More high Thai political drama as Constitutional Court dissolves party

Thailand passed another critical point Wednesday evening in the path from democracy through military government and, hopefully, back to democracy.  In an painfully long eleven-hour court session, the Constitutional Court (a combination of nine high-ranking judges including the three from Thailand’s Supreme Court) read the entire election tampering cases against the Democrat and Thai Rak Thai political parties.  

At stake: the possible dissolution of the two largest political parties and the banning of their executives from any political activity for the next five years.

This is a highly complex story because what it essentially involves is a military government (the CNS) conducting a coup to overthrow a democratically elected government (Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party), on charges that the Thaksin government had undermined democratic processes in interfering with the April 2006 election.  The CNS then instructed the Constitutional Court to look into these accusations (against Thai Rak Thai as well as accusations against the Democrats), which is what Wednesday’s ruling was on.

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Above: Split screen coverage on all local channels.  On the right, one of the judges reads the case.  On the upper left, a live view from the Democrat party headquarters.  On the lower left, a live view from the Thai Rak Thai party headquarters.  Throughout the show, channel 5 provided English-language updates scrolling across the bottom of the screen.

There had been widely-reported fears of violence, protests, and a possible counter-coup.  It turned out later that the hysteria around this was largely the result of comments by the CNS about how ready they were to maintain the peace.  Both parties had made very public statements that their members were to respect the rule of law regardless of the outcome of the court cases.

During the early part of the court cases, the CNS sent a message through all mobile phone providers reminding people to respect the King’s teachings and the rule of law.

The result of the ruling: the Democrats were cleared of all charges.  Thai Rak Thai was found guilty of interfering with democracy and will be dissolved.  Additionally, 111 of the top executives of the Thai Rak Thai party were barred from any political activities for the next five years.

Confused yet? 

To make it a little more confusing, let’s consider the concept that is widely being discussed here in Thailand: that of “rule by law” versus “rule of law”.  The latter is the standard formula of there being widely accepted laws and judgements are derived from them.  The former is that there is someone in charge and since they have power, judgements are derived from that power.

Quoting an op-ed piece in the Nation,

The judgement is legally valid, subject to what the conception of law is. If the law refers to an order of the ruler, the judgement by the Constitution Tribunal is unquestionable but legally unnecessary. If law means a popular consensus, the punishment that was based on the orders of the coup-makers is questionable, but politically necessary and important in ensuring that the politics of fear continue to work as the dominant theme in Thai politics so that those in power now will continue ruling the country.

Can a government who has subverted the rule of law, then use those same laws to prosecute the democratically-elected government it overthrew?

In either case, the strange case of Thai politics continues.  The former leaders of Thai Rak Thai, at least those not banned from politics, vow to regroup.  The Democrats, who have historically been less friendly towards the military – or at least, less influenced by them – look to have an advantage in any elections scheduled for later this year. 

One wonders whether the CNS will partner with selected Thai Rak Thai members to build their own popular party, minus Thaksin, who was seen as exerting too much control over the military.  

What fascinating times.

 


 

In other news, our friend Anthony was visiting from the Bay Area last night with his friend Francis.  We joined them for dinner at Cafe de Laos, a nice Lao-style restaurant on Silom Soi 19.  Ever the thoughtful visitor, Anthony brought us a box of Japanese tea cakes from his stop-over in Japan. 

 

Unidentifiable objects come from skillet

In my continuing quest to cook new and intersting things, yesterday I decided to bake a batch of Whole Wheat English Muffins.  These combine breakfast convenience with the health benefits of whole grains, so why not?

The first challenge I encountered was the whole wheat flour.  I had purchased it less than a month ago but upon opening the package noticed a musty odor and what looked like small spots of mold.  For about a minute I carefully observed it, poking with a fork, sniffing, looking carefully.  It certainly seemed less dry than it should.

Finally, I decided to throw the whole wheat out and instead changed the recipe to Regular White Wheat with a Half Cup of Wheat Germ Thrown in for Good Measure English Muffins.

