Turning the other cheek

What a busy few days.  Don’t know if you saw, but my last entry asking for everyone to support the “No on Proposition 8” campaign ended up as a featured entry on the front page of Xanga.  As of Sunday evening my time, there are 2600+ views.

The good news is that about 80% of the 150+ comments are supportive.  The bad news is that the 20% who don’t agree with my position are probably not going to be swayed.

I’ve made it a point to respond to all comments, even though trying to refute the same arguments is tiring.  The ones that are easier to refute are the ones based in legal precedent: for example, people who don’t like the “activist” judges who “overturned democracy” – forgetting that 3 of those 5 judges are Republicans, appointed by Republican governors.

The more difficult ones to refute are the “I don’t like gay marriage because my god says so” arguments.  If you are convinced that you are righteous, what can I say to change your mind.  I’ll just have to wait until their day of judgement when, standing on heaven’s doorstep, God asks them what part of Jesus’ teachings they didn’t understand.  Was it the “love your neighbor as yourself” part?  The “worry about the log in your own eye before you worry about the splinter in someone else’s eye” part?  Maybe the “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” teaching? 

Personally, I take great comfort in Matthew 5:11:

“Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.”

Let’s move on to other news as I never intended for this blog to be a political sideshow.

 

New Car

No, we haven’t bought a new car.  But in a few years when our 11-year old Nissan Cefiro is ready for a replacement, I think I’ve found the perfect replacement.  It is cheaper than a Mini and a Mercedes Smart car, cuter than a Yaris, and fits in the narrow sois of Khrungthep without any problem.

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I’m thinking white is the better choice of colors, but red is pretty cute, too.

We have had a lot of guests in town this weekend.  Thankfully, we had time on Thursday evening to have dinner with PJ and Theresa.  This was the first time we had seen PJ in years and years and our first time to meet Theresa, which was wonderful.  Unfortunately, no pictures.

I think Biing is in town with his family, although have not heard from him yet.  Otto and Han are in town with their friends.  Coincidentally, we ran into them at the front of the Oriental Hotel last night when we jumped out of a taxi to attend a wedding.  An entry about that beautiful event soon.

Also, Paul (aka “Ekin” here on Xanga) is in town although we don’t expect to hear from him necessarily.  Who else?  Oh, the brother of Trish’s close friend and colleague is in town from Hong Kong, staying in his vacation home.  Maybe we’ll see him Tuesday night if time allows.

Crazy, huh?

I’ll write about the wedding tomorrow but want to share with you some pictures from the demolition of the block of shop houses at the corner of Ploenchit Road (different stretch of Sukhumvit) and Witthayu/Wireless Road.  They are taking a long time to demolish these buildings, dismantling them from the inside.

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In the picture above, you can see a low building with a metal roof in the midst of the empty lot.  That’s the “housing” for the workers, all of whom are from the countryside and many of whom are probably from Laos, Cambodia or Burma.  Seems to be the same story everywhere: immigrants from somewhere else come in to do the dirtiest, lowest-paying work.  Who does that work in their own countries?

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Above, you can see how the building is being taken down, story by story.  An arduous process to say the least!

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Interestingly, the buildings are brought down in separate sections.  The buildings to the left and right of this one are still being demolished, whereas this one is already completely gone.  I wonder why they do it this way?

 

The Dog Days of Rainy Season

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Above: an exhausted dog keeps watch (barely) over a table of local eggs for sale along Soi Rang Nam.  The vendor was nowhere in sight.  I was curious whether, if I wanted to buy some eggs, the dog could give correct change.

The final days of Bruce’s trip were lower-key.  I had to get back to work and I think he was ready to just chill out and not see any more sights.  We picked up his tuxedo, custom made at the same shop many of our guests enjoy visiting, so that he will have something nice to wear for his performance at Carnegie Hall in New York next April.

