Mandalay

January 30, 2014

I had been roaming the streets of downtown Mandalay for a few hours when I came up on the unmarked area. The Air Asia pick up stop was a dusty, nondescript location, in-between streets. Somewhere near the palace. It was about 7 a.m. and there was a couple attending a fuel stand in the vicinity. They were selling it out of soda bottles.

“Mingalaba,” I said.

They smiled. Their teeth caked in redness, stained from chewing paan, a common narcotic. High on life.

They immediately eased my tension by letting me know I was in the right place. “Bus one,” they pointed right. “Bus two,” they pointed left. “Later,” they waved time along. They offered me a seat.

“Where you from?”

“America,” I smiled back as I fiddled with Betilde’s anis cigarette in my pocket. (Or was it a cigar?) As I pulled it out, I realized I’d broken it in half. Just like the other two before that. Maybe tasting the local product wasn’t meant for me.

It must’ve been the look on my face. The couple offered one from their own stash which was clearly for sale. As he unwrapped it, the man said “gift.”

I smiled again. I lit up.

(I can now attest, with the utmost certainty, that these are not cigars. Then again, ‘just as long as you don’t inhale,’ as Perdorn succinctly noted a few hours prior…)

The couple now asked me to join them for breakfast chapati. Another couple was already at work. I politely declined, having eviscerated a much bigger one on my own earlier that morning.

After they were done with their meal, they offered me another smoke. I declined again feeling overcome by this eerily familiar disdain for the after-taste of tar and tobacco. I felt the urge to flush my mouth with peppermint. Or maybe just a taste of lahpetyei.

I put out what was left of my cigarette. The buses had already arrived and the couple knew it was time for me to go. With the same big smile on their faces they waved me off, “bye, bye!”

“Cezubeh!” I said, as I boarded the bus.


Early voting and rising tensions

January 26, 2014

This pic is making the rounds on the twitterverse in Bangkok. A voter on his way to the polls getting attacked by an anti-government mob. Whether it’s staged or not (people are getting riled up from each and every side about its veracity), you can get a sense of the tension that’s building up in the city. Anti-government demonstrators are indeed blocking some polling stations and people trying to cast their ballots are getting upset.

440,000 out of 2 million people registered for advance voting can’t cast ballots after PDRC obstructed election in BKK & other provinces.

— Sunai (@sunaibkk) January 26, 2014

Even if opposition leaders wish they could say otherwise.

Suthep: We went to protest sites to show our views , not to obstruct election — Lerla (@Lerlaforever) January 26, 2014

Violence is starting to breaking out. One anti-government leader was shot dead just outside a polling station in a suburb of Bangkok and we’re all just waiting to see whether or not the military will get involved.

The Democratic Party sure chose a terrible way to show their angst toward government corruption. There will always be claims of foul play in highly contested high profile elections, but blocking someone from carrying out a right so many around the world have fought so hard to achieve is not the way to go, specially not when the whole world is watching.


The revolution will be televised

January 23, 2014

What goes on in this video is wrong on so many levels but not because it’s not being truthful and this is why I’ve been having such a difficult time explaining whether or not it’s dangerous to be in Bangkok at this time.

“Is Bangkok safe?” “Should I even bother going there?” These are the two questions that have been bursting out of my inbox and people I’ve met recently.

The short answer is yes, if you’re already here and not now if you can help it. These protests are not anything like the ones they had in 2010. That doesn’t change the fact that they are protests and at best, visitors might feel slightly annoyed at the sudden tension and uneasiness in this otherwise laid-back metropolis.

If you read the international press (or watch the incredibly histrionic news networks) you would be alarmed, rightfully. There is a large contrast between what you see on that video and what is spelled out on the news and that has been one of the most mystifying aspects of these events. They are rallying against the government but in their very own way. Main roads have been taken over and transformed into walking street markets, stages have been set up at major intersections and music plays loudly giving them the feeling of a music festival. They all have an air of peacefulness and festivity that is hard to shake and is very inviting. Throw in a mostly middle to upper class Bangkokian crowd to the mix, a grillion selfies, malls, Starbucks and McDonald’s capitalizing on the sizable crowds and you have a very unorthodox type of revolution taking place.