DSCF8675 The recipe said the dough would be a little sticky.  How “little” is a little?  Because it was sticky.  Maybe substituting regular flour for the whole wheat was causing the dough to be a little… thin?  Is that the right word?  I patted it out to about 1/2-inch thick per the instructions, but wound up with 18 muffins instead of the 12 the recipe said it would make, using the 3-inch diameter biscuit cutter, per instructions. 

Resting on a baking tray, they rose beautifully but when I tried to remove them they stuck so much that the handling caused them to deflate.  What I put into the pan looked and acted more like a sticky pancake.  When they baked they started to look more like real English muffins except for the ragged inconsistency in shape, but they never really puffed up and gained any volume.

The finished product tasted good enough but the muffins were too flat to actually split.  And isn’t that the defining characteristing of an English muffin?  You split it with a fork and then toast it.

Maybe this weekend I can take another attempt at the recipe.  This time with some whole wheat flour, as it was written.

Below: Chris and Tehlin with their children, celebrating Samuel’s third birthday.  I find it very funny how Chris and Tehlin are looking one way, the children the other.  Proof that parents and children never look at things the same way.

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There’s rain like you’ve never seen… unless you’re Thai

DSCF8655 After a week of searingly hot weather, with clear skies lacking the clouds that provide a little bit of shade, Sunday afternoon the pattern broke and we had a tremendous afternoon thunderstorm. 

Then again Monday afternoon, the clouds gathered, the sky became darker and darker and then like someone tipping over a giant bucket, the rains cut loose.

No rainstorm releases so much energy, so intensely, as a tropical thunderstorm.  From the twenty-fifth floor I was watching the sheets of rain as they gusted and eddied, the wind whipping the rain around the corners of buildings and sometimes carrying it back up instead of letting gravity take its due course.

All but the closest buildings disappeared in the clouds and rain.  Even though it was only four in the afternoon, it looked nearly as dark as night.

DSCF8643 And then the lightning and thunder!  I could hear the storm cell approach as the baritone rumbles came more closely after the heavenly camera bulb flash of lightning until finally, they were nearly one in the same.  As if from the sound of the sky itself being torn asunder, the windows rattled from another roaring boom as the storm passed right overhead.

As it moved east, I stepped onto the balcony and watched the Tesla ballet of lightning connect heaven and earth again and again.  Thirty or forty minutes after the flood gates had opened, enough energy had been released to appease nature and the clouds dissipated.  A vibrant orange light reflected off the newly-scrubbed buildings as the sun, now lower in the west, bathed the damp city in its warm glow.

As the sun set, all of Khrungthep enjoyed a broad palette of blues, purples and indigoes and an exceedingly crisp view across a normal obscured city.

Here’s a short video I edited in an attempt to capture the sensation of the storm:

Weekend Rain storm doesn’t dampen cooking ambitions

395000008403_0_BG Happy Memorial Day to all of you in the United States.  I’ll not be taking today as a holiday since it isn’t a holiday in Thailand.  Instead, I’ll wait for the end of June, when Tawn and I will have a three-day weekend in Hong Kong.

It has been a full weekend, full enough so that I haven’t taken the time to blog.  Let me give you the highlights.

First, though, let’s have a cute picture.  This is Devin, the son of high school friend Lalima and her husband Aaron.  They regularly send us albums and we love it: such a good way to stay in touch. 

 

Size Doesn’t Matter: initial GLBT networking event small but successful

Friday evening was the first of what will hopefully be monthly networking events at Tamarind Cafe, a vegetarian restaurant and gallery on Sukhumvit Soi 20.  There is a noticeable gap when it comes to places to socialize for members of the international GLBT/GLBT-friendly community: most of these places are nightclubs or nightclub-adjacent facilities in the Silom district.  There are few places to socialize that aren’t bars or nightclubs.

tamarind In an attempt to close that gap, to create more spaces for a broader community to develop, the French and Chinese co-owners of Tamarind Cafe decided to advertise monthly Friday night mixers.  For the price of a glass of wine or other beverage, you get a cozy environment, music volumes low enough to actually engage in conversation, and a wide selection of tasty appetizers. 

