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Sunday, May 30, 2010

"The Rounds," Monday, May 31, 2010

NOTE: Please notice that immediately below each entry here, there's a "Comments" button you can click then type in a comment, observation, or reply to anything I've written. I wish the button were larger and more obvious; I suspect most people don't even notice it, because it's so darned tiny. Anyway, please do feel free to comment. Just keep it polite and on-topic!

Headlines:

Taffy Going to America

"Wily" Wayne Trying to Go to Nigeria

Regulars Rollicking 'Round the Square of Late

And a Bit About Me . . . (and Other News as Well)

The Broader Overview

Taffy Going to America

The Bad Boy of Bangkok, a.k.a. "The Terror of Thailand," namely Khun Taffy of New Square One Pub is off to America to visit with "The Minnesota Mob," headed by Charlie "The Don."

Taffy's getting quite excited as the day nears, which I think will be this coming weekend. Not only is excited about seeing Charlie, Bubba, and Mike -- nice guys who are always welcome here -- but this will also be Taffy's first visit to the U.S., or, indeed, anywhere in the New World.


He will have to be on guard against one thing: Minnesota has positively monstrous mosquitoes, and considering that mosquitoes in Britain, from whence Taffy comes, and here in Thailand positively adore him -- why, the nearest mosquito can be a mile away but it'll lock onto Taffy and make a beeline to him! -- I imagine the American Cousins will find him just as tasty as their British and Thai relatives do!


He's flying on Delta, and I'll be interested in how his flights go; it has been about 18 years since I've flown on that particular airline, and no one I know has happened to fly on it in recent years, so Taffy's report will be new, updated information.


The routing's sounds okay; he stops in Tokyo both directions, the flight to and from Minneapolis scheduled to be non-stops. That means he'll be cooped up on the flights between Tokyo and Minneapolis for around 13-14 hours.


I also have reminded Taffy not to get too sassy with any U.S. immigration or customs officers, as they can be downright grumpy; it wouldn't be much fun for him to start his trip cooling his heels in a cell waiting for Charlie to come try to bail him out!!! ;-)


He'll be gone, let's see, I think he told me a little over a week. He'd like to stay longer, but figures, no doubt rightly, that he really can't be gone much longer than that since he does, after all, have a business to run.


It should be a great trip for him. All of us certainly hope so!


As for me, I'm eager for him to get gone and get back -- he has promised to bring me a smoked summer sausage and a chunk of smoked cheese, both of which I positively salivate over!


Bon voyage, Khun Taffy!!!


"Wily"  Wayne

Trying to Go to Nigeria


Cajun Riley's good friend and fellow Bayou Boy Wayne is in town between jobs, and has been offered a new one in that vacation paradise of Nigeria.


It's proving to be a less-than-straightforward matter for him to get a work visa, however. We got together yesterday, as he had asked me to go over his paperwork with him to help him be sure he has everything he needs and in order. As far as I can tell, he does, at least according to an information sheet he has from the Nigerian embassy here. The requirements are typical -- a letter of employment, his letter of acceptance, a document from the company identifying how many foreigners they can employ, copies of Wayne's professional certificates and the like, photos, and the visa application.


However, it turns out there are two kinds of work visas, and therein lies the rub. He went to the embassy here to apply for the type his boss-to-be specified, but the lady at the embassy, a Thai lady, is insisting he needs the other type, and that because he's American, he has to apply online. He has been in further contact with the folks in Nigeria, and they're puzzled, because the type of visa they told him to get is the type the Nigerian authorities have always specified for their foreign employees. Further, when he goes online to the appropriate Nigerian page -- as he did with me sitting right there looking over his shoulder -- there's a message for Americans applying from outside the U.S. to click a link, which takes you to a page belonging to what appears to be a private visa company, "VisaHQ." Fine -- EXCEPT for the fact that on that page the message is that Americans outside the U.S. applying for a visa have to go in person to the nearest Nigerian or consulate to apply.


Wayne had already run into that before he asked me to help, if I can, and has already been back to the embassy -- but the lady continues to insist that he get the other type of visa AND to apply for it online. I can't really help him, other than to confirm it looks like to me he has everything for the visa the company wants him to get, and that the paperwork he has is more than required for the other kind of work visa, and that yes, the message online does direct Americans to go in person to a Nigerian embassy or consulate. By the way, that page provides no other options.


There may be another sticking point. Wayne thought he had read a requirement for a police report, but the sheet he showed me doesn't list that as one of the required documents, so I asked if maybe the lady had said something, which he says might be the case, but he's sure it came up somewhere.


In the first place, nothing on the information sheet or online indicates anyone has to submit a police report with a visa application. In the second place, wayne has a retirement visa here in Thailand -- and his local address is his legal, permanent one. He doesn't own any property in the U.S., and on the rare occasion he needs to receive mail or a package there, he has it sent to his Sister's home, though that's not his legal address. He doesn't even have a U.S. driver's license and isn't registered to vote.


