Thursday, April 29, 2010

Ready for Market

Rice flour sheets drying before being used to wrap spring rolls. Luang Prabang, Lao PDR.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Good luck taxi

Amulets are important to Thais. They bring good luck while paying respect to revered monks and the Buddha. Often dangling from rear view mirrors with flower garlands, the more one has, apparently the more luck one receives. That, or some just enjoy collecting them. This taxi driver has 39 around his neck. Why 39? "I'm 40!" OK, the next obvious question, why not 40 amulets? "Only odd numbers of amulets are worn. Even numbers are not lucky. I'll add two next birthday." With that much luck and protection, I was tempted to unbuckle my seat belt as we headed onto the expressway. But only briefly.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Bangkok Chaos

Usually when one hears the words "Bangkok" and "chaos" used together, it creates visions of typical traffic gridlock in Thailand's capital city. Lately, it has become indicative of the country's economy, political structure and security. For the past several weeks, the center of Bangkok has been the scene of political protests (rather than re-hash the situation, see my previous post update) that have brought the financial center to a virtual standstill.

The anti-government demonstrators ("Red shirts"), composed largely of upcountry laborers and small business people, who back the exiled former prime minister found guilty of corruption, have a coordinated and formidable strategy to disrupt commerce in the city's center. The army has decided not to force a confrontation, as it will result in huge casualties on both sides (a clash a week ago left more than 20 dead), and the sitting prime minister refuses to bow to the "intimidation" (his words) and negotiate an early election. Counter demonstrators have taken to the streets, and the pro-government supporters ("Yellow shirts") are considering their options. The resulting stalemate is increasingly evident of a serious problem and potential threat to national security. Grenades from an unknown source exploded at several sites a few days ago, resulting in one death and dozens of injuries. Each side blames the other, and no one seems to have evidence pointing at any one group or individual responsible. No one has taken responsibility for the attack.

Thai friends are worried, and I note a touch of embarrassment: They say that the situation is worse than any previous situation, even those that resulted in military coups. No one seems to know how it will all play out, and tensions are rising. It is almost surreal how life is carrying on normally in most places, without recognition that there is a problem. Perhaps their fears prevent them from voicing concerns. Tourists pose for photos in front of police lines and buy red shirt souvenirs; Thais bring entire families to the red shirt "parties."

Thailand, as in most countries, operates its government behind the scenes, where deals are made. A friend passed on a quote about the U.S. government that is appropriate here, I'm sure: "It's like a sausage, it looks delicious on the outside, but you sure don't want to know what's on the inside!" Stories abound about back door negotiations so that everyone can "save face," an important part of Thai culture. I hope that this is true. The present situation cannot go on much longer.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Creepy Fashions

For some odd reason, these bizarre laughing mannekins are seen in numerous clothing shops across Thailand. Photo taken at Chatuchak weekend market, Bangkok.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Solar dryer

Chilis and garlic drying on a rooftop in Bhutan

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Bangkok Unrest Update

Street demonstrations in Bangkok by the anti-government party (UDD aka "Red Shirts") who are followers of ex-prime minister Thaksin, ousted by a coup in 2008, continue to shut down parts of the city. A week ago, clashes with police left more than 20 dead, each side blaming the other for the violence. The current prime minister (Aphisit) is backed by a coalition known commonly as PAD or "yellow shirts" (also supporters of the king) who presently are not demonstrating, but are meeting today to consider their response. They are the ones who shut down the airport last year to protest the UDD's control of parliament. Another group, known as the "online" peace group, or "no color" is now gathering strength and counter demonstrating for peaceful negotiations.

Aphisit has extended a compromise to have new elections in December, a year ahead of schedule. However, the red shirts have rejected his proposal, wanting parliament dissolved immediately, and new elections held sooner. They are angry that their party was eliminated and results of the last election nullified by the courts (The UDD had taken control of parliament). The red shirt leader (Thaksin) was found guilty of corruption and an arrest warrant issued. He continues to reside in exile, but communicate with followers.

What many people thought would be a temporary demonstration is now seemingly getting more serious and growing with sophisticated strategies countering the police initiatives to arrest the UDD leaders. Security has now been handed over to the army. No one knows what will happen. The government has lost patience with the red shirts and is pursuing blockades of their positions.

So far, there is no danger to us at all as long as we don't do something stupid like go downtown to "watch" the drama (which, amazingly, entire families do, even buying souvenir red T shirts). The U.S. embassy keeps us updated via email. Should there be more violence, it is not likely to seriously disrupt the lives of most people here. Oddly, this is a fairly common occurrence unique to Thailand, as they continue to transition fully to a democracy. Casualties are fortunately few and confined to small areas. Airports remain open, and people come and go.

No one can know what the outcome will be, but there is lots of speculation. The army could declare another coup, dissolve parliament, and set new elections. The government could back down and dissolve, and call for new elections. The red shirts could simply get tired and give up (not likely). The yellow shirts could mobilize and set up counter demonstrations, but that wouldn't help the situation at all. The word is that whatever happens, it will come to a head within a month.

We are fine, and living our lives normally as possible. Our schools are closely watching the situation, and should the need arise to cancel for the safety of the students who travel from all parts of Bangkok, they may close for a while. So far, that doesn't seem to be imminent. But of course, things can change quickly. Meanwhile, realize that things you see on TV are real, but confined to a small section of the city, and that life goes on as usual. We are in no danger. Our address may say "Bangkok," but remember that this is a province as large as Rhode Island, and we are 20 miles (30 km) away from the demonstrations.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Rack 'em up

Children's bicycles at an orphanage in northern Thailand

Monday, April 12, 2010

Shrine detail

Detail of a colorful shrine in Paro, Bhutan

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Coffee Wars

Coffee is big business. In the world of expensive boutique coffee shops, small businesses in Thailand have cropped up to claim a slice of the cup of joe windfall. A walk down a street in Minburi, Thailand revealed the following shop. Wow--the LORD of coffee! With such a name, this must be the best coffee!

But maybe not.
Across the street is this competitor. And, it has WI-FI! OK, so this will be my favorite!

Hold on! A short walk further:

What's a coffee lover to do?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Heads Up

This humorous juxtaposition was captured in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Paying respect

A decorated bodhi tree, the type under which the Buddha is said to have reached enlightenment. All bodhi trees in Thailand are usually wrapped with colorful silk garlands.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Field Trip

A student from my school's first year advanced biology classes on our field trip to study mangroves. Pranburi, Thailand.