The first night’s crowd was a little light – Kobfa, Tawn and I met for dinner at the restaurant and were joined a short while later by Ben, who runs the Windsor Hotel just down the street and had informed the rest of us of the event.  When we gravitated to the second-floor gallery for the mixer, there were only four other people but it is upon these small steps that a marathon is run.

As it turned out, one of the other people, an American woman named Roka, was someone I had met a few weeks ago online.  We had exchanged emails so it was interesting that we should connect at this event.  I guess it gets bonus points for efficacy.

As for the restaurant, while it is just a little pricey (nice night out prices, not everyday dining) the food is well-prepared.  Co-owner Sylvie Bruzeau is French and so she takes European techniques to a mostly pan-Asian list of ingredients.  All the food is vegetarian with an eye to high quality ingredients.  The menu also features some Thai dishes, done fancy.  The interior is very nice, service is attentive, and they have an extensive breakfast menu so one of these weekends Tawn and I will be back for brunch.

 

Thai house construction techniques look flimsy to this Californian

Determined not to have a crazy weekend of deadlines and checklists, we started Saturday on a relaxed note.  We stopped at the Emporium food court for lunch amidst hundreds of families with crying/screaming/fussing children.  Then we went to a small framing shop in one of the sois behind Thong Lor so Tawn could get some Herb Ritts and Annie Liebowitz postcards framed.  Already an afternoon coffee break was called for, so we stopped at Big C center on Ekkamai.  Tawn decided to have a manicure while I wrote some letters over a latte. 

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DSCF8633 It was while walking back to the car that I observed a building under construction next to the shopping center.  The construction style is interesting and, it seems, very typical of the technique used in Thailand for small buildings such as temples, houses and businesses. 

The framing is built of reinforced concrete beams including the ridge, primary rafters, collar ties, and ceiling joists.  To construct it, wooden forms have to be built and then concrete is poured in (on an angle) and allowed to set before the forms are removed.  Additional steel rafters are installed between the concrete ones to provide support for the roof. 

I’m not sure why I’m so fascinated with the construction techniques used here.  Maybe because of the architectural studies I took in high school.  Or maybe just because the construction looks so flimsy to my un-trained, non-engineering eye.  Especially with the recent earthquakes we’ve had here, I have to wonder whether these types of buildings could withstand any seismic activity.

 

Rain’s fans cause traffic nightmare

rain 1 From Ekkamai we drove to Central Chidlom to run some more errands and buy groceries for dinner.  What a mess!  Who knew that Korean pop star Rain was giving a free concert at Siam Paragon shopping center to generate excitement (as if more were needed) about his two Khrungthep concerts next weekend?  Traffic along Phetchaburi Road was a mess and it took us nearly ninety minutes to get from Asoke to Chidlom, a distance of maybe 5 kilometers. 

As a side note: Rain’s US website homepage reads “Endless effort, endless endurance, endless modesty.”  Endless traffic, more like.

Cha Cha Cha Shrimp After the madness, we decided that home was the best place to spend the evening, so Tawn cooked salmon and snow peas in Chuu Chee curry and I made a Cajun shrimp dish from the Cha Cha Cha cookbook.

This gave us lots of tasty suaces to be sopped up with a loaf of rustic rye bread and washed down with a bottle of TarraWarra Estate 2006 Pinot Noir Rose.

 

Ajarn Yai calls to announce the start of school

While preparing dinner, I received a call from Ajarn Yai.  When she found that I was cooking dinner at 9:00 in the evening, she expressed concern that I was eating so late.  I wondered whether this was the real reason she was calling.  Eventually, she arrived at the reason for the call.  A date has been set for school to start: Monday June 4th.  The first day for English instruction will be Wednesday June 6th.

All of you people out there who have helped / are considering helping with the English instruction, mark your calendars! 

