Sunday, February 23, 2014

Chang Mai

Last weekend we took a 5 day trip to Chang Mai and Mae Hong Son provinces with another teacher that Mary works with and her husband.  Friday was a public holiday and we left early in the morning on the air conditioned express train to Chang Mai.  The day train was a good way to see the Thai countryside, but rice fields start to all look the same on a 13 hours train ride.  Next time we'll either fly or take the overnight train.

On Saturday morning we headed out with Pooh Eco-Trekking for two days in the mountains with the Karen hill tribe.  We drove 3 hours west of Chang Mai to Mae Hong Son province and were dropped off with our guide in the remote mountains near the Myanmar (Burma) border.

The pictures below are near the end of the road where we started our trek.

We hiked through mountain forests, dormant rice fields (it's the dry season), and through tranquil streams.  While we hiked, our guide Tee showed us how to make basic traps to catch fish and small animals and even made us cups and spoons out of bamboo for us to use in the village.

We saw and sampled local plants used by the Karen people.  A few of these are shown below.  Clockwise starting at the top left are chili peppers, morning glory (stems make a good stir fry, flowers contain a sweet nectar), tobacco, and coffee.

We arrived in the village just before sunset, exhausted but happy.

We had wonderful green curry and stir fried vegetables for supper with Tee and our host family.  The locally grown mix of white and brown rice was some of the best I've had.  We even got to sample some home made rice liquor.

We slept on the porch under a mosquito net.  It was quite chilly in the morning (we could see our breath) and enjoyed warming up around a fire with our host family before setting out for another day of hiking.

Day two of hiking involved a lot more water.  While the morning started out cool the day warmed quickly and it was nice having river water around to keep cool.  After the initial descent from the village we hiked along a river for the morning.

The afternoon portion of the hike was my favorite as we hiked up a rushing stream through dense jungle on our way to cave.

The cave was really neat (and a bit scary).  The cave is a tunnel that has been naturally carved by the stream. Tee and a local villager who hiked with us carried bamboo torches through the cave.  While the torches provided light, Tee explained that the primary purpose for the torches was for defense against potentially deadly snakes.  We did see a green pit viper in the cave, but thankfully it was a safe distance away curled up on a rock ledge along the wall of the cave.

After the cave we hiked up to our extraction point at the end of a bumpy dirt road to begin our ride back to Chang Mai.

The trek was one of the most amazing experiences we've had and I would highly recommend Pooh Eco-Trekking to anyone visiting Chang Mai.  It was physically challenging, so make sure you're in decent shape before doing this.

We still had one more day in Chang Mai, and after a good night of sleep we rented bicycles and explored the city.  Compared to Bangkok, Chang Mai seems very calm and laid back.  It was quite an enjoyable city and we hope to go back sometime, even if just for a weekend.

Political Update

Last weekend Mary and I made a trip to Chang Mai and Mae Hong Son Provinces.  I'll give a detailed update on that soon, but first I want to update some key events from the ongoing political unrest in Thailand.

The political situation is still quite tense here, but protest areas can still be avoided..  The government has become increasingly desperate in it's attempts to end the political crisis.  At the same time the protesters have been increasingly angered by the governments actions which seems to be adding additional energy to the protests.

Recent Violence
The government launched a campaign to retake control of a number of protest sites earlier this week.  This resulted in violence breaking out on Tuesday at the Phan Fah Bridge near Democracy Monument in Bangkok.  6 people died (1 police officer, 5 protesters) and 63 were injured.

There have also been almost daily grenade attacks near protest sites.  On Friday night 5 people were injured when a hand grenade was thrown into a group of cars near the Pathumwan protest site.
Last night a political rally in the south eastern province of Trat was attacked by gunmen.  The causality numbers are not firm yet, but reports right now indicate 2 dead and 41 injured.  At least 1 of the deaths was a young girl who was helping her grandmother wash dishes at a noodle stall outside of the protest and was hit in the head by a stray bullet.  Very sad.

Angry Rice Farmers
Rural rice farmers who are considered the voting support base of the current government are becoming increasingly upset as well.  The government's rice subsidy scheme is out of money and many farmers who supplied rice to the government under the scheme have not been paid.  The government has tried to secure loans to pay the farmers, but nobody is willing to lend money to the troubled government.

Farmers from west of Bangkok have been in the city protesting for weeks now.  Additional farmers from North of Bangkok attempted to make their way into the city this week.  However, government officials met them outside the city and convinced them to turn back.  How exactly this went down is a topic of debate in Bangkok right now.  Why they turned back is not clear, but the farmers have stated that if they are not paid soon they will return.

This did have a direct impact on my commute on Thursday and Friday as their were thousands of tractors blocking the highway that I take to work in Ayutthaya province.  I was able to detour on much slower secondary roads.

