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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

"The Rounds," Wednesday, April 29, 2009

It's been very quiet in these parts this month, with not much to write.

I have heard that John Grovenor did pass away; someone told me two-three nights ago, saying he had spoken with Ae, John's wife, on the phone. So, I guess that report's true (though I've not spoken with Ae myself).

Anybody who pays attention to news from Thailand (which would be most of you) are aware that things are a real mess, politically. So far, I personally haven't been affected, though one day when I was at the square a guy came in all excited that a crowd of "red shirts" were marching down Sukhumvit Road in front of The Emporium, headed into town (which would take them right past the Sukhumvit entrance to the Square).

Down Pattaya way, Songkhran was basically cancelled. For some reason, that seaside resort, alone in the Kingdom (as far as I know) celebrates the festival the week before everyone else. ASEAN was having a summit there, but when demonstrators entered the hotel, the Thai PM was forced to call it off; it wasn't pleasant for Thai authorities to have to evacuate ASEAN top leaders by helicopter. The PM imposed a state of emergency, since lifted, that among other things prohibited congregations of more than five people in public. Adding to the the folks woes down there who had been counting on picking up some money from the revelers was that the U.S. Navy was scheduled to put into port, with over 4,000 military personnel, but the Navy cancelled. I'm not clear if the ship(s) put into Sattahip Port but wouldn't let the troops off or if the commander just had them do a u-turn. I read online today that some estimates say the resort lost in the range of 70 million baht per day for the multi-day festival -- about US$ 2 million per day. Heavy hit, when the bars, hotels, etc. are sitting half-empty (or worse).

Actually, it *has* had a small effect on me: I have a yellow shirt with His Majesty's emblem, but I haven't worn it in a long time. I also have a bright red shirt, but not Thailand related, but I've recently stopped wearing *it* after realizing the occasional Thai was giving me the hairy eyeball.

On top of that comes alarm over swine flu, now renamed -- here -- "Mexican flu." The reasoning is people stopped eating pork, so the government decided if it's called by the latter moniker, people will start eating pork again. And just this afternoon I heard on TV news the government in conjunction with the private sector is going to temporarily reduce the price of pork to try to tempt people to eat it again. (You may not know that a lot of Thais won't eat beef, for religious reasons. I'm not clear why it's okay to eat pork, beef, fish, etc. if one isn't supposed to eat beef, but there it is.)

Don't know what to say regarding possible travel to the Kingdom, especially regarding the political uncertainty and conflict. Some people claiming to be red shirt representatives have reportedly threatened violence, even while claiming they were entirely innocent of any during the recent Songkhran [Thai New Year] riots. Former P.M. Thaksin reportedly is really turning up the heat, though he himself is receiving some as well. Just today I read online the UAE has announced he can't use there as a political base (though the spokesman for the UAE government added he could come back as an investor.) Reports say that Nicarauguan President Daniel Ortega has granted Thaksin a diplomatic passport and named him a special ambassador. Other reports say he may have some sort of passport from a second country. And there are rumors -- not even strong enough to label "reports" -- he might have one from Cambodia.

All that said, there are still great deals, especially on airfare from Europe. I flew to Kuala Lumpur last Friday, paying 6,400 baht for a return ticket on Thai Air Asia. Then, over the weekend, a friend told me his two grown sons are coming here in July on Air Asia's long-haul branch (Air Asia X, I think) from London, and that they paid only a little over 8,500 baht -- return! Just 2,100 baht more than *I* paid for a two-hour flight versus theirs all the way from London! Let me put those numbers in another context: my price = US$180; theirs equals $US240 -- just 1/3rd more for *several* times the distance! And there are hotel deals; one place I always recommend is Asia Rooms (this is a live link to the site's homepage). But by all means check individual hotel sites as well; some of them are suffering very low occupancy rates and are offering great deals.

The rainy season is sneaking in on us; day before yesterday, the entire city of Bangkok got hit by monsoons, especially, as it turns out, right here in my neighborhood. The lightening was so bad and near I turned off and unplugged EVERYthing except my refrigerator, then made my way to the Square. That little trip took me 55 minutes -- to go 4/5's of a kilometer -- because of the flooding. And the wading in water well over the tops of my knees, in places, especially right by my sub-soi in Sukhumvit Soi 22. Coincidentally, April 27th is widely believed by Thais to be the hottest day of the year every year, as that's the day the Sun reaches the zenith directly over Bangkok in its march into the northern part of the sky as summer approaches. But this year the temperature topped out at maybe ~30C/~85F, a far cry from the hottest day of the year. (Which suited me JUST fine!) Hasn't rained yesterday or today, though. Anyway . . .

My personal big news is I lost my passport (and my ageing, going-on-the-blink, digital camera) nearly two weeks ago -- the DAY before I was supposed to leave for a visa run, for which I had a cheap, good-for-three-days-only/nonrefundable ticket. Went to the U.S. embassy the next day and got an emergency 1-year passport, then it was off to Immigration to get my entry records transferred into the new passport.

Wrong, The government basically shut down April 10th-20th, dates inclusive. By the time I could get to Immigration, my cheapo ticket had expired, and it took me a few more days to get out -- meaning I ended up paying an overstay fine of 3,500 baht -- a cool US$100, almost to the penny.

At least now I'm legal again.

My trip to Kuala Lumpur was interesting, though all I did was fly down, sit there a little less than four hours, then fly back. I've never been there before, and still haven't been anywhere except what they call the city's "Low-Cost Carrier Terminal," actually a second airport some kilometers away from the capital's main international airport. While the LCCT isn't *small," neither is it huge, as is Suvarnabhumi here in Bangkok. Yet it had a surprising number of restaurants, fast-food places, and the like. (Forgetting where I was, I went into a restaurant and asked the friendly young lady behind the counter for a beer. She just laughed, and I slapped my forehead, saying "Of course not!" Yet they do sell booze -- no beer -- by the bottle in the duty-free shop, which is AFTER you clear customs and immigration on your way out.) I was particularly impressed by the friendliness of one and all, as has always been the case the numerous times I've been to Penang (where I've also been to some great bars in which I COULD get beer and booze!). Even the young lady I asked for a beer in the LCCT just chuckled, without comment. Though I've never spent more than about three days in Malaysia at a stretch, always in Penang, I sure do recommend the country as a side trip if you do come out here East of Suez.

Thankfully, there's no further news about the Square and it's previously hotly-discussed pending demise, as was the case last year. Somewhat inexiplicably, at least to this non-expert, property prices remain very, very high in both the commercial and residential sectors. I don't expect anything to change anytime in the short-to-medium term, and maybe not after that.

All the long-time places are still puttering along, in what has become the normal pattern of some days boom, other days bust, with the odd half-and-half day scattered in between. Mykonos is apparently closed (did I write this already?), but never mind, as it catered to a distinctly non-Squaronian personnel: it was a gay bar. And always sure seemed out of place with all these retired military and spook types, oilfield workers, etc. (I should say it was nestled off in a corner by itself, on the other side of the parking area on the west side, and no one from there ever made their presence known elsewhere around the Square; some guys didn't even realize it's there for years. I didn't.)

The guys are all well -- Taffy, Dave (Hare and Hound), Big Ken (from London), Sevenski, Nigel, Hugh, The Crazy German, Paul (Lone Staar), Chris (Cheers Pub), Doug (Bourbon Street), Ned and Ott (Silver Dollar), Brad "The Lad" (back for another teaching stint), and probably others I'm forgetting for the moment. And yours truly, too.

Enough for one go . . .

Mekhong Kurt