So -- where does he need to get a police report -- the U.S., since he is, after all, an American, or Thailand, since his permanent residence and legal address are here???


I saw him again last night, and he said he has decided to go back to the embassy this morning or tomorrow morning -- visa hours are 10:00 A.M.-Noon ONLY -- to try again. He did save the webpage that says for applicants to apply in person so he can show the clerk at the embassy.


I speculated to Wayne that perhaps the "embassy" isn't really an embassy at all, but the office of a local honorary consul, and that the consul well might not have any idea about the particular type of visa Wayne's potential employer wants him to get. (Come to think of it, I really don't see why there are two types of work permits, nor, given that there are, what difference it makes to the company -- so long as he can legally work.)


Given the difficulty employers have getting non-Nigerians to be willing to go to Nigeria, and given the Nigerian government's apparent desire to have such people work there, one would think work-related matters would be as simple and streamlined as possible. That's not proving to be the case, at least not so far, for Wayne in his what's turning out to be maybe a quixotic quest!


We'll see. . . .


Regulars Rollicking

'Round the Square of Late


Over the past few days I've noticed a number of the regulars out and about, some at the same time, making the Square a bit livelier lately than it has been since before the demonstrations started awhile back.


Cajun Riley came knocking around several days in a row. One day he cooked up a batch of his splendid seafood spaghetti -- or I GUESS it was its typical splendid; I didn't know about it until the pot had been emptied, licked, washed, and put away! Dadgumitall. Anyway, several people who did get to partake of it assured me, in the midst of their evil, cruel gloating, that this batch was every bit as delicious as anything Riley cooks -- and he is one helluva a cook, one of the best around.


The cooks at the Texas Lone Staar, Riley's usual headquarters when he gets the urge to whip something up for his friends, of course were delighted. Not only do they, too, love his cooking (hell, they love any food -- and does it ever show!), but since he cooked, they had less to do than normal. You wouldn't be far off the mark were you to describe the cooks as folks less-than-enamored of their work! ;-)


At least I have gotten to see Riley's wife, the lovely Lek, a time or two, when she's come to the Square to take him home when he's run out of steam for the day. It's always a great pleasure to see that fine lady, who is universally liked by us all.


Scottish Doug has been out and about, including -- unusually -- over this weekend just ended. He even got all wrapped up in what turned out to be a several-hour session playing pool at Taffy's the other day. And he's quite a good player. He started off playing Taffy, whose no slouch on the pool table, so it was fun to watch them shoot it out.


"Naughty" Nigel made it in from the yard for the first time in awhile, and I happened to be out when he came strolling into the Lone Staar, so we had a chance to catch up a bit. He says his business has been something less than thumping, but I guess that's pretty much the norm everywhere in just about all kinds of business these days. But he's getting along just fine, I was glad to hear.


"Gabbing" Gary is presumably safely back in New Jersey with his folks, lounging away in one of the two beach houses they own. Haven't heard from him yet, but I hadn't expected to, either. He's undoubtedly enjoying relaxing, taking an occasional stroll through the Atlantic surf, throwing bread crumbs to sea gulls, and other time-wasting-but-fun activities! I think he said he, his Dad, and his Uncle will be going to Aruba (or somewhere down that way) later on in the summer, something I know they invariably enjoy. I've sometimes wondered why Gary stays in Bangkok instead of moving to somewhere such as Pattaya-Jomtien or Hua Hin, both within easy reach -- two or three hours by car or bus -- and both seaside resorts, though Hua Hin is considerably quieter than madhouse Pattaya, in particular. (By the way, I've heard from multiple sources that Bangkok's misfortune of the demonstrations turned out to be Pattaya's good fortune. It reportedly was packed throughout those tumultuous weeks, especially the nine days there was a curfew here in the capital. As Pattaya had been sitting largely empty, many bar, restaurant, and hotel owners sweating it out, no doubt there was much rejoicing to the sweet music of cash registers ringing!)


Anyway, here's to a great visit in America to Gary.


Aussie York, he of Harley-Davidson fame, has become a regular fixture at the Texas Lone Staar in particular, and, to a bit lesser extent, the Silver Dollar. He overheard me and Wayne talking about Wayne's "Nigerian Nightmare" and said his company has a nice new contract there but that happily, he won't have to be going there himself. Come to think of it, as many years as I've known York, I don't have the slightest idea what his line of work is, so of course don't know the nature of the work for which his company landed a contract. It's just flat never come up in conversation. Anyway, apparently his company is doing just fine, always nice to hear, especially in these hard times.