The final night, we went across the street to Extra Virgin, the cute new Thai-European bistro that opened a few weeks ago.  The decor is very nice but Tawn and I were actually surprised by the food.  All in all, much better than we had expected.  Sadly, so many western or quasi-western style restaurants in Khrungthep are long on concept and short on kitchen execution.  Not so in the case of extra virgin.  Here’s a selection of the food we enjoyed:

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Top row from left: Indian-themed appetizers with fried calamari and vegetable samosas; Thai-themed appetizers with a take on fried chicken and sticky rice served with a “som tam” style salad made of guava; rocket and pancetta salad topped with a very light balsamic dressing.  Bottom row from left: seafood and vermicelli stir fry; a take on pad thai; grilled pork and sticky rice with chili dipping sauce.

My pictures of the western food did not turn out so well, but I thought the veal, which Bruce had, was nicely done and the coq a vin, while slightly less rich than I’m used to, was also tasty.

Below, Bruce’s plane taxis out to the runway after a full ten days in the Big Mango.

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P1100597 With Bruce departed, we had to find other ways to entertain ourselves.  Life returned to normal as we had dim sum with a group of Tawn’s school friends, Eddy, Sa and Job. 

Sa and Job brought their half-year old baby boy, J.J.  He has his mother’s fair skin and his father’s beautiful eyes and was the center of attention.

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J.J. was pretty fussy when other people would pick him up to hold him, but if you picked him up and held him facing towards his parents so he could see them, he didn’t fuss.

P1100614 Later on, Tawn’s friend Prince came by to get changed for a wedding.  His back was hurting him so he asked Tawn to stand on his lower back. 

Knowing how much Thais consider the feet to be the lowest part of the body (cultural note – you never touch another person with your feet, gesture to something with your feet, or put your feet up on furniture or objects while in public) you have to be a pretty close friend to be asked to step on someone!

Time to direct Prince to a chiropractor.

In short, things are returning to normal here at home.  I’m able to work in my office again, we can wander around the house without regards for our state of dress, and I can enjoy the fresh air and cooling breezes with my windows open and balcony door ajar.

Tawn and I were talking about this: it is nice to have visitors, but we’re not very used to having visitors in our small home, especially for extended lengths of time.  It is amazing how much it alters your normal routine.  Something we’ll have to keep in mind in the future as we travel and visit others.

 

Bruce’s Visit

As mentioned before, we’ve had a houseguest for the past week.  Bruce came for a visit from the United States and I’ve been busy playing tour guide for much of that time.  We have seen a lot of things and I’ve been so much on the go that I haven’t had time to properly update the blog – especially since the political unrest here in Thailand has increased recently and deserves some attention.

Let me begin with the political situation, since some of you have already expressed your worries and concerns.

Protest 9 To start off, rest assured that things are still perfectly safe here.  Unless you decide to go wander through the middle of the protest area (which Bruce and I did on Sunday, before all of this boiled over), life in the city is proceeding as normal.

Sunday was a local election here and one of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD – the protesters) leaders was arrested as he came out of hiding in order to vote.  Realizing this would happen, he gave his supporters a letter to read after his arrest. 

Subsequent to his arrest, the protests swelled in size.  They expanded to include the area around the parliament building, effectively trapping members of parliament inside.

When the police moved to clear the protesters, using tear gas and – some reports say – small explosives, there were dozens of injuries and two deaths.  The autopsy report on one of the deaths indicate that the decedent died as a result of injuries from an explosive she had on her person, although I don’t know how that was established.

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Among the injuries were at least two people with severed limbs, providing some of the most shocking early morning news footage I’ve ever seen on television.  It is not clear how the injuries happened – do tear gas cannisters provide enough explosive force to tear off the bottom part of a leg?

Some level of calm has been restored, but the PAD has insisted they are the victims here and will remain in place until they have overthrown the government.  In short, the cycle will continue.

P1100319 Turning our attention back to Bruce’s visit, as I mentioned, we have been very busy.  Some guests just grab the map, ask me to point them towards the transit system, and are off.  Other times, I get the opportunity to revisit many parts of the city with my guests.

Bruce’s friend Fai, a Thai who lived in San Francisco many years and is back in town, was able to join us for dinner shortly after Bruce’s arrival. 