Boycott of Shinawatra Family Businesses
The Shinawatra family (prime minister) is one of Thailand's wealthiest families and protesters are now using the tactic of boycotting any Shinawatra linked businesses and have been leading marches to protest outside these businesses.  I understand the intent of this, but the execution of this plan has sometimes been misguided.  For example, Thailand's largest mobile phone service provider, AIS, was previously owned by the Shinawatras and is being targeted by protesters even though the family sold the company years ago.

A Court Ruling
There was a court ruling at the end of this week that didn't get much international press coverage, but could be significant for how things play out in the coming days and weeks.  After the violence on Tuesday, the courts clarified that the government can not use force to break up non-violent protests.  On the surface this seems good, but it could have unintended consequences.  In fact I think this has the potential to make the situation much more dangerous and unstable.  Why you ask?  The government has been turning to the police to control things so far, but this ruling really limits their ability to rely on the police.  It's unlikely the government will just let the protests continue unchecked.  There are people in the ruling government party with known (or strongly suspected) ties to underground criminal networks (Thai mafia).  Criminal gangs being paid to terrorize protesters becomes a strong possibility with police power being limited and the a government becoming increasingly cornered.

For now life continues as normal for us, but we do have emergency plans in place in case they are needed.

Finally, on a lighter note, here's one way to transport a bamboo ladder.  What could possibly go wrong?

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Weekend Update

It has been a mostly quiet week for protests.  Three protest sites have been completely shut down (Lad Phrao, Victory Monument, Rama VIII Bridge).  There are still four stages in central Bangnkok quite close to our condo though.  Protest numbers during the day are quite small, but people are continuing to come out in the evenings.  There have been a number of small bombings late at night (fireworks and hand grenades), but only a few minor injuries.  These seem to be aimed at causing intimidation rather than injury.

The most serious incident this week happened just down the street from us when a confused motorist accidentally turned past a roadblock onto a closed road and sped down the empty street toward a protest site late at night.  He figured out he made a wrong turn when protest guards opened fire on his car injuring him and his passenger.

Mary and I have mostly been avoiding protest sites, but at times this is difficult.  This morning we took care of a number of errands that we have been putting off for a while due to protests.  In the process we passed through all four of the main protest sites in Bangkok's main business district (Asoke, Ratchaprasong, Phathumwan, and Lumpini).  We even caught another glimpse of protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban given a passionate speech just down the road from our condo by Lumpini Park.

When the protests first started, markets started to pop up in protest areas selling shirts, whistles, hats, and food to protesters.  We've noticed that these markets have evolved greatly over the past weeks and are now essentially large street markets for all sorts of merchandise and services. Below is a list of some market stalls we observed while walking between Ratchaprasong and Pathumwan today.  Some are protest related, but most are certainly not.

  • Protest shirts, whistles, hats, etc
  • Food and drinks
  • Thai massage or foot massage (in a chair or on mat in the street)
  • Shoes, Dress shirts, Ties
  • Watches
  • Lamps
  • Masks: Batman, Joker, Nixon, Obama, etc
  • Bras, panties, lingerie
  • Fishing poles
  • Pottery
  • Bunnies

It makes me wonder if the "Bangkok Shutdown" is still about politics, or is it just turning into a profitable new street market?

Here is a map of the current protest / market sites near our condo.

In other news, Thailand's roads continue to be much more deadly than the political protests.  I regularly see traffic accidents, often with fatalities while commuting to Ayutthaya.  I rarely mention these as they are just an everyday part of life here, but one accident this week was particularly horrific and made headlines in Bangkok.  A truck carrying a loaded shipping container lost control on an elevated expressway.  The truck stayed on the elevated road (that I take every day), but the container on the truck crashed over the side onto the busy road below.  A commuter van was completely flattened.  It had just dropped off a load of passengers, thus the van driver was the only fatality.  It could have been a lot worse.

Finally, Bangkok bid farewell to the legendary Lumpini Muaythai Boxing Stadium last night.  The final fight was packed with people wishing to bid farewell to the 58 year old venue.  The stadium is across the street from our condo and we have enjoyed going to watch the world class fights here a number of times.  A new larger stadium in suburban Bangkok will take it's place.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Election Day

Thailand held elections today.  There was no major violence, although some polling stations were blocked by protesters, did not have ballots, or did not have election officials show up.  Overall 89% of the polling stations across the country were open.  People who were not able to vote were rather upset in many cases, and it is possible the election may end up being ruled invalid in the courts.

Saturday leading up to the election was not quite as peaceful.  There were a number of small bombings, and a rather significant shooting incident when pro and anti government demonstrators clashed.  7 people were wounded, including an American journalist.  Nobody was killed.

Mary and I took this weekend as a good opportunity to get out of Bangkok.  We drove down to the beach town of Hua Hin after work on Friday night.  We enjoyed time at the beach, good food, drink, and even a stop at the historic train station.

There was a ban on alcohol sales from 6PM Saturday through midnight on Sunday.  This bar chose to follow the law, although their communication on why they were closed was just a hair off the mark.

Protests are expected to continue this week. We will keep you updated.