If you are a foreigner, the crowds are not something you have to worry about but as is the case with any large political gathering, fighting can erupt at a moment’s notice and there are bound to be more extremist factions that will incite them (1). The crowds in general are very friendly. The spontaneity of violence is the reason to worry. There have been deaths (2) and many injuries (3). Losing sight of what’s really going on amidst the walking street markets and the tagging of selfies is the real danger. This is after all a political demonstration, but many seem oblivious to the fact.

The crowds have shut down government facilities, blocked main roads as well as access to those who want to register as candidates in the upcoming elections (4). These would all be considered acts of terrorism where I come from, hence, the anti-democracy label by the international media.

Whether the only solution to this problem of corruption is to block the democratic process, I have no idea. I don’t know enough about the intricacies of Thai law and government to fully understand the logic behind the actions of the anti-government crowd. Color me drenched in cynicism but what I know is never to trust one politician calling another corrupt.

(1) A non-thai co-worker of mine lives in a predominantly red-shirt neighborhood where a shooting took place after a group of protesters incited the locals. The neighborhood is in the outskirts of Bangkok not anywhere near the protest sites.

(2) There have been other shootings, and grenade attacks aimed at the protest leaders but all have mised their intended targets (the leaders), instead killing or injuring bystanders.

(3) Also, a taxi driver was beat down for complaining to a group of protesters for blocking traffic. As far as I know, most taxi drivers and moto taxi drivers are red-shirt sympathizers. When the yellow-shirt mob swallowed up my neighborhood, shutting down traffic, I couldn’t help but notice many of the moto taxi drivers wearing red scarves, red handkerchiefs, red undershirts and red sweaters. Red, red, red.

(4) The anti-government demonstrators are boycotting the election so all current candidates are de facto pro-government. There is talk about blocking of polls during the election. Rightfully, “respect my vote” signs have been propping up around town.


On the political protests of 2014

January 19, 2014

Welcome to Thailand, the land where your right to stand against the government and have your voice heard is alive and well. This is also a place where political discourse can be more polarizing than family gatherings on American Thanksgiving. In my four years here I have been amazed at the will of the people to exercise their right to protest and fight for what they believe in.

I’ve been asked by a few friends about the current situation and I figured I’d do a quick run-down of the political demonstrations in the land of smiles. This is what I can tell you:

The current protests were sparked a few months ago by a now infamous Amnesty Bill (which would have pardoned a few high profile politicians of their crimes and allowed them back into the political fray) and it has been fueled by charges of political corruption in the current government.

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The “protests” in downtown BKK.

There are many differences between these protests and the ones from 2010, the main one being the groups behind each of these. The people protesting the government 3 years ago are known as the red-shirts: they are people from the Northeastern provinces of Thailand and supporters of the former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his party. They also voted Yingluck Shinawatra, the current prime minister and Thaksin’s sister, into power in the 2011 election. In 2010, the government was run by the same people who are heading the current anti-government demonstrations. Mainly the yellow shirts, a group who made headlines in 2006 for shutting down the airports in Bangkok and eventually sacking Thaksin from power.

The red-shirt protests of 2010,

The red-shirt protests of 2010. As they say around these parts, not same same.

Back in 2010, the people protesting were literally occupying Bangkok. Northerners trekking south en masse, setting up shop in town and sleeping on the streets for weeks. The demonstrations reached a boiling point, turning violent and soon the occupiers found themselves fighting the military and the police. Buildings were burned to the ground and when it was all said and done, over 80 people were dead. Ultimately the government capitulated, set-up new elections, and the protesters went home.

The main road in Siam taken over by protesters, street vendors, and gawkers alike

The main road in Siam taken over by protesters, street vendors, and gawkers alike

The demonstrations of 2014 are a different story. For the most part, these protesters are trekking downtown from all over the city, riding the MRT or the BTS to the rally points and going back home at night to their own beds. The main bulk of the protesters are Bangkokians. These demonstrations have had a far more festive atmosphere. I’d like to blame their ubiquitous whistles but the sounds of Queen and James Brown blasting through speakers and the musicians on stage, are hard to ignore. They have had encounters with law enforcement but police have stayed away from the protests so far this year. (During both protests, neither side has shown trust in the cops, maybe because of their close association with the government, regardless of who’s at the helm.) Historically, the military has backed the yellow-shirts so I don’t see why they would intervene against them, if anything, they might intervene in their favor, like they did in 2006. They have been setting up small bunkers close to the gathering areas. I doubt these protesters are going to want to trash their hometown. As the saying goes, you don’t shit where you eat, I think it’s applicable.