We met for dinner at Greyhound Cafe and had a nice visit.  While we haven’t met Fai before, he was very nice and reminds us of a friend in Hong Kong.

Left: Fai, Bruce and Tawn pose on the rain-slicked concrete in front of Paragon shopping center.

Unfortunately, Fai was heading out of town so there would be no more opportunity to visit with him.  So I put on the tour guide hat – actually, Bruce ended up with the hat to protect him from the sun – and we set off.  One of the first stops was the obligatory trip to the Grand Palace, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, and the Temple of the Reclining Buddha – a trio of sights that are really a must-see.

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Down by the river, as we waited for the boat, we saw the funny sight of a lady washing her dog in the canal.  I’m not sure which was cleaner afterwards: the dog or the canal!

Bruce brought his new High Definition digital video camera with him, able to record dozens and dozens of hours of sights and sounds.  No doubt he will have a lot of editing to do when he returns!

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With it being off season and a thunderstorm hanging over most of the city, we found the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha emptier – and cooler – than I have ever seen it.  While Bruce did the audio tour, I sat on a marble-floored sala – a pavilion – and edited training materials for my job.  With a deadline looming and still a lot of work to do, I had to squeeze every minute of work out of my time spent as a tour guide.

Passing through the Palace area, I snapped two nice photos of one of the main halls.

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Truly beautiful architecture, combining Versailles windows and arches with a classical Thai roof line.

Heading over to Wat Pho – the Temple of the Reclining Buddha – we encountered several touts, helpfully informing us that the temple was closed and would we like to instead go see the giant standing Buddha.  Of course, this was just a ruse to get us to go visit “gem” factories. 

Visitors beware: Khrungthep is full of these shady characters.  I noticed it much more this time than on previous visits to the sights and was, frankly, a bit perturbed by it.  Tourism is such an important source of revenue for the kingdom that with the downturn in bookings caused by the political violence, they can scarcely afford to lose more tourists because of scams.

We were rewarded for our perseverance: at Wat Pho we saw some craftspeople restoring detailed painting along the windows and door frames.  I cannot imagine the hours they must have spent, hunched over or laying on their side to add the small swirls and flourishes.

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While at the temple, we stumbled upon a monk conference.  Literally, it was a gathering of monks including visiting ones from China and Hong Kong.  According to one monk with whom I spoke, there were 10,000 participants.  They were sitting on mats surrounding the main wihan – chapel – of the temple, until the rains came and drove them under the eaves.  The chanting continued, though, as more and more monks arrived by bus and taxi, streaming inside and finding their appointed places.

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There is some video below.


That sums up our first day of hiking about town.  There is more to share and I will try to post it as soon as possible.  Meanwhile, hope everyone is doing well.  I’m quite behind on checking and responding to others’ entries so my apologies if I have missed any important events.

 

Tawn’s Birthday

Lenotre2 Tawn’s birthday was last Wednesday, so we went out for dinner at Lenôtre Paris, a Parisian outfit that has several cafe locations here in Bangkok.  Owned by the Accor Group (Sofitel Hotels, Ibis Hotels, Motel 6), the chain offers a nice taste of French cuisine and very nice baked goods.

Lenotre3 Early afternoon, Tawn text messaged his father, inviting his parents to join us for dinner.  Beforehand, I cautioned against him getting his hopes up.  Not surprisingly, Tawn’s father responded that he didn’t feel comfortable joining us for dinner and declined the invitation.

We made it a fun evening on our own, though, visiting the small location on Soi Thong Lor, the next block over from us and just a short drive further down the street.

Thanks to the drizzly weather, there were few diners, a great deal of privacy and, subsequently, very attentive service.  We sat on the second floor overlooking the wet pavement and reflected lights as the busy evening traffic crept up and down the street.

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Shortly after ordering, an amuse bouche arrived, breaded morsels of cheese on pea shoots.  A tasty way to warm up our taste buds for the meal to come.

