Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Down at the Bangkok protest

I took a wander around Democracy Monument, one of the main rally locations in Bangkok's continuing protests. (Photos are below.)

It was relatively quiet and spacious, considering it was shoulder-to-shoulder last night for about 5km with anything from 100,000 (conservative) to 1,000,000 (generous) people.

Today most of those people split into groups to rally at 12 other city locations, mostly police, military and government offices. The Ministry of Finance was taken over and peacefully occupied by protestors.

However, all I saw was at Democracy Monument. There was a happy, friendly atmosphere - certainly not the "rivers of blood" my friend mentioned seeing in the 2010 protests and crackdown. Things are clearly nowhere near that stage yet.

There are stands of free food and mountains of bottled water being shipped in (I'm amazed how 100,000+ people went to the toilet last night). The Democracy Monument itself, on a large roundabout and usually unreachable behind traffic, has a large stage with leaders speaking, often to loud cheers, and a rock band providing entertainment.

Like any major event there are merch and T-shirt stands. Note that the T-shirts, hair bands and novelty glasses have the Thai flag colours and "I Love Thailand", rather than yellow (see below), because political movements always try to show they are about the whole country, rather than the political motives of the groups organising events.

On the roundabout, both McDonalds and the classy Sorn Daeng restaurant are still open behind ranks of chairs and motorbike taxis. Closer to the stage, protestors are seated on traditional Thai picnic blanket - sheets of uncut washing powder packaging.

Bear in mind this is all happening literally within 1min walk from the end of Khao San Road, Thailand's garish and trashy backpacker ghetto where tourists drink towers of Beer Chang and buy scorpions-onna-stick and get idiotic T-shirts that all other backpackers have already. The tourist world is usually entirely, completely removed from the world of real, normal Thailand - backpackers I've met the last 3 weeks have been completely unaware of any protests going on, and the Thais working in tourism generally just want to get on with things. (As do most people!) So it is interesting now that the protests have become so big and made a home at Democracy Monument, it's so close to the escapist world of tattoos, fake dreads, crap jewellery, Indian men selling suits and cries of "massage massage!".

It's difficult to explain the political situation simply without going into detail. But here's a go:

- Former prime minister and billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a military coup in 2006. He fled the country to escape corruption charges, and is "widely assumed" (BBC) to be running the country from exile in Dubai.

- Thaksin's sister Yingluck Shinawatra is the current PM and leader of the ruling Pheu Thai Party.

- These protests have been organised and co-ordinated primarily by the opposition Democrat party. As you will see from photos, it is a large operation and there is a lot of money and organisation going into them.

- Primary figure of the protests is former Democrat MP Suthep Thaugsuban. He is facing trial, amonst others, for his role in the police using live ammunition in the 2010 red-shirt protests and the deaths of 91 people.

- Supporters of Pheu Thai, the govt and the Shinawatras wear red and are known as "red-shirts", official name the United front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD). They have been holding rallies at a stadium in Bangkok with maybe 30-40,000 people.

- Those opposing the govt are generally the "yellow-shirts", offically the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD).

- As with most popular protests in large cities, the yellow-shirts and Democrats are primarily middle-class, urban, and wealthy Bangkokians, who generally despise Thaksin. The red-shirts and govt supporters are mainly from the rural poorer Northeast of Thailand. Both groups have bussed supporters to the capital, as in previous years, to boost their rallies.

- The protests were ignited by a govt amnesty law (not passed) aimed at national reconciliation by pardoning all those wanted for crimes from the 2006 coup to today, which was amended to include Thaksin Shinawatra.

- Anger increased at the government's attempt to make the Senate (2nd parliamentary chamber) fully elected instead of appointed, which would have given strength to PTP, given the size of red-shirt support in the north.

- Both parties and sides have been using extreme rhetoric. The PTP/UDD see these protests as forceful eviction of a democratically-elected government. The Democrats see it as necessary in order to rid the country of "Thaksinism".

And that was the quick version!

Anyway enough talking, here's some pictures. I won't put my personal views on the situation, partly because they are as complicated as the situation itself!

Saturday, 23 November 2013

You, and I, could live in Chiang Mai

Not together of course! Unless you want to split the rent on a nice flat, or you're a stunningly beautiful woman of course.

I mean separately, 1) You could come and live in Chiang Mai, here in Thailand, and 2) I'm seriously considering coming to live here some time, just for a few months.

Chiang Mai is the beautiful historic northern city of Thailand. It has a central old city inside a square moat, about 1.2km across. And while it has the feel and charm of a small city, there's a lot going on outside the walls and gates.