Saw my upstairs neighbor Gene both Saturday and Sunday; first time we've bumped into each other in maybe three or four months. I was surprised to see him Saturday when I was at the Square, as it's unusual even when he's not busy, as he is now, other than on Sundays. Told him to drop by sometime when he's coming or going and notices my door open, which it is most of the time when I'm home and at my desk or sitting on the sofa watching the tube. I can't just drop up to his place (even if I remembered his apartment number) for the simple reason I don't have a key card to get into the door leading to the elevator and stairs. My place is on the ground floor with a private entrance, so I don't need or have a key card anymore, having given it to another upstairs resident when I moved down to my current shophouse-apartment. Gene's a really nice guy, an American who's been here for years, longer than me, as I recall, and I'm coming up on my 16th anniversary in the Kingdom come June 12th.


Wouldn't you know it: we finally had our last curfew this past Friday night -- and Saturday marked the beginning of Buddhist Lent, so a number of places were closed the entire day, though some were open during the daytime, closing at night. I did find a couple places open that evening, and of course they were doing brisk trade. One owner from Queen's Park Plaza told me the police had warned them very sternly -- oddly, several around the Square hadn't been visited at all, and didn't realize it was a major Buddhist holiday. Anyway, he added that the entire Plaza had been closed since closing Friday night.

And a Bit About Me

. . .
(and Other News as Well)


During my travels in quest to get new glasses Friday-before last, I walked along Soi 22 between the Soi 22 entrance to the Square and Sukhumvit Road, then around the corner towards Soi Asoke on Sukhumvit Road itself. During that stroll I noticed a couple of new (to me) bars, open-front ones, that I haven't visited yet, as well as one on the corner of Soi 22 and a sub-soi on the west side of Soi 22, one open on the side facing Soi 22 and on the side facing the sub-soi. Since I couldn't SEE very well, I didn't even attempt to note the names of any of them, but I plan to go later. I want to borrow a camera before going so I can take a few photos while I'm at it. I'll probably get around to that in the next two-three weeks then write about them in a future column.


That same day, when I came out of the eyeglasses shop on Sukhumvit Road a little west of Soi Asoke, the lady who took me there and I walked back around the corner on Soi Asoke to catch a taxi to return to the Square. We bumped into a guy who greeted me, and while I recognized his face, for the life of me I couldn't place him. Then, one day last week, Burma Richard commented someone had forwarded an extract from Stickman's weekly column in which I was mentioned -- but I still didn't connect the dots. However, Richard forwarded that bit to me, and it dawned on me I had chatted with the Stickman his very own self. I last saw him several years ago, when he interviewed me one afternoon at the Lone Staar then wrote it up as "The Man Under The Hat, Mekhong Kurt" in his weekly column -- of May 22, 2005. So, it had been just about exactly five years since I had last seen him. The more recent bit was just putting to rest rumors he had heard that I had passed away, and is quite brief. If you're interested in the now-dated interview Stickman had with me, you can read it at this URL:


http://www.stickmanweekly.com/Weekly/weekly211.htm


The Broader View


About the only observation I can make about the future of the political and social conflicts here with any confidence is that no one can predict just what's in store, not with any real accuracy anyway.


It probably is safe to say that ignoring the deep rifts exposed during the recent turmoil isn't a viable option, that the Thai people will have to either find some way to address the underlying problems or to at least paper them over, if that can be done. All that's at the domestic level.


Internationally, the government and other image-makers have their work cut out for them to try to restore Thailand's international image. Given that tourism alone provides about 6% of the GDP and around 15% of the employment, getting the shine back on people's image of the Kingdom is critical, particularly since there are equally attractive destinations -- including from a business perspective -- elsewhere right here in the region; places such as Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Macau spring to mind, all under three hours away from Bangkok by air.


But Thailand does still have much to recommend it to international travelers and business folks.


The weather remains a major draw, particularly for people from cold climates, such as northern Europe, the northern U.S. and Canada, and, in this part of the world, Japan, South Korea, and China, especially that part of China from roughly the Yangze River and north. The weather is beneficial for business as well -- no one has to miss work because they're snowed in at home! I suppose the last time it might have snowed anywhere in Thailand was at the coldest point of the last Great Ice Age -- if then!


And there's a nice topographical mix of hundreds of kilometers of beaches, many of them world-class, the vast central plains, and the mountains of the north. Add in the widely varied wildlife, particularly the emblematic elephants, and you have a very attractive landscape.


The people are the best draw of all. Thais are famously hospitable. Less famously, they also are quite varied. Contrary to popular belief, the people who live here are a very mixed lot (and I'm not talking about foreigners like me, but about Thai nationals). Probably the best known non-Thais are the members of the hill tribes concentrated in the northern parts of the country, especially along the border with Burma and, to a lesser extent (I think), along the northern stretch of border with Laos. Then there are the Laotians and Cambodians whose families settled in areas of present-day Thailand long, long ago, retaining something of their own customs, cultures, even languages. The same is true with Malays in the far south, as is obvious is the southernmost provinces. As for the Thais themselves, a leading theory for years has been that they originated among the Tai minority nationality in the southern extremeties of China opposite Thailand, though just recently I read an article that said a growing number of researchers, both here in Thailand and abroad, are beginning to question that idea. In any case, many traditions are represented. Maybe that's most obvious in the area of religion; while the vast majority of Thais are Buddhist, there are appreciable communities of members of other religions, most notably Islam (concentrated, but not limited to, not by a long shot, in the far south) and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Christianity. I suppose there are likely some locals of the Jewish faith, though I never have known one, at least not as far as I know.