 

Designer advises several months of renovation

Sunday morning I was up bright and early for a Skype call with my family.  My parents were visiting my sister and brother-in-law in Kansas City for the holiday weekend so they, along with my uncle, were a part of this call.  I really appreciate the convenience of Skype.  It makes it so much easier to stay connected with my nieces as they grow up.  Emily is a ham and for at least the first few minutes (before she gets bored because watching her uncles “on t.v.” isn’t as interesting as, say, watching Shrek for the umpteenth time) excitedly recounts the events of her week.

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After catching up with the family we drove around the corner and met with Ble, friend and interior designer who has done such fantastic work as the restaurant Mahanaga on Sukhumvit 29, pictured above.  He has done some interior sketches of our new condominium and wanted to discuss the ideas with us.  There are several “problems” that we need him to address:

  • Moving the washer/dryer from the kitchen to the bathroom and how to make sufficient space for them.
  • How to maximize storage in the master bedroom.
  • How to best divide the living room from the second bedroom/office.
  • How to arrange the dining area while still having room to store the wine cellar.

He’s received our initial feedback and will continue to work on the plans.  It will be a very cozy and comfortable home, but our original estimate of maybe a month’s worth of construction is probably woefully naive.  If we’re lucky, we can move in at the beginning of September, instead.

 

Amazing California strawberries lead to dinner party

At Central on Saturday, there was a special on strawberries from Watsonville, California.  Strawberries are always tremendously overpriced here and most of the time, they’re awful, too.  Careful breeding has led to strawberries that look beautiful but are lacking in flavor.  When I walked by the display counter I caught a whiff of that heady, overpowering perfume of fresh strawberries.  Just to make sure, I picked up a carton and inhaled deeply.  Sure enough, these were the real deal.

Cha Cha Cha pix Sunday afternoon, while Tawn visited with his parents, I went back to Central and bought a kilogram (2 pounds) of fresh strawberries.  The cost: 269 baht ($7.88) per half-kilo.

The rest of the afternoon was spent with my Cha Cha Cha cookbook spread open.  The menu: cinnamon-scented lentils, mashed sweet potatos, and red snapper cooked en papillote in a lime and annatto oil marinade served with spicy mango salsa.  Do you want free dessert next time you visit Cha Cha Cha (pictured right)?  There’s a link here to their city search page.  Print the page, bring it in, and get a free flan.

shortcakelg Our dessert?  Homemade strawberry buttermilk shortcake with fresh vanilla whipped cream.  I forgot to take a picture of the real thing, but the picture here is a fair representation. 

We invited Vic down for dinner and he brought a nice bottle of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon.  Kobfa was invited, too, but wasn’t able to make it.  His loss – more shortcake for the rest of us!  I can’t wait until we’re in the condo and have a large enough kitchen to invite larger groups over for dinner.  Right now, turning out a complete meal for four people really pushes the limites of our confined kitchen.

There are a lot of variations of strawberry shortcake made with pound cake or angel food cake, but those simply aren’t shortcake.  Shortcake is sweetened biscuit dough, made with either butter or shortening (or a combination of both).  The secret to really good strawberry shortcake, besides using really ripe strawberries, is to add just a little bit of very high quality balsamic vinegar to the berries as they macerate.  One brand I really like is Villa Manodori from Williams Sonoma.  This adds a complexity and richness to the sweet berries.

Stuffed but fully satisfied, we called it a successful end to an enjoyable weekend.

 

South of the Border in InSuk*

*InSuk = Inner Sukhumvit, roughly the area of Sukhumvit Road from the First Stage Expressway through Soi Asoke (Sukhumvit 21).  I’d like to propose a naming convention for different areas of the city, relative to Sukhumvit.  Let me know what you think:

  • InSuk – Inner Sukhumvit (Sois 1-21)
  • MidSuk – Middle Sukhumvit (Sois 21-63)
  • OutSuk – Outter Sukhumvit (Sois 63 and above)
  • NoSuk – Northern Sukhumvit – from Sukhumvit to Phetchaburi
  • SoSuk – Southern Sukhumvit – From Sukhumvit south to Rama 4


 

Sunrise Logo Anyhow, one of the things missing here in Khrungthep is “Mexican” food.  I use the quotes because I know that the food I’m referring to isn’t authentically Mexican but is probably more accurately described as San Francisco Mission District Taqueria food.  There are a few places here that serve the Mexican style food, but they are either not very good at all or are way too expensive. 