Chiang Mai has a wonderful atmosphere. As a hub for northern Thailand, it's obviously a focus on the tourist trail, with hundreds of guest houses and hotels and tour companies. But it is also a cultural centre for Thais, not just the many who live here but also across the whole country. These 2 worlds combine, cautiously but happily.

An example: coffee shops. Chiang Mai is alive with coffee shops. But whereas 10 years ago you could easily say these were driven purely by tourists, there is now a growing number of young, middle class Thai people who enjoy going for a coffee.

Another: festivals. Just 2 of the many Thai festivals, Songkran (Thai new year, water fights, April) and Yi Peng/Loy Krathong (lanterns and river floats, November) have their main celebrations in Chiang Mai.

One thing that makes it easy is the number of "farang" (foreigners, and/or white people) already living here. Getting into a random songthaew (shared taxi), the people in it already were part of a digital nomads project group who'd settled to live in Chiang Mai for at least the next few months. "How easy is it to live here?" I asked an American guy. "Very easy," he replied with a big smile on his face.

Let's not mix up living for a short while and moving permanently. Moving permanently or even just on an ongoing basis means getting involved with work visas and immigration, which is less than fun in Thailand. Owning land and property can be very difficult for foreigners too.

On the other hand, if you work online it's very straightforward to come for short periods. As a British person you get a 30 day visitor visa every time you enter, and there are many "visa run" services offered so you don't even have to leave the country to extend your stay. (Of course with Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam all close by, you may choose to anyway.)

Even if you don't work online, you could easily save up some money like backpackers do - if your rent is reasonable, it would probably cost the same week for week as travelling.

Anyway. This pondering mostly comes from my trip back in September, where (luckily being from the EU) I realised I could live in European cities like Bratislava, Krakow or Prague for a short period. It'd be weird, but wouldn't it be fun?

And so the same out here in Asia. Not every city is like Chiang Mai and not everyone is suited to Asia. But the possible is always waiting round the corner for anyone who wants to make a decision.

Here's some photos of Chiang Mai to finish off, cheers.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Full lyrics: Backpacking Is Easy (Banana Pancakes and Wifi)

So I've written a song about the clichés of travelling in Asia. Unfortunately my guitar's back in Bangkok so for now it's just a poem. Enjoy!

Imagine it with a happy bouncy tune, and remember, I'm taking the piss out of myself too ;)

Backpacking Is Easy (Banana Pancakes and Wifi)

So you rode an elephant
Stayed with a hill tribe
Took pictures of monks like animals at the zoo

You read a book on a beach
Got a tan on a beach
Not just any old beach
It's a Thai island beach
And your tan is a genuine Thailand island tan

You don't need to learn the language
You don't even need to try
Backpacking is easy when you find, there's always
Banana pancakes and wifi

Your T-shirt says "Beer Chang"
Your T-shirt says "7-11"
Your T-shirt says "Same Same But Different"
But how different is it really from anyone else?

Your T-shirt says "Red Bull" in Thai
Your T-shirt says "Coca-cola" in Thai
Which is totally more interesting and cultural than if it just said "Coca-Cola" in English.

You don't need to look around you
With Lonely Planet at your side
Backpacking is easy when you find, there's always
Banana pancakes and wifi

Sunrise at Angkor Wat...
Tubing in Vang Vieng...
Took you 2 years to give up smoking
And 5 minutes in Bangkok to start again

It's easy to think you're an individual
Out here in Asia you can be yourself
But to really conform, just do what everyone else does
Get drunk up in Pai, and fall off your moped

You can pretend it's not Ibiza,
You can pretend if you like
Backpacking is easy when you find, there's always
Banana pancakes and wifi

-----------

Cynicism for everyone! What can I say, I'm an amateur sociologist.

Did I miss any clichés? I'm thinking about all the elephant-print temple/yoga/hippy pants, and getting your picture taken with a drugged-up tiger.


It's Asia, here are some lanterns

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

14 things Luang Prabang has that you don't

1. This damselfly in front of these falls


Have you got the gorgeous Kuang Si falls in your back garden? Didn't think so.

2. These ethically-dubious snake whiskey "remedies"


Probably a good thing you don't have these.

3. Freaking Beer Lao


Have you got dark Beer Lao in your town? What about the still-delicious normal one?

4. Stunning sunset views of the River Mekong


Or the 4, 5, 6 layers of mountains in the near horizon? Got any of them?

5. Red Cross massages


Does your local Red Cross give amazing massages for $5 USD/hr? Or just boring old saving lives?