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As an entree we shared the “Paris-Bangkok” plate: a small portion of duck confit, a cream of asparagus soup, a salade nicoise, and a goose liver pate.  This was the culinary highlight of the meal, nicely prepared and packed with flavor.

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For my main course I had the lamb chops with mashed potatoes and snow peas.  I requested the lamb medium-rare and I think is was a bit underdone.  While flavorful, one piece was particularly tough to eat.  The connective tissue had not been sufficiently cooked and so there was a lot of chewing.  It wasn’t bad but I’d probably not spend the money on this dish again.

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Tawn ordered a fettucini carbonara, which for some reason he mis-read as having salmon in it.  Instead, it arrived with lots of pork belly (bacon) that hadn’t been cooked enough to render more of the fat.  The result was a particularly oily version of a dish that is already heavy.  Again, the flavor was fine but it settled into one’s stomach with a rather solid “clunk”.

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Finally, our dessert arrived, a Grand Marnier souffle that was wonderfully light and eggy, with a raspberry sorbet “lolipop”.  While I was taking pictures, the bottom of the candle melted in the heat of the souffle, resulting in a waxy blue streak through the side of the dessert.  Oh, well… happy birthday!

 

Crossing Asoke

The airport link rail line, which will connect Suvarnabhumi International Airport (which opened almost exactly two years ago) to the center of the city, is taking shape.  Even though it still has at least another year to go – probably more like two – it is exciting to see some progress being made.

After my return from the United States, I noticed that the construction of the tracks crossing Asoke Road was finally taking place.  The viaducts on either side were completed first and finally the construction workers inched forward to build this connecting span.

Last week I stopped by the intersection early on a wet morning to take a look.

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The first thing I saw was this monk, waiting halfway across the street, standing on the State Railway of Thailand tracks, for a break in the oncoming traffic.  A minute later, there was a break and he continued across the street.

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Above: This is the bridge itself or, more accurately, the three bridges.  The new in-city airport terminal (where you can check in for your flights before taking the train to the airport) is just out of the frame to the left of the picture.  We are looking here from the southeast corner of the intersection of Asoke and the frontage road that runs along the railway track, towards the northwest.

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Above: The bridges are very high and I was amazed to see this worker standing there without any safety harness.

I walked a little further up Asoke to peer over the construction site fence and see how the terminal itself is progressing, below.

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It looks like the terminal walls have been completed, but the structure over the tracks is still being done.  Also, ramps and much of the other infrastructure remains to be done.  My understanding is the large lot around the building will be developed with car parks underneath and office, retail and other commercial space nearby. 

In the distance you can see Baiyoke II Tower, the tallest building in Thailand and the tallest structure between Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur.

 

The Skinny and Wide Rice Noodles

Okay, I’m about to write a “normal” entry but first, let me give you just a bit of an update on the Thai political situation:

The information I gave yesterday about the Election Commission recommending the dissolution of the ruling People’s Power Party (PPP, which Prime Minister Samak heads), turns out to be correct.  Originally, I didn’t see it reported elsewhere but have now found several Thai sources that confirm it.

I’ve heard from supporters on both sides of the conflict as well as from people who are sitting in the middle, unimpressed by the extreme actions of both sides, and I’m thankful to all of them for sharing their insights and opinions.

The People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD, the anti-government protesters) have made the first intimations of a possible compromise to end the confrontation, but their number one requirement is that Prime Minister Samak resign and dissolve his cabinet.  Not surprisingly, Samak refuses to do so.

Things are moving very slowly towards some possible resolution, emphasis on the “slowly” part.  The Election Commission’s recommendation, should it be approved by the Constitutional Court, would largely moot the conflict as the PPP would be dissolved and new elections would have to be called anyway.