Recently, I received an email from Greg Lange, managing partner of Sunbelt Asia law offices, announcing the Mex3resize opening of his pet project: Sunrise Tacos.  Open 24 hours a day – “from sunrise to sunrise” – Greg is looking to fill what he sees as an empty niche in the Khrungthep dining scene.

Featuring freshly-made ingredients (“no cans!”) and no preservatives or artificial anythings, Greg explained to me that he is looking to provide that California taqueria-style food, especially to the tourist and expat crowd that frequently converges late nights in the nearby Nana entertainment district.  As many will attest, nothing absorbs excess alcohol so well as carbohydrates in the form of a burrito.

Mex6resize In the past two weeks, I’ve made two trips to Sunrise Tacos.  Nestled next to Sunbelt Asia’s Expat Service Center in a small strip mall between Sukhumvit Sois 10 and 12, half the space is filled with a counter seating six and the other half is the assembly area for made-to-order tacos and burritos.  The order-taking procedure continues to be refined.  On the second visit they had introduced order forms where you mark what items (lettuce, onions, guacamole) you want.  For dine-in orders, you don’t pay until you’re finished and with the clunky ordering process and system of “add-on” pricing where you pay extra for various added ingredients, this leads to some discrepancies in charging.  It would be easier if you just pay as soon as your food is prepared.

Those are procedural issues, which will get sorted out in due time.  The real question is the food.  Starting from the counter up, I was excited to learn that Sunrise makes its own tortillas.  However, on both visits these tortillas have been tough and crumbly and when they become chips, the chips are too thick and, again, tough.  I’m not sure whose mother’s recipe is being used, but we had best get her into the kitchen to demonstrate how it is really done.

DSCF8606 While the tortillas are less than perfect, the fillings are redeeming.  The quality of the meats is very high.  The carne asada and barbacoa beef are flavorful and tender.  The chicken is also nice, chopped into moist and tasty pieces.  The carnitas, perhaps the best measure of any taqueria, was a bit under-seasoned, something that some tweaking with the recipe can resolve.  A roasted vegetable offering was fine for vegetarians but a bit unimaginative consisting mostly of too-large strips of bell peppers.  The addition of roast pumpkin, squash, or zuchini would make this option much more attractive and tasty.

Vegetable fillings were the usual suspects: black or red beans, Spanish rice, and cold fillings of shredded iceberg lettuce, onions, pickled jalapeno peppers, tomatos and for an extra fee, fresh guacamole made from imported Australian avocados.  The black beans and rice are not stand-outs on their own, some sofrito would greatly pump up the beans’ flavor, but as an addition to the burritos they are fine.

DSCF8605 Salsas can make or break a good burrito or taco.  Sunrise Tacos offers four types of salsa, all made fresh throughout the day.  Their Munchy Mango Salsa is the standout, especially right now during the height of mango season.  In a few months, it may not be quite as spectacular.  John’s Red Hot Salsa is advertised as being so hot, it can dodge bullets.  In trying it, I’d be hard pressed to describe the heat as anything but mild.  We’re in Thailand; you can’t claim that something is hot (spicy or, as Ajarn Yai always says it “speee-cy”) unless it really is really hot.  The flavor is fine, mind you, very fresh.  Just not hot.

Sunrise rounds out its menu with a selection of fresh margaritas, from various in-season fruits.  Mango is on the menu right now.  While tasty, at 399 baht a pitcher it makes lunch quite expensive.  They also offer less-expensive virgin margaritas but in the confusion of ordering yesterday, Pune and I wound up with a pitcher of decidedly non-virgin mango margaritas and hopefully she was able to get some work done after lunch.