6. Amazing bakeries and crêpes on the street


Just how much French colonial influence does your town have, exactly?

7. These grains drying out on the street


I bet you dry all your grains the boring way indoors

8. These terrifyingly large ants


Or "awesomely" large, if you're like me and not scared of insects

9. Or this grasshopper the size of a light aircraft


Okay maybe this thing as a 20cm ball of flapping might freak you out a little

10. This totally legit bowling alley full of drunk white people


Wait, you might actually have one of these.

11. ALL THESE ZEROS


With 12,500 Lao Kip (LAK) to the British pound, it's easy for a foreigner to be a millionaire in Laos

12. This totally safe waterfall staircase


8/10 accidents occur within the home. The rest happen here.

13. These white-supremacist safety breakers


So what, who needs racist electricity anyway.

14. The most stunning array of wild butterflies you ever saw in a major town


This guy was just being shy. But don't take my word for it, go there yourself.



All photos by me. Sorry for the poor quality, I only had my phone.

A Year In Cities and Countries

Wellington. We counted down the days and weeks not quite accepting that this time, it really did have to end. My cute beautiful love, one day maybe we will settle down together.

Bangkok, the sexy, dirty, messy girl. We've both grown in 10 years, both cleaned ourselves up a little bit. I enjoyed getting to know her properly this time, getting a feel for her real character.

England. We met in sadness, knowing that she is still in a bad place, and it's still not right for us to be together. But it was good to see her again, and spend time together, and catch up.

Chelmsford. Warmer relations. We knew we were never right for each other from the start, and yet we share too many friends, family and history to be truly apart. I quite enjoyed seeing her. It's good to see she has grown too, more interesting and more relaxed than she used to be.

London is the only homosexual relationship I've ever had. He is my comrade, friend, brother, wingman; sometimes he lets me take the driving seat and feel awesome, other times he makes sure I know I'm his little bitch. We're still not yet ready to live together, but I love spending time with him, and learning from him too.

Bristol. It is silly of us to pretend it could ever be like old times, and yet there's always that memory, always those 3 university years in the back of your mind. We played and ran and drank, and I'll do it again easily.

Europe oh Europe, my bountiful, voluptuous mistress. It's so good to spend time with her again, to cuddle at her curves and laugh and play. She is a magical cherub and a dirty dominatrix all at once and I love it.

Zürich is a respectable, older lady, so it was a privilege to meet her on a rare weekend where she let herself go, drunk and wild; it was a thrill to share her with so many people all at once.

Strasbourg. She is mature and stunningly beautiful; dignified. She is neither in the mood to own or be owned. It's hard to imagine us living together, or even engaging in a little debauchery, but it would be enjoyable to share a wine with her again one day.

Paris is a stinky, sexy, chain-smoking bitch who is as cultural as she is cynical. I like her; I don't know if she likes me. It was a flying visit, more intellectual foreplay than anything else. But maybe one day we'll explore a bit more of each other.

Krakow destroyed me again and I loved it again. She is complicated and not 100% loveable, but wonderfully fun and unstoppable.

Slovakia is a curious, beautiful girl. She is fresh and dirty, fun but reserved, clever and mostly respectable. We shared just a few lovely days and many more drinks.

Budapest destroyed me in a mere 40 hours. At least Krakow noticed me; I felt Budapest, with her labyrinthine bars and wild history, merely brushed me aside. Next time.

Prague is the woman from everywhere who has everything. She is mature but exciting, young but wise, cultured, smart and sophisticated. I could live with her, so easily.

Chiang Mai is also pretty and cultured. She is still a mystery, but I find myself curious about living with her, for just a few months. Why not?

And finally Luang Prabang, the Asian jungle river girl with history and a modern French twist. I don't know if any relationship between us would even be allowed, but I was enchanted enough to want to see her again.

So, that's that. I'm back with Chiang Mai right now. I'll be sharing a beer with Bangkok soon, and I'm very much looking forward to sharing a coffee or 3 with Wellington again.

And at the end of 2013, waiting patiently with her hair done and a bright smile, is Melbourne. I'm excited.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Dawn circus in Laos: DON'T go see the monks taking gifts in Luang Prabang

Greetings from Laos! On my first trip here, I should be telling you about how frankly wonderful it is; how the language is very similar to Thai; how the food is amazing, and how the French left a bizarre legacy of baguettes and bakeries.

Sadly the image which stuck out the most is the circus of the monks collecting alms on the street at dawn.

