The Political Situation: a quick introduction

You might know that there’s some political upheaval in Thailand at the moment. Because people have been asking: we’re not in any sort of danger. There are a lot of protests, but they’re mainly happening well to the north of us; the closest place that anything has happened is Sathorn Road, two miles away. As of today, however, the protesters have declared their intention to occupy the zoo (strategically located right next to Parliament), so there is some disruption in our lives.

Thai politics are complicated and somewhat hermetic, and reporting in the Western press doesn’t seem to be particularly good. (Nor, for that matter, are the local papers doing much better: today the Bangkok Post printed a letter to the editor about the obvious superiority of the original flavor of HP sauce.) But here’s a basic overview of what’s going on.

The prime minister of Thailand right now is a woman named Yingluck Shinawatra. She’s the sister of billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, who used to be prime minister until he was sent into exile on charges of corruption; now he’s living in Dubai. There’s the widespread belief that he continues to run the country through his sister. Their party is called Pheu Thai. Pheu Thai has draws most of their support from the rural poor, who have been generously rewarded with subsidies; there are allegations of wholesale vote buying.

Pheu Thai supporters are called the Red Shirts; the opposition are the Yellow Shirts. The Yellow Shirts have their name because they are monarchists and yellow is the color of the king (he was born on a Monday, and Monday’s color is yellow). The Yellow Shirts are the urban elite; they’re primarily in Bangkok and are the groups that have historically held power.

Now it’s worth pointing out that everyone involved in politics in Thailand is a monarchist; respect for the king ties the country together. On paper, however, the king has no real political power. (What’s actually the case is murky.) The Yellow Shirts’ position, as explained by their leader Suthep is that the king should have more power; they would prefer that there be less direct democracy (including voting for members of parliament). This would, in theory, mean an end to the wealthy buying votes; it would return rule in Thailand entirely to the urban elite.

Now! That’s who’s fighting; this has been the central argument in Thai politics for the past decade. The reason that protests started was initially because Yingluck introduced a bill that would have provided amnesty to politicians convicted of crimes; it would have allowed Thaksin to return to the country (and to politics). The bill was remarkably unpopular but stayed in play for longer than it should have; it was withdrawn this past week. But ire at Thaksinism was touched off, and the Yellow Shirts took up blowing whistles as loudly as possible at government buildings. The protests haven’t dissipated. In the past few days, things have escalated, as Red Shirts have been bused in from the countryside to launch counter-protests. The Yellow Shirts have been occupying government buildings with little effect; things do seem to be heating up, and the first real violence happened at a Red Shirt rally this evening.

That said, I’ll stress again that we’re in no real danger. Getting foreigners involved is advantageous to no one. A big player that hasn’t yet been involved is the military; there’s a good chance that this will end with a coup. Historically – coups happen regularly here – the involvement of the military makes that happen. December 5th is the king’s birthday, and everyone will take a break for that. The week after that should be decisive.

We’ve seen very little to indicate that anything will happen. This afternoon we passed a bunch of Red Shirts on their way to a rally at the national stadium; last week I mistakenly walked through the end of a Yellow Shirt rally, having imagined it was a street fair. Here’s a mural outside of Silpakorn University, the art school:


Maybe some explanation is useful. The crab is Yingluck – her nickname, a fairly common one, is Poo, which means crab. The vampire fangs are a nice touch. The hand controlling her is her brother, Thaksin; the bottle of Coke is the U.S. And it’s probably worth noting that just because this is anti-Thaksin, it’s not necessarily pro-Yellow Shirt: there are plenty of reason for people to be upset with the Shinawatras.

Exotic Fruit Report: Sapodilla Edition

The end of the rainy season is a weirdly dull time for fruit. Mangoes still aren’t ripe, mangosteens are mostly gone, longans and langsats aren’t as common. There are a lot of citrus fruits available, and rambutans seem to be returning. Also apples.

Here’s what we have today:


The things in the bag on the left (which look suspiciously like olives) are Preserved Elaeocarpus. I bought that at 7/11 when the fruit situation was looking particularly dire. As you might expect from fruit in a bag bought at 7/11, it’s terrible. Elaeocarpus is like a big olive; “preserved” in this case means that they’re in a sugary vinegar. I have no idea what they are supposed to taste like, though you do see them around; they generally seem to be preserved.

The fruit in the upper right of that picture was labeled “sapodilla” in English and “ละมุดธรรมดา” in Thai (which Google Translate has as “common sapodilla,” who knows); the one below it was labeled a “Malay sapodilla plum” in English and “ละมุดมาเลย์” in Thai (Google: “Malay sapodilla”). Wikipedia only recognizes a single sapodilla; the Malay sapodilla seems to be a hybrid from Malaysia designed to grow faster and sweeter than other sapodillas. The common sapodilla might be the standard Thai sapodilla? You see it around fairly often, the Malays don’t seem to be quite as common.