Taking a break from exercising their rights.

Taking a break from exercising their rights.

Is everything okay? Kinda, sorta, not really.

Eight people have been killed and many others injured so far but these have been mostly due to altercations between the rival groups. All of this violence has been reported to a certain extent but I have friends around town (who live close to particularly volatile areas) who tell me they hear gunshots and explosions with far more frequency than we hear about in the news. The real fear is that the red shirts might come join the party and set off massive confrontations.

Going anywhere?

Going anywhere?

Airports might be shut-down. I mean, protesters are systematically occupying government buildings and forcing them to shut down their operations. It’s a bit hard to get around town by car. Downtown in particular. Depending on where you’re going, traffic can be a mess. More of a mess than it usually is. Last month, the sky train was shut down for a few hours as the protesters took over the stations but otherwise, it has been running smoothly and it’s as dependable as ever. Bangkok might be in slight disarray but outside the city, things should be okay. (Chiang Mai, the islands, etc.)

Occupy Siam

Occupy Siam

Elections are being held on February 2nd and this is when things will come to a boil. If you’re planning a trip here, try scheduling it some time after that. The political climate immediately after elections will be uncertain as the odds are stacked against the opposition.

At the epicenter, the Asoke intersection, shortly before Suthep took the stage.

At the epicenter, the Asoke intersection, shortly before Suthep took the stage.

There are some peculiar aspects to the art of political protest in Thailand. There’s an odd sense of respect for certain national holidays. In 2010, there had been clashes by the time Songkhran (Thai New Year) came around, but if you were in the city for the celebrations, you would’ve never realized the tension that had preceded it. For a few days in April, that tension had dissipated and everyone in the city soaked each other in water and covered their faces in paste. Afterwards, the hypertension returned and things eventually degraded into mayhem.

Is it safe for travelers? If you’re a foreigner, you shouldn’t be worried as long as you stay away from the protest areas (which includes many places of interest). Don’t wear red or yellow or black. and if for some odd reason, you happened to get caught up in a situation, walk away from the commotion. Right now might not be the time to visit Bnagkok.

Taking a breather after battling the crowds in Siam.

Taking a breather after battling the crowds in Siam.

Is yours truly going to be safe? Yup. I live just outside the center and my workplace is out of the way and nowhere near any location of interest for either side. My commute is short and away from downtown. Demonstrators jam-packed my neighborhood a couple of times already but that just meant that traffic was slow moving. If it happens again, I’ll probably stay home, read a book and have a cup of joe. I’m not going outta my way to hang out in the protests areas (photos not withstanding).

I could have ostensibly crowd surfed my way up Thonglor that day.

I could have ostensibly crowd surfed my way up Thonglor that day.

There’s some uncertainty with the outcome of these demonstrations but what I can tell you for sure, is that I and everyone I know, wish for things to be resolved peacefully. And hopefully sooner than later.


Occupy BKK

January 15, 2014

A tsunami of anti-government demonstrators slows traffic in my neighborhood down to a trickle on Wednesday afternoon. I am all for democracy and political demonstrations (*power to the people*) but I find it odd that the people backing a minority party are trying to forcefully throw-out the other party in power, nevermind that they were elected by 48% of the popular vote, outrageous rice-subsidies notwithstanding. I keep getting worried messages from friends and family back home, and it’s hard to allay some of their concerns given American news networks’ affinity toward nuance, but these protests have had a rather festive atmosphere. I’d like to blame the whistles but the stages, sound systems, and musicians kinda sorta stand out too. That said, it’s all Lollapalooza out there until someone takes a 2×4 with a rusty nail to the head.


Days and nights in Yangon

January 14, 2014

My time in Yangon was short. I took the time to record some of my thoughts and experiences while sipping on one too many leqpeqyes (milk teas) in random tea shops around the city.

On accommodation.