Prices remain competitive, in many cases, extremely so. In what other major capital can you take a taxi and have the fare start at a measly 35 baht -- about US$1.10? How many places can you get a nice hotel room in an upper-end 3-star or lower-end 4-star hotel -- in the city center -- for way under US$100? And Thailand is a shoppers' paradise, though you need to use a bit of caution and common sense, particularly buying items such as precious stones -- scams abound, and the poorly-informed shopper often gets cheated, sometimes badly so. And there's no real recourse, not easy recourse at least. Anyway, know a bit about what you want to buy, and you can find downright stunning bargains on a great many different items. That includes everyday items, too. For instance, I had a picture frame custom made for an oversized panorama photo for an amazing 800 baht. That was a couple of years ago, when the baht was somewhat weaker than it is now, a time when 800 baht equaled about US$23. (Today it equals about US$25.)


Some might point to news reports that dissenters might go underground and conduct sneak attacks. I suppose that might be true, so a bit of caution when moving around in public is in order -- but it always is, especially in large cities, and not just in Bangkok, but large cities the world over. After all, purse-snatchers, pickpockets, and the like don't operate sailing with the political winds!


I've read countless comments from foreigners on the Internet in discussion threads critical of one group or another here in Thailand, groups involved in the recent conflict. While as an outside observer I do think there probably are a number of genuine, legitimate grievances all around, I remain just that -- an outside observer. These problems are between the Thais, not us and Thais. I live here, have a number of close Thai friends, and follow the local news closely -- but much of all this remains quite murky, even invisible, for me. And I suspect that would be true even if I could perfectly read, write, speak, and understand every single Thai dialect.


I might draw a light-hearted parallel to the strong sense of rivalry between the U.S. states of Texas (my home state) and Oklahoma. Most of my foreign friends with any knowledge of the two states just don't get it, pointing out that we have largely similar geography and topography (although Oklahoma doesn't have anything remotely resembling the low mountains in West Texas), both have mineral resources, both have a major agricultural industustry, complete with real, live, genu-ine cowboys. So, those friends are left scratching their heads.


I've tried to explain it, but eventually realized I couldn't -- for the simple reason that when I sit back and think about it, I don't get it, either! It's silly, when you get right down to it.


I hasten to add I don't view the problems here in a light-hearted way, nor am I belittling them. That's not the comparison I'm making. The comparison is in the difficulty, maybe even impossibility, of those of us on the outside looking in ever truly understanding what's going on here.


On the up side -- that means that tourists can still come here and have a grand time, and it means there are still business opportunities for foreign business people. Just look at how remarkably -- and, to me, inexplicably -- stable the Thai baht has been, even in the worst of the recent violence.


In ways, now is a particularly attractive time for foreigners to come here, both for pleasure and for business. Various players are striving mightily to attract such people, and have been sweetening the pot in various ways in a bid to draw foreigners. That doesn't mean you're going to be able to find a luxurious 8-million-baht condo for 3 million; it does mean there are some great deals on hotels, tours, and the like -- and the government is working away at tax breaks and the like for businesses.


Tourists (and visiting, but not resident, business people) can even get up to 5,000 baht refunded for VAT taxes they paid, as long as they have receipts to back up the claimed amount. There's a special office dedicated to just that at the airport here in Bangkok. I think -- I'll have to check -- the same is true in the airport in Phuket. While that's not a king's ransom, it is a nice little saving on your purchases and other VAT-bearing expenses (which is practically everything, outside of open-air markets and the like). By the way, the VAT rate is 7% of the price. So, if you spend 20,000 baht, you'll pay 1,400 baht in VAT -- and can get every single baht back.


Also keep in mind that practically anywhere outside Bangkok is cheaper, often WAY cheaper, for just about anything.


Anyway, now that things have calmed down, there's really no reason to avoid Thailand. It appears the calm is settling in, at least for the foreseeable future. But, again -- we can say that about jsut about any place at all.


C'mon in -- the water's fine. . . .


Until next time --


ENOUGH FOR ONE GO!


Mekhong Kurt

Monday, May 24, 2010

Squaronian Update/Tuesday, May 25, 2010

It's about 0820 Tuesday morning, May 25, 2010 now, and I want to put in an update note as I ended up going back to the Square last night after all.

Ran into "Rambling" Randy R, who works for Aramco in Saudi Arabia, for the first time in about six months. He was having fun and running with a work from of his named "Ali," whom I assume (but don't know) to be a Saudi Arabian. Seemed to be a nice guy. Anyway, Randy's in Thailand for just a week this time, so he couldn't stay long; his wife called and sent him SMS's  several times during just the half-hour or so we visited.

