclusively for Thais who must carry ID cards.

Would-be professional beggars will have to report to local administration organisations for approval and work permits.

Local agencies will be responsible for controlling beggars in their jurisdictions, while the Social Development and Welfare Department will have special centres to help them and programmes to care for them.

Those who force other people to beg, or exploit them, will be liable to criminal punishment, deputy government spokeswoman Suparat Nakboonnam said.

Passing the legislation into law would help the authorities get rid of the large number of foreign beggars in the country, she said. The bill will soon be handed to the government whips and then go to parliament for approval.

If passed, it will replace the 1941 Begging Control Act, which is outdated and begging for a makeover, Ms Suparat said.

So if this bill passes, does that mean there's going to be a round-up of beggars who do not meet the requirements of the job? Or will this just be another ignored, unenforced Thai law?

The Bejing and Seoul Olympics


I don't remember watching much of the Athens Olympics in 2004 on TV. I was living in Bangkok at that time, and I might not have even had a TV. (And looking back at a previous post on this site from four years ago, I was right, I didn't see much!)

But this year I have been able to catch a little bit of the action. We watched the fantastic Opening Ceremonies (it's amazing what you can do with millions of dollars and thousands of people) and a few events here and there. Last weekend I had the pleasure of joining Piyawat's family for some beach time at Pranburi for a few days. It rained most of the time, but we weren't complaining because there was plenty of great Olympic action to watch on TV.

Unfortunately, though, I haven't seen any of Michael Phelps races, or any swimming for that matter. Too bad Thailand doesn't have any swimmers competing. (I've seen plenty of boxing and weightlifting, on the other hand.) I always enjoy watching swimming on the Olympics because it reminds me of my past swimming days with Olympic athletes.

Back in 1988, the Olympics were in Seoul, and three of my team mates from my local team were swimming for the US. It was such a thrill to watch people that you had trained with every day for years take part in the biggest sporting event in the world.

One of the girls from my team, 16-year old Beth Barr, was awarded a silver medal in one of the relays, coming in second to a powerful East German team. I am not sure that I realized it at the time, but in a sad twist, the East German team later admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs for years, but their medals were never taken from them.

I just learned about this (or at least it was brought to my attention last week) in a "Where are they now?" article about Beth Barr in my hometown newspaper. It's called Losing her Seoul. Washington grad reflects on the empty feeling left by 1988 Olympic Games. And here is another, somewhat more positive, yet still pretty heavy short piece from NPR called Former U.S. Olympians: Then And Now

These articles were definitely an eye-opening read, as I didn't realize Beth's Olympic memories were not as shiny as the silver medal around her neck.

Personal car, taxi, train, boat, motorcycle, train, tuk-tuk, motorcycle, boat, tuk-tuk, bus, taxi, skytrain, motorcycle.

Those are the modes of transportation (in order) that we took on a long day-trip out of Bangkok last weekend.

My friends Eric and Kevin were in town (from San Francisco and Dubai, respectively) and they wanted to get out of Bangkok and see something new. So I took them and Eric's Thai friend Yun on the famous "Train to Nowhere" that I have mentioned before (with a few pictures of my trip two years ago), and then went to see the fireflies near the Floating Night Market at Ampawa.

We started our day with a big breakfast at Bug and Bee on Silom (love those Belgian Waffles!) and then taxied over to the Thonburi train station at Wong Wian Yai. From there, the 10-baht (30 cents), one-hour train ride took us out of Bangkok to Maha Chai, in Samut Sakorn province.

We exited the train in the big Maha Chai market but were only half-way to our destination. To continue the trip, we had to cross a river on a ferry, and then catch the next train on the other side of the river for another 10-baht, one-hour ride to the end of the line at Mae Klong, in Samut Songkram province.

The best part about this train ride is that the end of the line goes through the middle of the the Mae Klong market. And I do mean the middle! The narrow pathway through the market is actually the train tracks, and so produce and fresh meat are literally inches away from the train as it slowly passes through the stands. I took a video of this amazing "only in Thailand" event and will try to post it here soon.

Unfortunately Kevin decided to head back to Bangkok at this point (I guess that was enough adventure for him) and so the three of us (Eric, Yun, and I) put him on a bus and then hailed a tuk-tuk and went for a delicious outdoors seafood lunch on the Gulf of Thailand at Don Hoi Lot.

So far on this trip, I had been playing tour guide as I had been to these places a few times before. But our next stop was a new destination for me - the Anpawa Floating Market. After filling up on fish, shrimp, squid and beer, we made our way over to Anpawa on motorcycle taxis. Luckily for us, it was a holiday weekend, so there was a huge street fair in addition to the usual activities at the market. What fun!

This floating market is famous for the night-time boat rides through the canals to see the fireflies. I had heard about this for some time, but this was my first chance to see them for myself. And even though I have fond memories of chasing fireflies on hot summer nights in Florida, I have to admit it was pretty cool to see them here in Thailand. All along the canal, hundreds of fireflies would be illuminating certain bushes. And the amazing thing about it was that the fireflies would blink in rhythm, making the entire bush blink on and off in perfect time. It was as if someone had strung up and plugged in some Christmas lights.

The only problem with our trip was that we were not really sure exactly how we were going to get back to Bangkok. Around 7:30 PM, someone told us that the last bus went back at 7. Opps. But mai bpen rai we decided to live in the moment and worry about how to get home whenever we were ready to go.

And amazingly, a few hours later, it worked out fine. We just caught a tuk-tuk out to the main highway that leads to southern Thailand, and waited for about 10 minutes before waving down a bus on the way to Bangkok. Of course, when I am in a bus on a long road trip, I hate it when it stops to pick up random passengers on the side of the road. Just take me to my destination ASAP please! But this night, for once, I was glad that hitch-hiking on buses is possible in Thailand.

