Coup Deux – Come Visit

Thailand is a country that likes its “collect stamps” cards. Patronize a business ten times and get a free coffee, or the like. When it comes to coups d’etat, it seems to have a similar proclivity. Depending on your count, this is the 17th, 18th, or 19th coup since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. For me, I have collected two “coup stamps”. After my fifth, I get a free t-shirt.

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The last coup was in 2006. A link to some of my entries about it is here. As for why Thailand has so many coups, there is an interesting article here. And if you want some insight into what is going on and what the next steps may be, the Economist has a useful article here.

As soon as the coup happened, and even when martial law was announced two days earlier, I was flooded with messages from friends who were worried for my safety. Thank you to everyone for your concern, but I’m afraid the important message is this:

Keep Calm

The words “coup” and “martial law” seem to prompt a visceral response, aided and abetted by the media showing close-up photos of soldiers, protesters, and political violence. In reality, the political violence over the last six months has been limited – only 28 people killed. Not to minimize the importance of that loss of life, but we regularly have bus crashes on the road here that take that many lives.

Considering the size of the country, and even the size of the city, political violence in Thailand is not sufficient reason to be alarmed or for governments to issue travel alerts warning their citizens not to travel to Thailand.

The last thing this country needs is for its economy (which is teetering on the edge of recession) to be further damaged by tourists staying away. It is an excellent time to visit the country – the weather in the early summer has cooled a bit from the Songkhran highs but the full monsoon has not yet arrived. Plus, hotel prices are amazingly low because… well, because of the political unrest.

I would ask you to help me be a de facto ambassador for Thailand. As you hear people talk about the country, let them know that your friend Chris lives there and assures them it is okay to visit. And, if anyone you know is considering travel here, urge them to come! They can always contact me for recommendations!

 

Traveling with Gary and William to Kanchanaburi

Even though Tawn and I had a chance to visit with them in Los Angeles just a few weeks ago, it was a pleasant coincidence that Gary and William had scheduled a trip to Bangkok for the end of June.  We were able to see them several times during their visit, and they invited me to travel to Kanchanaburi Province with them to visit the Tiger Temple.

First stop was the town of Kanchanaburi itself, about two hours northwest of Bangkok.  This town, located on Maenam Kwai (“River Kwai” – pronounced “kwae”), is the site of the bridge made famous in the 1957 David Lean film, Bridge Over the River Kwai.  We made a quick stop at the very good Thai-Burma Railway Centre, the better of two museums in the city about the building of the bridge.

Next, after a delay of about 45 minutes, we jumped on a train pulled by a 40+ year old GE diesel engine for a trip across the bridge and about an hour towards the Burmese border. 

Riding in a nearly antique (but still considered standard, third-class quality by the State Railways of Thailand) car, our interest quickly faded as the passing scenery blurred into a hazy green.

William, leaning out the window, takes a few shots of the countryside.  Fear not, we were actually stopped at a small country station when he did this.  Otherwise, he would have been whacked in the back of his head by overgrown bushes alongside the tracks.

A lone motorcyclist travels a country road as we pass a pair of houses.

Young rice grows a vibrant green in rich, volcanic soil.

Can you identify these crops?  Our tour guide disappeared for most of the train ride, but I was eventually able to learn that these are cassava plants, from which tapioca starch is obtained.

After much too long on the train, we disembarked at a dusty whistle stop and boarded our van, which had been chasing after us.  About twenty minutes later we arrived at the Tiger Temple.  The temple itself started out as a forest monastery in the mid-1990s.  Over time, the monks came to care for insured birds, an injured boar, and other animals they either encountered or were given to them.  The large grounds of the monastery developed into something of a wildlife sanctuary.

In February 1999, the first tiger cub was brought to the temple.  The cub had been orphaned by poachers and then had been sold to someone who was going to have it stuffed.  The cub survived the botched procedure to euthanize it and was brought to the temple.  Over the next few years, other orphaned cubs were brought to the temple and the head monk cared for them in following the principles of compassion for all living beings.

My last visit there was five years ago and the temple has developed quite a bit.  It remains a very popular tourist destination and the visitors’ fees go to support projects to protect the tigers.  The temple has also come in for some criticism from animal rights activists, which I won’t go into here other than to say that I did not witness any signs of ill treatment of the animals.

Okay, not a tiger, but a very large fire ant.  I was impressed with the macro focus on my camera!


The tigers, much like all cats, were napping in the warm afternoon.  There were about three or four staff members and volunteers for each cat and we were instructed about how to approach the cats and then the staff would take pictures. 

There were also plenty of other animals roaming about the large temple grounds, including this very friendly deer named Ta Waan – Sweet Eyes – who knows our tour guide because he always brings a bag of dried corn with him to the temple.

After feeding her, Ta Waan became our new best friend, following us around the temple.

Many of the tiger cubs are handled by various monks.  They play with them and keep them out of trouble.  This one made a lunge for Ta Waan, who bounded away, and the monk literally had to grab the tiger by the tail to keep him from running after the deer.

Since my last visit, the temple has introduced several programs that allow more interactivity with the cats, all for an extra price.  One of the programs was being able to feed and play with the cubs.  Gary and William opted for this and ended up with some wonderful pictures and great memories.  You’ll have to stay tuned to Gary’s site for those pictures.