The entire internet calls it a "must-see". More importantly, my highly-travelled friend, who I absolutely trust, said it was one of the great things to do here in Luang Prabang.

So, up late from drinking and talking, 3 friends and I decided we'd just stay up and see the monks. Not very classy, but we weren't drunk and went out with a respectful attitude.

What we saw was dozens of tourists - far more than there were monks - lining the streets with cameras. Not all of them acted badly but many did, getting up close to monks, shoving cameras in their faces and those of the locals who come out to give. Some literally ran down the street just to get the right shot. Some just blankly took photos of any monks they saw, not really caring or understanding what they were looking at.

The whole atmosphere felt like a circus and I can't see any magic in an event where locals are treated like zoo animals in their own town.

To be clear:

- I'm not someone who thinks that we should keep foreign places "cute" in the way that we, the tourist, find cute. It's a patronising attitude held by many travellers and bloggers and I won't buy into it.

- I don't think the problem is the number of tourists, and that this would be a perfect cute tourist event if there were just less tourists. I've already heard people saying "go see the monks at X, there's hardly any tourists", utterly blind to the irony of what they're saying.

- Neither am I totally naïve, and nor are the locals trying to sell things to tourists to give to the monks. The event is not untouchably sacred, foreigners have been coming for a long time, and I'm sure many monks have a joke and a smile before they start.

The problem is respect.

For the monks accepting alms and for the locals who give to them, this is a very significant and important thing.

The tourists, on the other hand, are just taking photos of something they were told to go and take photos of.

If you have a genuine interest in Southeast Asian Buddhism, or you genuinely want to support the monks and give to them in the same way as the locals of Luang Prabang, great. I'm sure they will appreciate the genuine interest.

But if it's just another thing to tick off your list, between riding an elephant and tubing in Vang Vien, please don't contribute to this farce and just sleep in.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

"Exotic" Thailand Part 2: Things to do in Bangkok, hottest city in the world

This post follows Part 1 "Stop telling me to get drunk on some island".

I'm back in Bangkok! Huzzah and hurray.

Did you know Bangkok is the hottest city in the world? The year-round temperature (day and night, winter and summer) is an average of 28 degrees C (671 degrees F).

Did you also know, Bangkok isn't just a souvenir-&-toilet stop on your way to ride an elephant or get drunk on a beach. It's a big exciting city with lots going on. Yes some of it is smelly and dirty - but if you can't rough it a little bit, you probably shouldn't visit the rest of Thailand either, right?

So, here are just a few of my suggestions to enjoy Bangkok as a real place.

Phra Athit Road

Jazz happening at Jazz Happens! Bar
By all means, stay near the infamous Khao San Road (KSR) in Banglamphu - this is the backpacker ghetto with more trashy half-naked tourists and scorpions-onna-stick than you can shake another scorpion-onna-stick at. The guest houses are cheap and there's lots of other semi-naked, inconsiderate white people to meet.

But just a short walk away, towards the river, is Thanon (Road) Phra Athit, where locals hang out in foreigner-friendly cafes and bars. A few notable places include:

  • Jazz Happens! Bar, where jazz actually happens. Inside this cute little bar, talented jazz students from the local university take turns on different instruments playing a mix of modern and traditional jazz. Occasionally they have notable Thai and international musicians stop by for a gig. Friendly place, great people and jazz. Nice.
  • Dickinson's Culture Cafe is a European-style cafe bar where local DJs spin European-style dance beats and grooves. In Bangkok's pop-oriented bars, it's a welcome slice of something different.
  • Escapade Burgers & Shakes make the most awesome burgers, shakes and cocktails. Replacing ketchup with a "home-made truffle sauce", this place is popular with young locals and students. Ask them to make you a personal shake/cocktail, they'll do it.
  • Joy Luck Club (round the corner on Phra Nakhon) is a wonderful little restaurant/cafe named after the 1993 film (and 1989 book). The food is great, the decor is super cute, and the lady who runs it is amazingly friendly.
There's lots of other places too, have a wander around and poke your nose in.



Lumpini Park

The 2 species mix together freely
A lovely park in the middle of the sprawling metropolis, Lumpini (also spelt Lumphini) Park is a venue for many special events and home to 2 interesting species: joggers, and monitor lizards. Visit some time around 5-7pm and you can see both.

Many Thais enjoy jogging in the cooler and shady environment after work. Note that this occurs across 6pm, when everyone stops and stands still for the national anthem, which is worth seeing in itself. (You should probably check the time and stand still yourself, if you don't want to look like a disrespectful foreigner.)