When I was on Ko Si Chang on Saturday, I took a few videos that I'll share here. (This is the first time I have ever uploaded anything to YouTube, so I hope it works!)

The first video was taken from the big Chinese Temple and is looking out over the Gulf of Thailand back towards the mainland. Ko Si Chang is about 10 kilometers from Thailand's biggest port at Laem Chabang. It was amazing how many huge ships were docked here.

The 47-second video below shows some of the ships, and the main town of Ko Si Chang, and finished on the boat pier where I missed my first ferry and had to buy another ticket for the second one. In the background, you can hear monks chanting from the Thai temple below the temple I was in. You can also here the constant din that all of the boat traffic is making. It's definitely not as peaceful here as when King Rama V came here for rest and relaxation!

Once on the ferry, I witnessed something I have never seen before. There were several young boys (around 10-12 years old, perhaps) playing in the water around the boat. They soon started yelling at the passengers to throw coins into the water. When the coins were thrown, the boys would dive for them. Each one of them must have made 30 baht (US$1) or so. Not bad for fun and games when you're 10.

Here's a ten second video of a couple of the boys competing for the sinking coins. The first boy gives up, but the second boy stays under a bit longer and comes up with the prize.

We got an early start today, as Piyawat had an early flight to Phuket for a business trip. I dutifully took him to the airport, and then hit the road to do some sightseeing for the day.

And let me just say this: Highway 7 that starts at the end of Rama 9 road and goes past the airport and on towards Pattaya is without a doubt the best road in Thailand. It's so nice to drive at normal "highway speeds" and not worry about noodle carts or dogs or chickens or little children to run out on front of your car. The two 30-baht (US$1) tolls I had to pay were well worth it!

My first destination was the island of Ko Si Chang, which is located off the coast of the town of Si Racha, about 100 kilometers from Bangkok. The island was the favored get-away resort of King Rama V, who ruled Thailand from 1868 to 1910. The King built a huge golden teak palace here. After the French took the island in 1893, he ordered the palace to be dismantled and moved to Bangkok, where it is now called the Vimanmek Mansion. According to various websites, it is the largest golden teak building in the world. I can't imagine how many millions of dollars it would cost to build today.

I learned all of this from museums that are setup in various 100-year-old Victorian style buildings spread around the palace grounds. I had had a great time exploring and reading about the turn of the century (1900s, that is) royal family.

I continued on my hike up and down the mountainous terrain of the island, visiting a few beaches along the way. I more or less walked continuously from reaching the island at 10 AM until I left at 5 PM. And I have to say that the island was much more beautiful and peaceful than I expected.

It was a very cloudy day, so I also was not expecting to get a sunburn on my face and neck. I stupidly forgot to wear the hat I was carrying around, and only later in the evening did I realize my mistake. I am definitely kicking myself for that!

There was more that I wanted to explore, but around 3:00 PM (after five hours of hiking the mountains) I started getting very tired and decided to head back to the mainland. I bought a 60 baht ($US 2) ticket for the ferry and asked when the ferry was leaving. I was told 4 PM. Perfect, I thought. I'll go rest my weary legs and drink a beer to ease the pain.

I was back at the pier feeling much better at 3:50, only to be told that the boat had already left. The next boat was at 5:00. Feeling energized (or is it numbed?) by the beer, I decided to visit the huge Chinese style temple on top of the mountain next to the pier. And I have to say I am glad I had the chance to go, as it was an interesting temple and had the best views of the island.

Not taking any chances, I was back at the pier at 4:40. But when I showed my ticket I was told that it was for a different boat company. Their next boat left at 6:00. But if I wanted to go now, I would have to buy another 60 baht ticket. By this time I was really ready to go, so I just smiled and shelled out another 60 baht.

And unbelievably, the boat left the pier at 4:45 -- fifteen minutes early. So, if you ever go to Ko Si Chang, make sure you buy the right ticket, and make sure you are at the pier early!

Eventually we made it back to the mainland, and I drove another 30 kilometers to Pattaya, where I ate at my all-time favorite Italian restaurant in Asia. Their specialty (or, at least the dish I always order) is Pasta Carbonara and it is absolutely heavenly. It is so rich that there's no doubt I went back to Bangkok a few kilos heavier.

I left Pattaya at 9:30 and was back at the airport to pick up Piyawat by 11:00. (Again, thanks to that awesome highway!) I was exhausted and sore and sunburned, but so very fat and happy after a great little day-trip.

Siem Reap Airport


A few weeks ago someone sent me an email to say that they had seen my photos from my trips to Siem Reap, and wanted to send an update on the new airport. Here is the picture that I posted, on August 15, 2002, along with the caption, "Beautiful Siem Reap International Airport welcomed us to Cambodia after a quick 30 minute flight from Bangkok. They are currently building a new modern terminal, and expect to have 4 million passengers a year by 2012."

And here is the picture that I was sent by email a few weeks ago, along with this message: "I was there in March this year & this is what the new airport looks like - Arrivals on the left & departures on the right as seen from the airside."


Quite an improvement, isn't it? (You can click on the pic for a really big version.)

So until I started writing this post and looking back at my pictures from Angkor Wat, did I realize that today is my 6th Anniversary of moving to Thailand. Mark and I went to Angkor a few days after I arrived in Thailand and it turned out to be one of the best trips of my life. Some of the photos (that I was just looking through) still stick very clearly in my mind. Here are a few of my favorites:

I can't believe that six years have gone by already. What an amazing ride this has been!

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This page is an archive of entries from August 2008 listed from newest to oldest.

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