If I was to try to give you some sense of the general feeling in the country about the way towards resolution, the Bangkok Post’s front page commentary in Wednesday’s edition might encapsulate it.  The full commentary is here but the bullet points are as follows:

  • Prime Minister Samak declaring a state of emergency was a wrong-headed ploy to retain power.
  • Kudos to the army chief for keeping the army out of the political wrangling.
  • Yes, the PPP did win the right to govern (Samak’s main argument), but the Election Commission’s recommendation notwithstanding, the Samak government has made many unconstitutional mis-steps in the past seven months since taking office.  For this, they should step down, allowing the coalition government to form a new cabinet.
  • Yes, the PAD has the right to protest (the PAD’s main argument) but their actions such as closing down three southern airports have gone too far.  Additionally, they must respect democratic principles.  The call from some of their leaders for a non-elected government is not acceptable.

So that’s where things stand: at an impasse.  We’ll see how the next few days develop but I’d place my money on an eventual resignation by the Prime Minister and the calling of snap elections.

 

How is this affecting you and Tawn?

This is a common question I’ve received and thank you for expressing your concern.  Yesterday I received a call from a friend who is to travel here next week for a conference.  Worried about what he’s seen on TV, he was going to cancel his trip for fear of his safety.

Let’s make this clear: there is no danger in visiting Thailand nor in living here.  There is no reasonable prospect of violence or danger in the near future that would effect visitors or residents.  Fears of a Rawanda-like genocide or a Balkan civil war are completely misplaced.

What you see on television is the narrow width of a camera lens, pointed at the most dramatic and newsworthy thing it can find.  If you could pull back to a very wide angle, you would see that life in the city and the nation are continuing as normal.

 

An old friend reopens

Long before I moved here, Tawn took me to “the red noodle shop” (real name, Yen Ta Fo) which was located next to a driving range further down Sukhumvit.  The shop eventually closed as development took over that area, but the owners continued to ply their trade at outlets in malls around the more suburban parts of the city. 

Recently, though, good news: Yen Ta Fo opened a branch in Ploenchit Centre, located a two-minute walk from Tawn’s office.  Taking over a defunct Haagen Dazs and a poor imitation of a NY-style deli, Yen Ta Fo is attracting the crowds for lunch.

Their specialty, the red noodles (below), is a mixture of wide rice noodles, mixed seafood, and a slightly vinegary sauce.  I don’t personally care for it as it is too vinegary for me, but Tawn loves it and lots of other people were ordering it, so I consider it a shortcoming of my tastebuds.

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I had a great dish of pork spareribs (below) that had been stewed until the meat just jumped off the bones.  The sweet-spicy sauce is so satisfying and made for a perfect rainy afternoon meal.

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On the side we ordered the Yen Ta Fo version of chicken satay (below).  They prepare their chicken with a spicy curry paste rub that adds a lot of flavor and a fair amount of heat, instead of the usual continuous basting of coconut milk.  Their sticky rice (in the basket) was a little undercooked, a bit more “tough” than “sticky”. 

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Beyond the Yen Ta Fo restaurants, the family has a series of more upscale establishments with the name Mallika.  Website here.  No doubt we will be back to Yen Ta Fo regularly.

 

P1090742 On the other side of Tawn’s office is a block of traditional shop houses.  These four-story buildings housed a shop or small restaurant in the ground floor and then residences above. 

There was one restaurant to which we regularly went, and Issan (northeastern Thai) style place that served wonderful grilled chicken. 

Sadly, the shops have been closed down and the entire block is being demolished.  Not sure what will replace it but the property, on the corner of Ploenchit (Sukhumvit) and Whittayu (Wireless Road) is next to the Plaza Athenee Hotel, kitty-corner to the British Embassy, and is one of the more valuable locations in the city.

I predict another office tower / mall / condo complex.  Anyone know for sure?

On the left is a picture taken from the Skytrain Ploenchit Station platform.  It isn’t quite wide enough to show everything but the sidewalk is the dark strip in the lower left.  The stairs leading down from the Skytrain station are the white-lined area in the edge of the lower left.

People used to congregate on the outdoor patios where the umbrella still stands, eating at folding tables during the lunch rush.  Now it is being taken down, story by story, building by building.  You can see how much has already been done in the picture below.  The Plaza Athenee is just behind (to the left) of the low-rise pink building.

