Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Bangkok Red Shirt Protest UPDATE

Because I have received many emails about the current political situation in Bangkok, I thought I would pen a quick blog telling you my thoughts.

I just spent the last five days in Bangkok April 6-12.  During this time, the anti-government red shirt protesters stormed the Parliament, lost control of and then regained control of their supporting television station, caused a lot of tourists and Bangkokians to be inconvenienced by closed shopping malls and the shut down of public transportation stations, but also were involved in a violent push back by the government on Saturday night when 21 people were killed and 80 people injured.  

The red shirts, composed mostly of poor Thais from the rural areas of Northern Thailand, are protesting the control of the current government supported by the "yellow shirts", often described as being the Bangkok "elite".  In 2006, the "yellow shirts" staged protests leading to a non-violent takeover of the government by the military while then Prime Minister Thaksin was overseas on a trip to New York.  After a year of military rule, the yellow shirts were surprised when Thaksin's  supporters regained power in Parliament after nationwide elections.  In 2008, Parliament decreed that the 2006 elections were wrought with fraud and appointed the current, yellow shirt supported government.  Since that time, the Parliament has found Thaksin guilty of major corruption and seized billions of dollars in his and his family's assets.  Now, I don't pretend to know everything yet about the Thai government, but if one believes in conspiracy theories, the theory that the government (or is it the military?)  is manipulating things (i.e. installing a government, calling elections fraudulent because they do not produce the desired outcome, finding the PM guilty of corruption), all would warrant further investigation.  Personally, I don't believe it.  Thaksin is a crook who pays for votes and embezzled billions of baht while prime minister.  Period.  End of story!  Most people agree that he is bankrolling the current protests to the tune of 1,000 baht per day per person.  Now, what does that mean?  Well, I am in the uppermost reaches of northern Thailand right now.  My friend's family owns a nice Thai restaurant and her staff, all smart, friendly and skilled, make 3,000 baht per month.  They work hard and they are happy with the work and the pay.  They think this is good money.  Thaksin, while on the lam, is paying unskilled farm workers 10 times this just to have them agree to be trucked down to Bangkok, fed small plastic baggies of rice and pork and stir up the situation on his behalf.

Now, I understand that the right to peaceful protests is an important part of the democratic process.  But most of these people have little idea what the protests are all about.  They are blinded by hero worship, food and cash and support Thaksin and the red shirt cause blindly and without comprehension.  

Most of the activity has been extremely isolated.  I actually went in search of some action and only on one day (Saturday before the violence erupted) was I even able to locate anything and that was merely about 200 red shirts all standing around listening to one of the leaders speak from the top of a truck while alternating with taped broadcasts of previous speeches while he has a cold towel and a smokebreak.

I don;t blame the government for finally getting frustrated at being badly embarrassed by the red shirts, but there also seems to be apathy among the ranks of the police and soldiers.

Why else would the soldiers leave there tanks behind after retreating from the violence on Saturday?  It just seems so weird and utterly unusual, but maybe they know something that I don't.

Well, time to leave Bangkok on Monday and head up to the northern town of Chiang Rai to celebrate the Thai New Year festival of Songkran.  Thais celebrate this holiday by going off to their villages, spending time with their families and throwing water on each other.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Siem Reap, Angkor Wat and Teaching

Well, I left the good energy of Phnom Penh to head to the temples of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia.  The four hour mini van ride was uneventful which is usually a good thing while traveling.  No accidents = good trip!  Upon reaching the town of Siem Reap, I made my way to Journeys Within Our Community (JWOC) Guest House.  I heard about JWOC from my friend and former client Leroy Morishita who, upon hearing about my Asia plans, strongly suggested I go check out JWOC.

JWOC is a not-for-profit NGO run by a charming couple from (where else?) California that helps the community of and around Siem Reap.  Some of their projects include a water cleanliness program to help the less than fortunate Cambodian locals by bringing cleanliness and sanitation to the many groundwater wells used for drinking, farming and bathing.  JWOC’s signature project is their Community Education Center.  In the Ed Center, JWOC staff teach everything from basic English to children and adults, computer skills.  They even teach less technical skills like sewing.  All these classes are amied at improving the chances of the Cambodian people,children, man, women, being successful.