Also saw "Garrlous" Gary M., who's off tomorrow, as it turns out, for his summer in the sun in that seaside resort state . . . New Jersey. He's got a midday flight, one at a civilized time, on Eva Air in their wonderful Economy Deluxe, a class somewhere between cattle car and business, and closer to the latter -- but far cheaper than business class, though somewhat pricier than a straight economy ride. As matters have worked out, I've flown it only once, way back in 1997, and it sure was impressive.

Or shorter flights, not only is economy just fine with me, but it seems a complete waste of money to pay for anything better if I'm going to be in the air just, say, six hours or less.

On the other hand, on long-haul flights, it's great. The seats are noticeably wider, which was the aspect I most appreciated. Also, the ratio of cabin crew to passengers is higher, so service is more frequent. It also seems to me to be less harried; after all, the crew members have time to relax themselves.

Worth looking into. In my case, I ended up having to take a domestic carrier from the U.S> west coast on to Dallas and back, but with the majority of that trip being in this unique class, I actually enjoyed the flight. Well, as much as one can enjoy such a long flight, that is!

Back to GG "Garralous Gary). He mentioned again that "Jabberwocky" Jay will be back next month, though he (Gary) is unsure whether the deal is Jay's leaving Chicago on the 8th then arriving here the 10th, or leaving there the 10th and arriving the 12th. In any case, in the latter part of the first fortnight of the month. I doubt he'll hit the Square on his way home from the airport, though he'll pass right buy -- he lives very near the Sukhumvit Road-Soi Asoke intersection -- but he'll probably get around to glad-hand and greet people after a few days. That's his usual pattern, anyway. It'll be great to see him -- he and Gary, together a.k.a. "The Square's Own Odd Couple," are two of my favorite guys.

Cajun Riley was there -- "there" being the Silver Dollar -- as well, and I ended up having a reasonably lengthy quiet chat with him after Randy, Ali, and Gary had gone on their respective ways. He sure is a nice guy. I had asked Randy what he thinks about BP's handling of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (back to his view in a second), and since Riley also works in the oil industry, I asked him what his take on the situation is, in two contexts: the company's actual handling of the disaster, and its public-relations campaign.

Riley and Randy both feel BP is doing the best they can, especially given they're in unexplored territory, as anyone who's been following development knows, since BP spokespeople have repeatedly emphasized their workers are in uncharted territory. Randy took things a step further and said that in his view, we ought to stop ALL offshore drilling. That surprised me. He added that if we insist on offshore drilling, he feels it should be limited to areas with a maximum sea depth of about 500 feet (in the range of 160 meters). He did agree with me that BP folks, particularly the CEO, are coming across as waffling and obfuscating, which hurts the company's image. For that matter, Riley pretty much agreed with what Randy said, other than he didn't bring up banning anything. (I spoke with them separately, so Riley was unaware of what Randy had said, and I didn't mention the bit about a ban.)

Riley and I ended up adjourning to the Texas Lone Staar, where we continued plain old blabbing. He had called Lovely Lek to come fetch him, and I hung around awhile, but she hadn't gotten there by the time I decided it was time for me to load 'em up and head 'em out, so I missed the pleasure of seeing her this time around. Oh, well.

On another note, I guess the rainy season has FINALLY arrived; it has rained every day since last Friday, and last night it was raining fairly hard when I came out to come home. But I love the rainy season -- cools things off and cleans the filthy air.

Sometimes the rainy season starts earlier than this, something I thought of during the Red Shirt demonstrations. I wonder if last week's violence would have occurred at all had the skies been dumping heavily, especially Wednesday night, when so many arsonists struck around the city. Even if they had, perhaps rain would have helped dampen the fires and therefore lessen the resulting damage.

But that didn't happen.

Back to the Square. I went to Silver in particular because Monday nights are its barbecue nights, and I thought I might see some folks I don't necessarily ordinarily see, such as Tom-Tom (who's a huge devotee of the ribs). However, one of the bar staff told me they had decided to cancel rib night because of slow business, though it later dawned on me (after I had come home) I didn't know if they canceled just last night or for the duration until business picks up more reliably again. Will try to find out then pass along the information, either way.

Incidentally, I have my TV b, essentially), and it's "Tales of a Big City" weekly talk show is ending right now. The host read an e-mail that had come in from a foreign resident of Bangkok soliticiting the host's and the three panelists' opinions whether he, apparently Dutch, should take his Thai-Chinese wife and their children to Holland instead of staying here. They live in one of the worst-hit areas, and the writer's in-laws lost their THREE shops in Siam Square, which was pretty much completely destroyed by arsonists; the shops had been in the faily for 30 years or so. Complicating matters for the foreigner, and no doubt coloring his view, is that his wife is eight months pregnant and needed to go to see a doctor during the protests -- only to be turned back by Red Shirt guards, who, according to the writer, were entirely unsympathetic and completely rigid in their views.

