Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Cool Season

It began as many changes do: Gradual and nearly imperceptible. As November arrived, there was a slight change in the humidity, accompanied by breezes that moved in during the night. Daylight comes a few minutes later each morning, and nighttime creeps in a bit earlier each evening, throwing off routines by the slightest measure. It then is apparent that rain has not fallen for a few days, then a week, then two. Nasal passages are suddenly dry, and the air conditioning gives way to fans, then to fans shut off in the middle of the night while half asleep we reach to throw covers over us. I notice that the shower heating knob has slowly been turned from the blue cool range of August to the red warm indicator as December approaches. I now must water the outdoor plants, and I take fewer showers, as there is not a constant sticky film of perspiration on my skin. More students come to school wearing sweaters or jackets, and Thai workers wear knit caps and down vests. Thankfully, the cool season has arrived--This morning is was 19 C (66 F), unusual, but welcome.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Bangkok Airport Closed

Kat received a text message yesterday that her school would be closed in response to the closing of Bangkok International Airport by political demonstrations. The main road to her school is also the main thoroughfare from downtown to the airport. My school remains open, although there have been concerns voiced by staff.

It is an unusual event: The police seem unable to contain the mass of well-organized demonstrators, who want the government to dissolve (they charge that it is corrupt and bought the most recent election); the army is asking the Prime Minister to dissolve parliament, but he has refused. An interesting standoff, to say the least. Meanwhile, the world's 18th largest airport is virtually closed. Since tourism is such a large part of Thailand's financial base, the airport is a lifeline. An American arriving yesterday in the chaos of the airport complained that this shouldn't be happening on "one of America's most important holidays." I simply do not know how to respond to such provincialism voiced OUTSIDE of the U.S.

It may seem a bit curious to those who are from western democracies. How can a small group of people bring a government to a complete halt? Why is it allowed? When asked this question, I had to think about it for a while, but then realized that Thailand's democracy is unlike that of western systems, for non-political reasons. Being a parliamentary system makes it different in its stability than a system of separate legislative bodies such as in the U.S. Additionally, there is a history of cultural norms, the influence of the monarchy, the military's connection (or disconnection) to the ruling party and tolerance for corruption, as well as the growing number of people who want to change the system that is seen to be rife with unscrupulous dealings. In short, it's complicated. I am impressed with the restraint that has been shown so far. But who knows what tomorrow will bring? I know that the airport cannot remain closed indefinitely.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister and cabinet have set up quarters in the northern city of Chiang Mai, in effect becoming a government in exile within its own borders. Rumor has it that another coup is imminent.

So far, our day to day activities have not been affected, although western embassies in Bangkok are cautioning citizens to stay away from any area that may be potentially dangerous.
We do not consider ourselves in any danger. We do wonder about the inconveniencing of friends who are planning to visit soon, as well as our plans to fly south in a week for a three day holiday weekend. Kat is a bit nervous about her flight to the U.S. later in the month, but there is no sense worrying at this point. We are not in control of the situation, so must wait and see how it pans out.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Death of a Thai Princess

Two weekends ago Thailand paid its last respects to Princess Galyani Vadhana, sister of Thailand’s king, the cremation ceremony and procession coming 300 days after her death, as is the custom in the kingdom when a member of the royal family dies. Although I did not witness the procession in person, the images I saw on TV were like nothing I had ever seen or could have possibly imagined. After months of preparation and practice, the cortege carrying the ashes of the princess made its way through the city, accompanied by 2,000 royal guards and soldiers, all in regalia and in perfect somber cadence. I was mesmerized by the sight of gilded carriages high above the heads of spectators, reminiscent of the royal barges that once passed through the city’s rivers and canals with the level of royal family members never once falling below the height of the tallest citizen. No longer required to avert eyes and touch foreheads to the ground as the king passes, Thais nonetheless bow deeply in the presence of royals, and did so as the ashes of the princess passed the onlookers.

There are very few places in the world where a monarch or immediate family members are treated with such reverence and respect. From an American’s perspective, it is a bit of a surprise to see this atmosphere, one that many consider an anachronism in this century. Unless one spends time in Thailand, it is difficult to appreciate just how important the king--and by extension his family—is to Thais.

The funeral is reported to have cost the equivalent of 9 million US dollars, an unimaginable sum to nearly everyone in the world, but in particular to those in a country where the basic wage is about $5 a day. And yet I did not hear one negative remark from Thais about such extravagance. Of course, not only is it considered rude to demean the royal family, highly insulting remarks may land the offender in jail. I have come to think that Thais may not think about it at all. From Buddhist philosophy, one accepts his lot in life, and begrudges no one theirs; they simply strive to live a good life, making merit whenever possible in order to have a better life next time around.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Loy Krathong: Festival of Floating Lights

Loy Krathong is the annual festival at the end of the rainy season in which Thais offer prayers and thanks to the water goddess for the nourishing rains and to renew their pledge to keep the waters pure. As night falls during the full moon of the 12th lunar month (usually in November), thousands gather at waterways to release "krathongs," traditionally small floating pieces of lotus and banana leaf, often carrying candles, flowers, incense and coins for good luck. The scene is enchanting.

Photo from

As can happen when technology and commercialism run ahead of good sense, the krathongs recently have been largely massed produced instead of being handmade, and with styrofoam as the main flotation material, with banana leaves stapled to the sides. The result is tons of non-biodegradable junk and sharp rusting staples dropping onto river beds and flowing into the Gulf of Thailand where they wash onto beaches for months afterward, turning a traditionally beautiful celebration into one with environmental destruction as an aftermath. Incredibly, Bangkok's former governor once decreed that all krathongs were to be made of foam! He reasoned that they floated best and were easy to clean up later. Since then, it has been difficult to make headway against the styrofoam mindset. But there is hope: Organic krathongs that disintegrate into fish food are becoming popular. Nearly all of the krathongs I saw for sale in our village were hand-made, and none included styrofoam; some were made of bread. Despite this trend, the krathongs still either end up rotting at the bottom of lakes and streams, or bob gently on water until cleaned up by concerned citizens. One can only hope that the river goddess will one day smile again upon the gifts being offered throughout the kingdom on this night.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Obama Factor

There is a perceived change in the attitudes of people here in Thailand since the election of Barack Obama as the next U.S. president. American expatriates are more upbeat and jovial, and students—even non-Americans--seem genuinely excited by the possibilities. Unless one speaks directly with Thais, it’s difficult to assess any new differences in their feelings, as they are always positive and smile at westerners anyway, particularly Americans. I am cautiously optimistic and find myself hopeful that America’s image may be improved, as it is now scraping ground in the global community at large.

Reports on the internet claim that the authors who are Americans living abroad no longer hide their citizenship in order to avoid confrontations about American foreign policy. Strangers smile at them and one journalist in Vienna reported being kissed by a stranger on the bus a day after the election once she knew he was American. Americans who do not travel out of the country are not usually aware of just how badly our country’s reputation has been tarnished by the Bush administration. It is little wonder that so many reports of optimism abound around the world.

For me as an American, it is much more personal. Having grown up during the civil rights movement, it is astonishingly wonderful that a family of color will occupy the White House. It is gratifying to know that many of the barriers that prevented African-Americans from voting as recently as just over 40 years ago have fallen far enough to usher into the Oval Office the son of an African father and white mother from the American plains. I have never understood the illogical racial prejudice that has divided our nation, often violently. Perhaps now true healing and soul-searching may occur, led by a man who is neither white nor black, and yet both. It is the perfect stage upon which to move forward. Let’s hope we do.