The proprieters, Andrea and Brandon, are very helpful and arranged for me to have a driver and a guide at sunrise to go see the temples of Angkor Wat.  During ouor conversation, I asked if JWOC ever needed volunteer teachers.  Andrea sais “How about after your tour tomorrow?” with a laugh.  I agreed that I would help teach the next day at 3 pm.  

The next morning I awoke at 5 am, rewadied myself quickly and walked to the inn lobby.  The driver was waiting with the guide, Sen.  

Sen was a happy, smiling man who was also working at a resort and studying English (which he had nailed) and also French.  He wanted to be able to make himself more marketable to a larger group of clients and he thought learning French would help meet that goal.  After a 30 minute drive through roads populated by small family-owned restaurants, we arrived at the tourist center where I bought a three-day pass for $40 USD.  In Cambodia, the US Dollar is the currency of choice.  Unlike Vietnam and Thailand, the ATM machines spit forth USD.  On the short drive from the tourist center to Angkor Wat, we sped past the King’s Lake, a ginormous manmade body of water built exclusively for use by the Cambodian King. 

Surrounded by a moat 190 meters wide, Angkor Wat has been safely protected for centuries.  As Sen and I approached the temples before sunrise, we walked among hundreds of other “early-rising” tourists. 

As the sun peeked out from behind the spires, the beauty of the location came quickly into view.  The sun behind the stone monoliths, the reflection bouncing off the moat in front, the distinct stillness that the place exudes (despite the throngs of tourists), all of these things have been seen by so many different people since they were constructed by slave labor in the 10th century.  

After a morning exploring, climbing and enjoying Ankgkor Wat, Sen and I travelled to Angkor Thom (khmer = Great City), built in the 12th century and lies on the Siem Reap River. Thoough not as old or as famous as Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom is equally beautiful.  Hundreds of faces carved into sheets of sandstone guard the various gates to the place. 

That afternoon, I headed back to the JWOC for an afternoon volunteering in the classroom.  Fifteen children and one 30 year old monk were my first class. 

How ironic that there would be a couple of folks from the East Bay also volunteering at the same time.  The students were so appreciative to hear actual english-speaking people teach their class.  Their full-time instructor is a charminng young man but definitely has a thick khmer accent.  It was so much fun for me that I chose to extend my stay another day to teach and change my plans and plane ticket to Bangkok.
Children in Cambodia go to school either in the morning or in the afternoon, six days a week.  Most ride bicycles to school wearing their blue and white uniforms.  The children all seem to have happy, smiling faces while their parents and older peoples’ faces seem creased with the hardships that this country suffered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.  Cambodia, even a tourist spot like Siem Reap, is very affordable in Western standards.  $60 USD a month for a one bedroom apartment.  $5 dollars a month for cell phone service.  $10,000 USD for a large, seemingly well-constructed house. 
The next morning, it was off again to see some more temples.  This time, Banteay Srei, “Citadel of Women” and Ta Phrom, of Lara Croft “Tombraider” fame, I was told.  Bantay Srei was beautiful, with its red limestone and small scale when compared to the larger site of Angkor Wat. 

That being said, it was so overcrowded with touorists that I had to get out of there pretty quickly.  I was starting to feel a bit “templed out”.  

Ta Phrom was absolutely stunning to see.  The 10th century structures have been taken over by the force of nature for centuries.  Mammoth trees have imbedded themselves in the structures with roots growing up through and around the stones.  

This is the site that was used for the filming TombRaiders.  Sen and I decided to call it a day and finished off with an delicious khmer meal by the roadside.  Fried rice with Khmer sausage, a Siem Reap product, and undoubtedly the most tasty sausage ever made.

Another day of teaching, then a morning bus to Phnom Penh to catch a plane back to Bangkok.  TEFL course starts in about ten days, so time to start getting focused.

Focused...on what exactly?????