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Let’s hear it for ongoing development.  It is a shame that old buildings and family-owned small businesses end up closed to make way for progress.  The only positive to this is that the location, adjacent to a mass transit station, is a good place for denser development.  Unfortunately, the development will benefit primarily those with money, not the lower income families who used to earn a living there.

 

One final construction shot, this one from the huge site next to the Asoke Skytrain station.  The excavation has started and I was tickled to see that one of the cranes bears a warning in Japanese.  I imagine it isn’t much help for the construction workers, who primarily come from upcountry Thailand.

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Do you know what it says?

 

Update on the Update

Nothing much happened overnight; there is a still a lot of tension in the city.  Schools throughout the metropolitan area are closed for three days, even thought only about 40 schools in the centre of the city are affected.  (“Equity” is the reason given.)

It is overcast and even as I type, the first big drops of rain are falling.  The army commander insists “the door to a coup is locked”.  Parliament must find a peaceful resolution.

A quasi-retraction: the “update” I gave yesterday was based on an AP report I received through Yahoo News.  You may recall it announced the Election Commission’s unanimous ruling that the People Power Party should be dissolved.  As the largest party in the governing coalition, that would have forced the government to be shut down and new elections called. 

However, I have been unable to verify that news through any other source.  There is no mention on Thai websites, in either Thai or English.  Looking back a half-month I find a similar report on the website for The Nation, an English-language paper.  That may have been a preliminary announcement or else the AP is late in its reporting.  I’ll let you know how that plays out.

I have some non-protest related items to post but have a lot of work to do today.  In fact, I was up at 3:00 am for calls with the US.  If time allows, I’ll post later today or tomorrow.

 

State of Emergency Declared in Bangkok

Update Below

The confrontation between anti- and pro-government protesters reached a boiling point early Tuesday morning, when the police-enforced separation of the two groups by a distance of several hundred meters was breached.  In the resulting melee at least one person was killed.

At 7:00 Tuesday morning, Prime Minister Samak announced a state of emergency in Bangkok, invoking a controversial article in the new constitution that was seen as being insisted upon by the military transitional government during the last coup.

Under this state of emergency, the commander of the Army has been given authority to enforce the state of emergency, which prohibits gatherings of more than five people for political purposes.  The paragraph requiring everyone to remain at home has been exempted so that business can continue as usual.

There is a story in more detail on The Nation’s website here.  There is also a shocking video that appears to shows anti-government protesters (in the yellow shirts) beating pro-government protesters who are lying on the ground, unable or unwilling to defend themselves. 

For balance, though, there is no way to identify absolutely who is who, but I think when it comes to the point of people on either side beating people who don’t even have the strength to raise their arms in defense, that’s way too far.  Let’s use the political process and peaceful protest to change the system, not violence.

 

Update

At about noon Tuesday, local time, it was reported that the Election Commission, as part of an ongoing investigation, has ruled that the People’s Power Party committed electoral fraud in the December 2007 election and should be dissolved.  The PPP is the party of Prime Minister Samak and is considered, for all intensive purposes, to be simply a rebirth of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party, which was dissolved after the 2006 coup.

The Election Commission voted unanimously for the dissolution and the case will be forwarded to the public prosecutor’s office, who will determine if it should be forwarded to the Constitutional Court for a final ruling.

This certainly adds some fuel to the fire, but over the past several months, the judiciary has appeared to be relatively independent and fair.  My hope is that this will help bring about a resolution to the immediate conflict and encourage everyone to play by the rules of the game.  In other words, the constitution.

 

Independence Day in Khrungthep

Saturday July 5th was the American Chamber of Commerce’s annual Independence Day celebration in Khrungthep.  What used to be hosted by the U.S. Ambassador on the stately grounds of his residence on Wireless Road was discontinued several years ago because of security concerns.  A few years later, AmCham resurrected the tradition, moving to a new location at a football field and sports complex in Khlong Toei.

P1070495 Invitations for the event came from two directions: Doug, a friend from Oregon, is involved in AmCham and sent an email.  A second email came from Democrats Abroad Thailand, which conducts a voter registration drive at the event.