I have a bad habit of never booking ahead of time when I travel and it took me forever to find a place for the night. Eventually I found a guest house but I doubt it would make anyone’s top 5 lists of places to stay in Yangon. Maybe tomorrow I’ll find a better spot although it’s hard to beat $8 a night in the heart of the city. And this joint is fairly decent. I use the words fairly and decent loosely. The place, the Phyoe Guest House, is clean(ish) by which I mean that the bathrooms are kept in fair condition (2.5/5 stars). They offer free albeit spotty wi-fi and the guys that run this place are friendly. They let me borrow a surge protector to charge my phone and keep the fan running at the same time.  That said, I’m sleeping in a box and everything has a faint scent of insecticide. I hope it’s the detergent they use…

And no bed bugs. FTW.

On the art of negotiation.

I might be losing my edge. I had some issues negotiating bus tickets to Bagan. The people selling me the tix originally asked for 18,000 kyat! They assured me there was nothing they could do (they most certainly would). ‘Only price,’ they said. Then miraculously, after much nagging, they let me in on a 10,500 kyat bus, just non-VIP. Forget VIP. I jumped on it. That’s a night’s worth of accomodation. My joy was short-lived because after a phone call to the bus company they let me know that there had been a misunderstanding. The deal was too good to be true. ‘That price only for local.’ After a drawn out back and forth, I ended up on that same 18,000 kyat VIP bus but for 15,000 kyat.  Not included was the 7,000 kyat ride to the bus station. Apparently, it’s never included. This is a short trip so I didn’t have the time to put up much resistance.

But just because I like beating dead horses I asked around when I got to the Sule Paya area (lots of “ticket agencies” there). I’m sure I could’ve saved a few more bucks if I cared but everyone was quoting me he same prices, including the 10,500 kyat fee ‘for local only.’

On morning habits.

Everyone around me is smoking. I don’t know, maybe is the milk in my tea but I have this unprecedented urge to light-up a cigarette. That said, I would much rather smoke a cigar. A milk tea and a cigar, now that’s an idea.

On food.

Between dinner last night and breakfast this morning, I can tell the food here is very oily super greasy. There are tons of deep fried foods and their stir fry tastes like it has been drowned in oil. Luckily, there’s also a lot of variety. Indian and Chinese options abound.

On the weather.

The nights are cool but during the day, the heat is stifling when you’re not in the shade.

On the local service industry.

It’s past eleven at night and children are taking my orders and fetching me beers at this restaurant. They have laws against this back in America.  (Little did I know it would be a very common occurrence.)

On the overall experience.

I really liked Yangon. It’s a pity I barely got to check out the old quarter. The colonial architecture is surreal, it made me feel like I was walking around in an oversized museum. Old Yangon is easy enough to get around by foot. And the Shwedagon Paya is a sight to be seen. I would’ve liked to explore the newer part of town, the area around Kandawgyi Lake and even farther up to Inya Lake. There was more food variety here than anywhere else I went on this trip. I could picture myself living here.


Notes on arrival: Myanmar

January 12, 2014

  • Yangon Airport is not bad. It’s not huge but seems built well enough to handle the current flow of travelers.
  • There’s a visa on arrival booth in Yangon Airport. I assume there’s one in Mandalay Airport as well, but you never know. (Bring a couple of passport photos.) Knowing this would have saved me a couple of afternoons and long skytrain rides in Bangkok. That said, a hat tip to Mike and Tara who made the whole thing a cinch.
  • The exchange rate at the airport is superb. I think it might have been a government exchange booth since it had no visible signage on it and it was right behind the x-ray machine where they collect your immigration stub, before you even exit immigration. Most people seemed to ignore it and walk straight to the flashier bank exchanges just outside.
  • Your dollar bills have to be crispy and clean, otherwise it’s a no go.
  • I asked around and the going rate for a cab ride downtown was $8 or 8,000 kyats. I’m sure you can fight that one down to 7,000 kyats. If you get it down to 6,000 you can give yourself a gold star.
  • The word kyats is pronounced jats. Think Aung San Suu Kyi.
  • The two most important words you can know before you even touch ground in Myanmar:
    • Mingalaba – hello (literally ‘auspiciousness to you’)
    • Chezubeh (or Jezubeh) – thank you (in some places some folks would pronounce it Chezuba).
  • My guard was up from the get-go as always but I quickly realized that nobody was trying to rip me off. Folks there are nice!

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