The guy went on to say neither he nor hiw wife want to move to Holland (where his Father lives, he added), but they're genuinely concerned about the future. He specifically asked if the four people on the show thought the violence is well and truly over.

All four had an interesting view: they feel (as I do) that the problems are going to take years, likely decades, to sort out, even with the best of good intentions on all sides -- but all four added they don't see violence anytime soon, saying that the government simply can't afford to let matters get out of hand again.

That's a good point, the point about the government not being in any position to let matters spiral out of control again. It took a lot of heat for being slow to react as it was, with the Prime Minister coming under particularly sharp criticism for what some perceived to be an uncertain, irresolute approach.

Without getting into the legitimacy, or lack thereof, the Red Shirts' complaints, I do feel the PM was very much in a situation in which he was doomed to being damned-if-he-did and damned-if-he-didn't. Had he ordered the security forces to wade in forcefully, the number of casualties almost certainly would have been far higher than they were -- including among the elderly, women, and children. It wouldn't matter that at least some of the women and elderly -- but not the children -- had chosen to stand their grounds; harming or killing those folks is flat hard to swallow, no matter their own culpability. On the other hand, had the PM continued to just sit back, the Red Shirts would have tightened and expanded their contro; some complained there already was, in essence, a "parallel government" in areas under Red Shirt control, particularly around the Ratchprasong intersection (their main site) and the south end of Lumpini Park (their second-most important site, in the end, and the center of violence to a large degree).

While the Cabinet hasn't met yet -- that comes later today -- I wonder whether they'll decide to extend the curfew, and if they do, what hours will be covered. One reasonably well-connected guy said last night up at the Square that he had heard it will be extended, with the hours meing midnight-0400 -- which just about everyone could live with, since those hours would cause virtually no disruption. Presumably, the authorities at checkpoints would continue to let people needing to get to the airport, for instance, get through, as they have been doing as long as people had their passports and tickets. (One thing I've still not discovered is whether they let people through who were planning on flying domestically, not internationally. International travelers were specifically mentioned, but I've not heard a peep about domestic ones.)

By the way, municipal public transport -- the subway, Sky Train, khlong commuter boats, and buses -- is returning to normal today. I think the stops in the area immediately at and near Ratchaprasong are still being skipped, but not others, as far as I know. Roads are open again as well to private vehicular traffic (and sidewalks to pedestrians)

Will put up more news about the curfew once I learn it.

"The Rounds" and Other Matters, Monday, May 24, 2010

"The Rounds"

and

Other Matters

Monday, May 24, 2010

(Note to Squaronians and anyone else not interested in a review of the Red Shirt protests: scroll down until you see a headline "The Rounds" in big letters and bright red to read about closer to home.)

Well, it has been an "exciting" two-plus months with the occupation and ultimately destruction of some parts of Bangkok.

Right from the start, I want to say I personally didn't suffer any serious inconvenience, and I certainly never found myself even remotely confronting any possibility of physical danger. Yes, danger came quite near, as near as the Khlong Toey Market area (officially, "Penang Market"), which is only about three blocks from where I live. However, my apartment is snuggled deep inside a warren of alleys, or sub-sois, and one would have to know exactly how to get here to find it. Heck, when I first started coming here several years ago to visit Sweetie Pie, who was then living in the compound before I ever even thought about moving here, the first several times I entered the area and then had to call her on my hand phone and have her talk me in!
But back to the ended-for-now Red Shirt protests. It's a bit difficult to convey a sense of what Bangkok was like, especially last week, more especially the window from Wednesday afternoon (when a number of the Red Shirt leaders called upon their followers to end the protests) and, say, midday Friday (by which time it was becoming fairly clear the security forces were swiftly gaining the upper hand).

The chief loss, of course, was the loss of life. Though the numbers vary, every estimate I'm reading now indicates at least 80 and as many as 87 people died as a result of violence during the protests. Over 1,400 people were injured.
The property damage is still being assessed News reports that around 40 buildings were set on fire by rioters -- and the situation did generate to an outright riot last Wednesday -- that doesn't tell the entire tale.

For instance, the Central One Shopping Center, in the Victory Monument area (and not to be confused with the much more tony and better-known Central World Plaza, adjacent to the main protest rally site at the Ratchaprasong Intersection) was completely gutted, and reportedly will have to be razed and rebuilt. That affects about 300 shop owners, all told, a number I heard just today on TV.

The top-of-the-line Zen Deparment Store on the south end of Central World Plaza and therefore cheek-and-jowl to the Ratchaprason protest site was completely gutted and is partially collapsed, or so I've been told and have seen on TV. The rest of the shopping complex, the second largest in Asia (and about twice the size of the Mall of America in Minnesota, U.S.A.), ranges from extensively damaged to destroyed.