There was a nice breeze Saturday afternoon and the gathering thunderstorm clouds provided some intermittent shade and, thankfully, nothing more than a few seconds of sprinkles. 

P1070499 We were able to find a shady place to sit while the grounds were emptied and swept by heavy security.  The process for entering the field was slow – there was only one gate with two metal detectors and everything was being hand searched, much more thoroughly than even at the airport.  But we were in the shade and there were plenty of distractions while we waited to enter.

The set-up was very much like any Independence Day celebration in small town America: vendors offering barbeque, hot dogs and beer; raffles and giveaways; informational booths for different civic groups; giant slides and other games for the children; a stage with life music, magic shows, and other entertainments; the presenting of the colors by the local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars; and evening fireworks.

Because it is rainy season, some areas of the field were quite muddy, resulting in more than a few children who looked like they had engaged in pig wrestling contests.  Along with many Americans were lots of Thais and other foreign nationals.

I headed over to the Democrats Abroad table and started my two-hour shift as a volunteer registering people as absentee voters, answering dozens of questions, and selling “Bangkok for Barack” t-shirts.  In those two hours, we probably signed up sixty voters and there were several hours remaining when I left at about 4:30.

P1070494 What was most interesting about the experience was the difference in perception between myself and the other four American expats who arrived with me.  Maybe this is because I was actively working at the booth while they grabbed some food and drinks and sat under a tent visiting and, it sounds like, complaining about the event.

Talking with two of them later on, I tried to understand what they felt was so bad about the experience, because they definitely sounded unhappy about it.  Here is my understanding of their concerns:

  • Security was unreasonably thorough.
  • The field was too muddy.
  • There were too many Americans there (or maybe too many fat Americans?).
  • Too many of the songs played by the band were not from American artists.
  • For the 300 baht entrance fee (about US$10; the event was a fund-raiser for charity), there should have been food and drink included.
  • Instead of hanging around with other Americans trying to do American things, people who attended the event should be participating in Thai culture and doing Thai things.
  • No cotton candy.

In conclusion, the event was designed “for people who actually miss America”. 

Ouch. 

While I discard as completely backwards the view of “love it or leave it” – freedom of speech is a constitutional right in the USA, after all – I can understand where that reactionary impulse comes from.  Since Saturday, I’ve spent some time thinking about their concerns, trying to understand their point of view.  It leaves me feeling kind of odd. 

There are many things I dislike about American culture and I try to hang out with a group that is more diverse than just Americans alone precisely because of the “American group think” that is easy to run into amongst any insular group of expats. 

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Still, my experience at the Independence Day festivities was very different.  Maybe if was different just because I was actively involved signing up voters, but here were my observations:

  • There are a lot of overseas Americans who, despite being expats, care very deeply about their country and want to make it a better place.  I spoke with Democrats, Independents and Republicans who were intelligent, passionate, and caring.  They have strong views about what their country needs but they are also very interested in talking to and hearing from people with different opinions.
  • In this gathering, I saw a community coming together that, despite their living in a different country and culture, makes an effort to celebrate their heritage and identity – especially for the many families that were there with their children including families of mixed cultures where the children possibly have never lived in the United States.
  • I also saw many non-Americans coming to the event to celebrate an ideal (imperfect though it may sometimes be) that they see in America: a functioning, free and fair democracy in which people can climb to great heights and make their own success regardless of social status or background.  Something that is decidedly not true in many countries around the world, including Thailand.

The reaction of the others to the event left me frustrated.  Frustrated in part at a sort of negativity that, political beliefs aside, looks like a dark vortex around which I wish to steer clear.  Sitting around bitching and moaning just breeds more bitching and moaning.  If you don’t like it, do something to make it better.

Frustrated also by the increasing habit of Americans both at home and abroad to isolate themselves in like-minded circles, interacting with and gathering news from people and sources that only serve to reinforce their already-held views.  It is healthy to challenge our views and beliefs, right?