 

Mex2resize All in all, Sunrise Tacos makes a nice addition to the Khrungthep dining scene, adding some variety and providing good quality in the process.  Greg says they are planning on adding fish tacos in the next few months, which will be very welcome as I miss Rubio’s tacos pescados from San Diego.  The current menu has some room for improvement in terms of coaxing some more flavor from some ingredients and once the tortillas improve, there’s no doubt that Sunrise will become a weekly lunch destination for me.

There is competition, though: recently, another taqueria opened up on Silom complete with a logo blatantly ripped off from the Del Taco chain in the United States.  I’ll have to go check that out soon for a comparison.

 

As expected, Khun Nui loved the biscotti and the cookies.  “Why did he give me so many,” she asked Tawn.  “Because he thinks you’re too skinny!” Tawn responded.  She’s been losing weight recently, which the doctors can’t explain, so I’m hoping some tasty and high-calorie tidbits will put the kilos back on.

Sunday morning Tawn went with his parents to an aunt’s 72nd birthday.  This was a large affair, 100+ people at the Royal Thai Navy Headquarters.  Tawn was a little tweaked that some relatives that he’s seen several times since moving back, asked him “are you still flying for United?”  He was thinking, how many times have I told her this already?  I left United seven years ago!

That’s how it is with extended relatives, I suppose.  He did find out that his cousin Kanita is in town from Indianapolis where she lives with her husband Alex.  Tawn and I have met up with them before when visiting my parents, who live in Indy.  She and Tawn had not been in touch in two years, and he was a little shocked when she asked whether Tawn and I were still together.

DSCF8589 His response had an indignant note: “Of course we’re still together.  He lives here now and speaks Thai!”

Which may be a little unfair, considering that the last time they saw each other, both Tawn and I were living in the United States.  Plus, without the protections of marriage, staying together across the oceans is less of a certainty.  I’m glad he was able to tell her that we’re still together, though!


Across the street from us, the top-most part of the superstructure of a new condo complex is being completed.  This metal spire is about 35 stories tall and yesterday I watched construction workers scaling and working on it with no harnesses or other safety provisions.  The guy at the very top was just shimmying along.  OSHA?  I don’t think so!

Right: Perched precariously above Soi Asoke.

Sunday morning, since Tawn was off at his parents, I met up with the usual suspects for brunch down on Thanon Surawongse.  The Tawanna Hotel, formerly the Ramada, offers a good buffet for 450 baht inclusive of beverage, service charge and VAT.  The food selection is wide and the quality is good, but I’m generally not very excited about buffets: they are an invitation to eat so much more than you normally would.

But it is all about self-control.  Right, right, I know.  But the reality is that even with self-control you still wind up eating more than you would simply because you sample so many different things.

The “usual suspects” in this case were Vic, Kobfa, Todd, and Brian.  (Just as a point of clarification for long-time readers, Kobfa is the Thai friend who used to live in San Francisco and met Tawn at the Asian Pacific Islander Wellness Center.  Previously I referred to him by his nickname Tod, but since we have another Todd now, I’m using Kobfa for clarity’s sake.)  Also in attendance were three of Vic’s friends: Fong, visiting from San Francisco; Russ, his classmate from language school who has lived here almost a year from Virginia; and Big, a Thai friend who works as a producer for TV channel 7. 

DSCF8602 On the way back to the Skytrain station, I noticed the Delta Airlines building where their ticket office is located.  Based on the age of the signage (decades!) I assumed that it was from a former office, but as I was doing some research online while writing this post, it seems that it might be an active office still.  It really looks like something out of the 70s.

Delta 

It contrasts significantly with their new branding effort, the logo of which doesn’t look that different but instead uses an orange-rust color.  The aircraft color scheme looks nice, though.

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Sunday was the day of free concerts.  Connecting trains at Siam Station, I saw that there was a large concert about to begin in front of Siam Paragon mall.  Then in the evening up at the Esplanade shopping center, also owned by the same group as Paragon, there was some Korean pop star performing a very loud show right in the center courtyard of the mall.