A bit east of there, Siam Square is large but a fond memory, leaving the property owner, Chulalakorn University, scrambling as officials try to figure out their next step.

On smaller scales, the Metropolitan Electric Authority building on Rama 4 Road near the old airport motorway was entirely gutted by fire. So was the Bangkok Bank branch on that same road at its intersection with the south end of Sukhumvit Soi 26 (and pretty near my home, by the way).

And so it went, at spots located in far-flung parts of Greater Bangkok, including, I've heard, locations in places such as Samut Phrakan. If you travel from Bangkok proper to Samut Phrakan, you won't see any sign you've left Bangkok, but in fact you've entered not only another municipality, but an entirely different province.

The tourism sector, just beginning to show signs of recovery from last year's occupation of the capital's two airports and the virtual routing of the ASEAN meeting at the seaside of Hua Hin has been felled to its knees again; arrivals at Suvarnbhumi Airport, Bangkok's international airport, are reportedly down to around 10,000 per day in stark contrast to around 30,000 per day before the protests began. And there has been a knock-on or domino effect, in that even people scheduled only to pass through Bangkok on their way to remote destinations such as Phuket canceled their trips, afraid to go anywhere in the Kingdom.

The tourism sector provides employment for around 6% of the workforce, and accounts for about 15% of the country's annual gross income, so for it to be so badly struck is bad news. Big time.

Even hospitals weren't spared. Red Shirt security guards became suspicious that government security forces were hiding out in Chulalakorn University Hospital, near what became the protests' second-most important site, and notably the center of violence, as far as I can tell. Anyway, the Red Shirts searched the hospital, prompting administrators there to cancel some outpatient services and to evacuate some of their patients to other hospitals around the city.

In my view, the shooting of the wildly popular but controversial and militant Major-General Khattiya Sawasdispol, better known as "Seh Daeng," ["Red Commander"], on May 13th was a significant point in unfolding events, accentuated by his death a few days later; he was shot in the head by assailant(s) unknown while being interviewed by a group of foreign journalists.

Is reconciliation in the cards? Is it even possible? While Thailand has had other instances of violence in the 78 years since the shift from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one, older Thais and foreign Old Thai Hands tell me there's something . . . different about this latest confrontation between segments of society.

I don't know if reconciliation is possible, much less whether it's in the offing or not. I do know that I strongly feel this is far from over, even while I hope to high heaven I'm wrong as rain in that forecast.

Societal divisions were deep and sharp before the protests began; that they were there was no secret.

Now, however, they've been rubbed raw. Thais have hurt and killed other Thais -- again, not a first, but it's still shocking.

The larger region is concerned, as indicated by statements from several ASEAN countries' national officials. I've heard a comparison to the 1997 economic collapse made a number of times -- a collapse that started in Thailand and spread throughout the region, seriously damaging a number of ASEAN economies (and others). ASEAN is mindful of that earlier example, and concerned. However, comments have been muted, as ASEAN finds itself somewhat hamstrung by its chief operating principle of non-interference in each others' affairs.

In any event and no matter what happens on up the road, for now, a sense of something approaching normalcy is returning to the city. Most visibly -- or invisibly, I suppose I should say -- there are no columns of black smoke curling high into the sky, such as those we saw last week.

I've not even spoken of upcountry areas. The heartland of the Red Shirts is in the northeast of the Kingdom, a region known as "Isaan" (or "Isan" or "Isarn"). There has been considerable damage in various provincial cities, such as to provincial government halls and schools. That's also the stronghold of deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, himself a fugitive after having been convicted and sentenced to two years in prison; he appeared regularly via satellite hook-ups and phone at numerous Red Shirt rallies, as he's widely adored by members of that group. The news today is reporting that the DSI (Department of Special Investigations) has requested an arrest warrant for Thaksin on treason charges; if the court grants such a warrant, I imagine there will be a hue and cry from his supporters.

In recent weeks, Thailand hasn't been "The Land of Smiles," but a country on its own Trail of Tears.

"The Rounds"

As for the part of this entry devoted to "The Rounds," it's pretty short. It's been largely quiet around the Square, both the few times I've been there and according to others who are there every day. I've been there maybe six or seven times in as many weeks, most recently (but briefly) this morning, at which time I saw one foreign bar manager, one foreign bar owner, and only one other customer -- Burma Richard, whom I saw at the Silver Dollar.

English Paul's Father was here for a nice holiday and seemed to enjoy himself immensely, able, as he was, to utterly ignore the domestic goings-on. He now is back safely in Merry Olde England, undoubtedly plotting for when he can next grace these Asian shores! I really like him; he fit right in.

I've also seen "Naughty" Nigel, "Helicopter" Dave, and "Dandy Douggy" of late, and they all were fine, just fine, thankee very much. Let's see, who else -- oh! How could I forget? I've seen Cajun Riley more than once, and was lucky enough to be around when his keep and minder, the lovely Khun Lek, came to gently guide him back home. He's a great guy (as are the other guys), and she's a wonderful lady.