Monitor lizards are usually seen near waterways, such as canals and the lakes of Lumpini Park. Adults are often 2+ metres from nose to tail tip and the 2nd closest thing to a dragon you'll ever see (short of an actual Komodo Dragon). They're great swimmers, and can happily climb trees (which is fascinating/terrifying to watch), but they generally move slowly and won't attack people unless you provoke them. Do not provoke them. In fact, just in case, avoid the risk of a bite altogether by taking photos from several metres away.



RCA (Royal City Avenue)

Throwing shapes and singing along to Suede at Cosmic
RCA is a government-approved/built clubbing district, and a popular nightlife destination for young Thais. There are a wide variety of clubs, from the biggest mainstream venues taking up the entire width of the street with outdoor tables & chairs, to smaller clubs catering for more niche music tastes.

Obviously it's best to go with a group rather than on your own. Even better, go with some Bangkok locals if possible - you can ask around or set up an event on social websites such as Meetup.com and Couchsurfing.org. In fact you should be doing this anyway!

It's definitely worth looking up the venues, clubs and events to find somewhere that suits your preferences, unless you're not fussy and enjoy generic dance/pop. My personal tip is Cosmic Cafe, which plays indie/rock/electro and sometimes has local bands.

Plan ahead with your time - RCA is not near the Skytrain (BTS) or the underground (MRT) and it's a long taxi ride across town from Banglamphu and Khao San Road.



Get high ... and watch the sunset

Sunset from a BTS station -
not even very high up
Bangkok specialises in sunrises and sunsets. So unless you're up super early for sunrise, take one or two days to get real high and photograph the sunset - it's spectacular.

Bangkok is close (ish) to the equator, so sunset is usually between 5:30pm (December) and 7pm (June).

A popular place to visit is the State Tower, where the Sky bar (featured in the film Hangover 2) occupies the highest place in Bangkok.


Take the canal boat into town

Taking the canal at dusk
The wonderful Skytrain (BTS) and its new cousin, the shiny clean underground line (MRT) are nowhere near Banglamphu. So if you need to get into the city from Khao San Road, why not take the canal?

It's a short (ish) walk past the Democracy Monument - follow the main road, cross the bridge, and hug the canal down to the right. This pier is Phanfah Leelard (spelt multiple ways, including "Panfa Lilat") and it's the last stop on the Golden Mount line (being next to the Golden Mount Temple) - the boat arrives facing the wrong way and then turns round.

The trip is 10B for a short trip, if you're just heading to the malls or to catch the BTS, or 20B for a longer trip. You pay on the boat - make sure you check which stop (pier) you need on the map at the pier.

The boats run until approximately 8pm and come every 5-10mins, so don't worry if you just miss one.

Yes, with walking it takes longer than catching a cab or motorbike taxi. But it's super cheap and well worth doing at least once. Remember to move up the benches to let people on!



Bangkok Art & Culture Centre (BACC)

Yes, Bangkok has both art AND culture! Go and check out the BACC near National Stadium BTS stop (Sapan Hua Chang pier on the canal). The galleries start from the 5th floor, but if you feel like buying something fancy or grabbing something to eat, wander up the 1st-4th floors.



Sukhumvit Soi 11-13 (& other ex-pat areas)

Cheap Charlie's holidays and opening times
Bangkok has 2 main foreigner areas: the backpacker ghetto, and the ex-pat district. Just a couple of days in Thailand and you should be able to tell them apart - ex-pats wear trousers, because they work, and also have lots more money, because they work.

Generally ex-pats hang out all over the central city, but particularly in the sois (lanes) along Sukhumvit Road. There are plenty of bars, clubs and restaurants along the sois aimed at both ex-pats and, increasingly, well-off Thais.

The world famous Bed Bar doesn't
want their sheets getting stained
Ask around and look up places to eat and drink, but a good place to start is Cheap Charlie's, an outdoor cult/dive bar on Soi 11 where the drinks are cheap and the talk is cheaper. Admire the bar made from random gifts, memorabilia and crazy junk accumulated over the years, and get talking with locals and ex-pats. Then head out on a random night in the bars and clubs - just be careful with your wallet, as these are capital city prices...

Also, as an honorary Kiwi I have to mention Snapper New Zealand restaurant (also on Soi 11) - a clear sign that Kiwi cuisine has arrived on the world stage!



Get amongst it

These are just a few things to see and do - there's plenty more, plus the usual stuff like seeing the Grand Palace and visiting temples and seeing some Muay Thai (boxing). Just do a little research, get stuck in, meet some locals, and treat Bangkok like a real city - your experience will be far far better.