When you cut them open, you find a small number of black seeds:


It’s a little like (though smaller than) a Mexican mamey, to which sapodillas are related. The skin is a little thicker than that of a kiwi; you can eat it, though it’s not the most pleasant. The taste on them is like a slightly floral pear; the texture is roughly the same as a soft pear. They’re pretty good; the Malay might be a little sweeter, though it’s hard to tell much of a difference. They can also be juiced; the juice is very similar to pear juice.

Next time: sugar apples.

Loy Krathong

Yesterday was Loy Krathong. Loy Krathong is a Thai holiday that comes on the night of the first full moon after the rainy season. The rainy season doesn’t seem to want to go away – it rained yesterday morning & much of Saturday – and the country is still officially in mourning for the death of the hundred-year-old Supreme Patriarch – but Loy Krathong happened anyway. I wish I still had M. L. Manich Jumsai’s Understanding Thai Buddhism at hand so that I could quote his astonishingly convoluted explanation of the history of the holiday, but I am on thin ice with the Neilson Hays Library, so I had to take that back. Once upon a time, he says, one of the minor wives of one of the kings of the country was Hindu; everyone made fun of her for this; but then after the rainy season she made a boat out of flowers and candles and put it in the river, and everything thought that was a good idea and the custom was immediately taken up. Wikipedia claims that this story is nonsense.

But basically the idea is that in thanks for the rain you throw a lot of garbage in the river. You make a little boat out of flowers, candles, and incense, and then light the candles and put the boat in the river. Here you can see the King demonstrating this. Like the King, we were in Hua Hin, where we were trying to go to the beach; that didn’t work out especially well, though the hotel we were staying at offered a make-yourself-a-krathong session on Sunday afternoon, so we did that while waiting to go back to Bangkok:


And here Kim shows off the finished products:


Mine, on the left, is about Adolf Loos’s “Ornament and Crime”; hers is about Idaho’s troubled twentieth century. Those constructed, we went back to Bangkok, which took a long time because everyone was coming back to Bangkok from Hua Hin. At the Chatrium, the staff was lowering the lit krathongs into the water, which you might be able to make out here:


The river was extremely choppy so most of the candles went out quickly; theoretically, you’d see a lot of lit krathongs floating down the river, but that didn’t really happen. There are a lot of boats. The boat that you can see in the upper left is not actually on fire; it’s just lit up. There are also a lot of fireworks, many set off from boats. Last week we had the best of both worlds, when a boat setting off fireworks briefly caught on fire; but then it seemed to be fine, and it wasn’t in the paper the next morning, so I assume everything worked out. Also:


My phone really can’t take photos at night! So I need to explain that those are not stars – Bangkok is far too bright for that – rather, they’re floating lanterns or khom loy. Besides throwing things in the river, people also set these alight. There aren’t as many in Bangkok as there are further north in Thailand; they’re actually illegal because they end up setting a lot of fires. The Chatrium has not yet burned down.

Sailors at Wat Suthat

Wat Suthat is a first-class royal temple (you can see the list here), but it’s not generally visited by the non-religious, simply because there are plenty of other first-class royal temples in Bangkok, many of which are more splendid. Wat Suthat is notable because it’s close to the Giant Swing, which is more correctly a giant swingset with no swing on it; people used to swing on it, but there were fatalities, and now it is only to look at, which explains why we haven’t said anything about this until now. But. Wat Suthat is guarded by a bunch of statues of sailors, some pictures of which you may look at below. Wat Suthat was completed under King Rama III, in the early nineteenth century, and I assume that these date from then:





Holiday in Cambodia

So we went to Cambodia last week, and things have been hectic since we got back and we haven’t put up pictures, so now I am trying to catch up. So here is what happened, in semi-loving detail.

First, we flew from Bangkok to Phnom Penh, which takes about an hour. Harriet has a new-found interest in airline safety brochures, and Cambodian Angkor Air has a particularly nice sequence that seemed to illustrated the dangers of smoking in the bathroom (first a bunch of people are having a fine time smoking in the bathroom, next a fellow is screaming with terror in front of a window full of flames as the airplane has caught fire & he is ready to jump to his death) which Harriet was extremely interested in. We failed to get a picture of this, which is going to be a common refrain of this post. Maybe Kim got real photos of things on her real camera, but I don’t know. But anyway then we figured out that the poor man was actually meant to be inside the airplane and the outside of the plane was full of flames, and the point of the picture was that you are not supposed to go out the emergency door is everything is on fire. There is a message in here somewhere but I am not sure what it is.