Finally, frustrated that my friends didn’t have more fun.  The weather was nice, the Belgian beer being poured on tap from the Roadhouse BBQ stand was tasty, and the square dancing group from a local elementary school was cute.  In my opinion, it certainly beats another afternoon at the mall or another night sitting on Silom Soi 4 drinking whisky and ogling Thai moneyboys.

 

Lunchtime in Khrungthep

Friday afternoon I joined Tawn for lunch near his office.  We went to the local talaat nat (regular market), the noontime habitat of office boys and girls throughout Khrungthep.  These talaat take different forms, but the one located next to the Ploenchit Ayuddha Bank building is about a quarter-acre of small shops arranged along four alleys, each covered with tarpaulin to keep out the sun and rain.

One alley is exclusively food vendors, small mom-and-pop operations that have their own space or, in some cases, cohabitate in a larger space.  This is Thai food at some of its most real: fresh, fast, inexpensive, and full of flavor. 

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It has to meet the exacting expectations of some of the pickiest eaters in Muang Thai: office workers.  Short on time and cash, they are looking for good value for their money.  These are not the people who are riding the Skytrain, spending 50 baht each way to and from work.  These are the people who are riding the un-airconditioned buses and concerned that fares just raised from 5.5 baht to 8 baht per ride.

Serious value shoppers.  If the food doesn’t meet expectations, the shop will be out of business faster than you can stir fry an order of pad thai.

Most vendors are selling prepared gap khao (literally, “with rice”) – curries, stir fries, grilled chicken, green papaya salad, veggies, fried and boiled eggs that are served on a plate with a molded mound of rice.  There are also some noodle vendors, who will whip up a bowl of rice noodles to order. 

Generally, there is no fried food cooked to order as this would create enormous clouds of smoke and chili oil that would make dining unbearable and result in customers returning to their offices smelling of the restaurant – a definite no-no in cleanliness conscious Thailand.

The vendor at which Tawn and I ate offers many fish and vegetable choices and is also known, incongruously, for their Korean-style pork.  They also have a khao soi vendor – the Northern Thai style noodle soup served with a curried broth that is a favorite of mine – which I’ll have to try next time.

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The recent price increases for rice have hit the office workers hard: a plate of rice and gap khao cost 25 to 30 baht a year ago.  These days it is running 40 to 50.  Between the two of us (Tawn was hungry), it cost us 103 baht to eat, not including drinks.

Finding dining space would, at first glance, be a daunting challenge.   The dining room is crowded with small tables and smaller stools.  Packed shoulder to shoulder, coworkers eat and gossip.  Thankfully, turnover is rapid so upon receiving and paying for your plate of food, you’ll find a spot within a few seconds.

From your seat at the table you can order beverages from one of the roving waiters/bus boys.  On your way out you settle any outstanding charges with the owner, usually a woman and sometimes a man, who is standing watch over the operations.

The lunch rush is compacted into just 90 minutes, from about quarter before twelve to quarter after one.  But by 12:45 the food selections are running out and latecomers can’t be picky.

Afterwards, there is time for some shopping in the nearby boutiques.  Each vendor has a space of maybe three meters by four, but sells clothes, shoes, and just about everything else you might need.  Bargain hunting is a good way to burn off the calories you’ve just consumed.

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Notice the tree in this picture: it is wrapped in strips of fabric and has food, drink, figurines and other offerings at the base of its trunk.  I’ve written before about spirit houses and the belief that the land, the trees, and all living things contain spirits.  Thais cover their bases when it comes to beliefs, seeing as how Buddhism – strictly speaking – doesn’t subscribe to these animist principles.  Here you can see how the tree has been saved and incorporated into the development, and how the spirit or spirits living in the tree are accorded the proper respect by the vendors.

Finally, before returning to the office, there is time to stop at the street vendors at consider which khanom – sweet snack – to bring back to the office to share.  Thais know that everything, especially eating, is more fun when done in groups.  Whether it is fresh fruit, grilled sticky rice and coconut, little taco-like sweets, or cookies, the bag will contain enough to share.

And that, my friends, is lunchtime in Khrungthep.