Another program was being able to exercise the big cats.  Visitors are escorted by staff members into the exercise enclosure (Daniel in the lion’s den?) and get to play with them much in the same way you play with your cat at home: by holding something at the end of a stick that they will want to pounce on.  The enclosure has good vantage points from which you can see the big cats enjoying themselves.

 

As for the danger level, these are definitely wild cats and I observed that a lot of work is done by staff and volunteers to ensure that visitors don’t do anything that would startle the cats or cause their natural instincts to kick in, causing harm.  I suppose that also keeping them fed (boiled chicken) and happy do a lot to minimize some of the risks.

While I was standing there filming from the wall (standing about where the man in the white shirt is taking a picture in the photo above), I suddenly sensed that there was something just over my right shoulder.  Sure enough, the tiger cub (pictured with the monk several photos above) was walking along the top of the wall and had stopped because I was in his way.

This picture, one of three that turned out very nice, wasn’t taken with any zoom lens!  I was about two feet away from his whiskers.  Beautiful animal but a bit unnerving to be caught unawares.

I’ll leave you with this video compilation, about three minutes of footage of the tigers playing in the water.

All in all, I think Gary and William had a fantastic time and I’d include a visit to the Tiger Temple on the itinerary for other guests.  It is certainly an experience you won’t have at home.

Returning Home

Late Sunday morning, Tawn and I returned home from two weeks in the United States.  While I still have a bit more to share about the trip, and will continue to blog about it in the coming days – including about some other restaurants we ate at! – I wanted to let you know that we were back in Bangkok so that you don’t get confused about what would otherwise seem to be a month-long vacation!

Here’s a short video I shot on the taxi ride in from the airport, where I discovered some helpful and slightly shocking tourist materials.

 

Top Secret Assignment Day 3

Agents C and E, the 8- and 10-year old children of my visiting childhood friend Brad and his wife Donna, continued their top secret assignments, learning more about Thailand while gathering intelligence for Agent X back at headquarters. 

While Agent C was concerned that the integrity of the operation had been compromised when pictures of it appeared on my blog, they decided to continue with Day 3’s assignment: to do reconnaissance of the transportation infrastructure.  This involved taking at least five different types of transportation and then drawing pictures of each type and describing them in a “report.”

The assignment started with another code breaking exercise to discover the destination of the trip: Mahachai in Samut Sakhon province.  Last month, my friend Bill and I took a day trip by “the train to nowhere,” a two-part line disconnected from the rest of the State Railways that runs to Samut Sakhon and then on to Samut Songkhram provinces.  Link here.  I decided that this would be a fun opportunity for Agent C and E to see what life was like outside of Bangkok.

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Our first mode of transportation was walking – one common to many people in Thailand – but thankfully we only had a short distance to cover before we could switch to an air conditioned mode of transportation: the Skytrain.  Part of the code-breaking had included unscrambling the names of key stations on the Skytrain line as we connected in Siam and then continued across the river to Wongwian Yai.

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From there we took a taxi – transportation mode #3 – a short distance to the Wongwian Yai railway station.  While waiting for the train, we were able to look at some of the different foods available from the vendors, to get an idea of what Thais eat for breakfast.  We snacked on something not too exotic – grilled toast with a little condensed milk on it.

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We bought our tickets then boarded the train – mode #4 – which ended up being pretty full.  The ride was an hour long and along the way, the two secret agents and I walked the length of the train to see what we could learn about the people who ride it.

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One thing we learned is that crossing from car to car is pretty scary, especially when the train is moving!  Thankfully, there are rails to hold onto and you’d be hard pressed to actually fall onto the tracks.  But it as still thrilling.  We were able to go to the engineer’s cab at the back end of the train and see the controls they use to drive it.

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Along the way, we met some interesting people.  There were lots of vendors moving their wares to market, families traveling with children, and older folks getting from place to place.  They seemed fascinated with Agents E and C, and had lots of questions about them.  One man, seeing my camera, wanted to pose with Agent C for a picture.  It was a little strange being the center of attention when you’re on a covert mission, but Agent C handled it with grace, flashing a big smile at everyone.

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When we arrived in Mahachai an hour later we returned to the walking mode and visited a local market and the city pillar shrine, where preparations were underway for a large festival, before heading to the Ta Rua (“Boat Pier”) restaurant on the edge of the river.  While Agents E and C aren’t big seafood people, they bravely tried several new things while we sat on a shaded outdoor dining terrace and enjoyed the cooling breezes.

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Two hours later we were back at the train station, grabbing our seats for the ride back to Bangkok.

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Before trying our fifth mode of transportation, we needed a little pick-me-up, so Agents E and C (and their father) tried some coconut ice cream served the way street vendors have been selling it for years: in a sweet bread bun. 

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For the final mode of transportation the five of us crammed into the back of a tuk-tuk, the noisy little three-wheeled vehicles named after the sound their motors makes as they run.  We drove around a large traffic circle and five minutes later were deposited next to the Skytrain station for our trip back to the hotel.

After all that transportation, Agents E and C were ready for something new: Thai foot massages!  What a relaxing way to end their assignment.