I also got to see Chris Moore maybe two-three weeks ago and had a pleasant visit with him. He's working on Calvino # 12 now, which will be out late this year or early next year. By the way, he has blogged some on his own website about The Troubles and has some interesting comments. Those interested in Chris' take can read his thoughts here:

http://www.cgmoore.com/blog/index.asp

By the way, I have a separate blog called "Random Thoughts" (an apt a descriptive name as any) in which I ruminate about issues far and wide. It's at this [unimaginative!] URL:

http://www.kurttfrancis.blogspot.com

I saw Taffy this morning for the first time in awhile, and he was doing fine. I also dropped around, again briefly, last night and saw Porn, his sister in law who was cashier at the rooming house. That was about 9:00 o'clock, and she said I was the very first customer of the day, which gives you some idea of how quiet it can be around here.

I did hear just this morning that Pattaya is chock-a-block full, which is no surprise, given that there hasn't been any trouble there (that I've heard, anyway), and, equally important, there isn't a curfew in the city. That must be good news for various players in the tourism industry there.

Let's see, is there anybody else I've seen since writing last? . . . Yes, I saw Dale and Bundy, Australia's contemporary answer to Amos and Andy, one evening in recent weeks, and both were just fine. Gabbing Gary has JUST taken off for his annual lengthy stay in wilds of New Jersey, and his running mate, Jay the Jabberwocky, is due back sometime in the first half of June. If he doesn't get bumped from his flight, that is. Or unless some volcano erupts out of the Great Plains in someplace like Iowa, ground North America air traffic!

As for me, I'm fine, though there have been moments, and I don't mean the Kodak kind.

Friday-before-last I was standing beside my desk cleaning my glasses. The lens I was polishing popped out, and I grabbed at it, successfully -- but slipped and fell on my tush, adding insult to injury by whacking my left arm a hard blow on my desk during my less-than-graceful descent. So, that banged me up for a couple days. Then, never content with a halfway job, I woke up about a week ago with a cyst or boil. Actually, with two -- one under EACH arm. They promptly got infected, which is a most unpleasant experience, not finally beginning to drain until just yesterday. The spots are still quite tender, but on the mend.

This stuff runs in the family. Back in the 1960's, when I was a teenager, I went with my Dad, two of his cousins, the younger-than-me son of one of those cousins, plus a friend of theirs to go on a week-long camping trip in northeastern Minnesota, from where we actually portaged across into Canada to our ultimate destination, a big lake whose name escapes me.

Anyway, we had everything set up through an outfitter in Ely Minnesota. We arrived towards sundown, the plan calling for us to spend the night at the lodge before heading out -- with a guide -- early next morning.

The lodge sat on a small lake. Of course, that's no surprise in a state that bills itself as "The Land of 10,000 Lakes," which is actually a lie; the real number is, as I recall, about 14,000. The aforementioned son, who was maybe 11 or so at the time and The World's Greatest Klutz -- he made me look as graceful as an acrobat or matador -- was eager to rush right to water's edge and out onto the dock, being the city boy he was. (I, however, was much more restrained having grown up, as I did, on a small ranch with a number of ponds. Sniff-sniff.)

Anyway, Uncle Ed ("Uncle" is a family thing, even though he's Dad's first cousin; has to do with showing respect to age) sternly admonished Gene, thunderously announcing that if Gene got so much as a single drop of water on himself he was in deep, um, something unpleasant.

Terrified (and quite properly so), poor Gene carefully approached the dock, sidling up to it slowly, in a low crouch, so as to keep his center of balance low, and, therefore, keep his balance. He hoped -- and succeeded, joyfully stretching himself out bell-down on the dock to inch out a few feet then over to the edge to dangle his hand in the water.

I swear, the scene that unfolded must be unique in the entire history of humanity, and I mean going all the way back to caveman days.

The rest of us were watching Gene, bemused at his terrified efforts to touch the water, on the one hand, even while not falling in, on the other -- mindful boy he was, with his Dad glowering at him from just a few yards away.

Gene got to his chosen spot, then inched -- no, micro-inched -- first a hand, then a forearm, followed by an upper arm arm and shoulder . . . then then his face. Part of his face, that is. That poor kid was so scared he didn't dare poke over more than a cheek, eye -- one eye, mind you, and no, I'm not kidding -- and part of his forehead.

He was in hog heaven . . .

. . . until he fell into the water with a mighty splash.

We all just stood there in utter shock, each of us privately wondering, "How in the HELL did he manage to fall into the water from being prone on the dock with just a bit of himself sticking out???"

So, klutziness runs in the family. I tell that tale not to pretend I'm not klutzy; I am. But I do tell it to show that at least ONE other person in the world is even klutzier than me!!!

So there!!!

Enough for one go --

Mekhong Kurt