Now. We got to Phnom Penh and after making our way through the airport (visas, SIM cards for the phones, fish pond), we went to our hotel via the Cambodian version of a tuk-tuk, which is a remork, which made Harriet extremely pleased. The remork isn’t quite a tuk-tuk (which is a three-wheeled contraption that goes tuk-tuk-tuk), it’s actually a scooter with a tiny two-seat trailer attached to the end of it. You can find an introduction here because we failed to get a nice establishing shot. But the drivers decorate them nicely, and you could make a fine coffee-table book of the different remorks of Cambodia which would probably find an extremely limited market though Harriet would buy a number of copies. Remorks are slightly more pleasant to ride in than tuk-tuks if you are not two years old. They are a fairly recent invention; historically the foreign visitor got around Phnom Penh via cyclopousse (basically a stroller for old people pedaled by a driver, as can be seen here) but that seemed a little weird and colonialist.

I didn’t get a lot of pictures of our first hotel in Phnom Penh, but it was basically a verdant wonderland with cats which is all Harriet cares about:


It was also notable for being opposite the North Korean embassy, which meant that it had a great deal of security. I imagine that this car with Arkansas plates belongs to a spy:


Some background: Norodom Sihanouk, the two-time ex-king of Cambodia (Wikipedia strains to keep up) had warm relations with Kim Il Sung, and spent a lot of time in Pyongyang after the military coup removed him from power. Possibly the North Korean government still operates a restaurant in Phnom Penh? We did not make it there, which is a shame.

But. After lazing in the hotel, we arranged for a taxi to take us to the town of Kep, which is on the coast very close to the Vietnamese border. It was a resort town when Cambodia was a French protectorate; it is famous for its crabs, which we ate, and its burnt-out French villas, which we saw. Kep is fairly spread out and there’s not much of a center; we were staying off in the hills in a pepper plantation. Cambodia is full of enormous statues of things; Kep has a crab to be proud of:


The horizon in Kep is not tilted, this was taken from the back of a remork going as fast as a remork can go. These photos are terrible, I’m sorry. I didn’t get a lot of pictures of the place we were staying at, but it has a lovely pool and fields growing pepper and it was out in the middle of nowhere. We had a fine time there but you will basically have to imagine it. Extrapolate from this picture of a broken-down remork trailer:


Maybe Kim took better pictures. The next day we went to Koh Tonsay, which is a tiny island off the coast of Kep. We took one of these boats:


which take you out to the island, which is maybe ten miles off the coast. It’s not a big island; there’s no electricity, and basically there’s a beach with a handful of restaurants and cabanas that you can stay the night in. Also chickens. And you can get massages. But we had a fine time. The beach was extremely shallow and it went out a long way:


And Harriet had a fine time until she didn’t any more:


Again, Kim took better pictures of things but she has not put up a blog post so I have to tell you about these things with my terrible pictures. The next day we went from Kep to Kampot, which is famous for its pepper, which they also grow in Kep, and its durian, which we did not see. Kampot has an enormous statue of a durian, which is a fine thing to see but which you will have to imagine. You can google “Kampot durian statue” if you are curious. Why do we bother taking pictures at all? Who knows.

But on the way to Kampot we took an extremely rickety remork ride – probably the most rickety of all of them – to one of the local caves, Phnom Chhnork. (“Phnom” means hill in Khmer. Now you are as educated as I am.) There was some nice statuary at the entrance:


This particular cave has a large stalagmite that looks like an elephant, hence these, and is the site of an ancient Hindu shrine. There are a lot of stairs going up, which Harriet was pleased by:


And inside it was a cave, which of course it is lunacy to attempt to photograph on my telephone:


Okay. Now. After the rickety ride to the cave and back and on the way to the next place we were staying the remork broke down:


Fortunately it broke down next to a puddle and so Harriet had a fine time. The only documentation I have of the next place we stayed is this picture of Harriet with a cow:


That’s basically how it was. And now I have to stop apologizing for not photographing things very well and start apologizing for not photographing at all because the next day I forgot my phone at home, which is a shame because you are missing out on photographs of some amazing things. We took a taxi up to the Bokor Hill Station, which was a French outpost at the top of a small mountain; a winding road goes up to the top, which made Harriet carsick and she threw up all over Kim, to our driver’s considerable entertainment. But again, you need to use your imagination. At the top of the hill are a bunch of creepy abandoned buildings and a waterfall, and an immense housing complex being designed by a Korean conglomerate. Should you like to have some idea, you could look at this film by Norodom Sihanouk, former king of Cambodia; in the 1960s, he decided that his country would be better served if he took up film-making, which he did. The Khmer Rouge then showed these films to their young recruits as examples of the decadence of the ruling class, and that ended badly for everyone, but I am not here to teach you about Cambodian history.

After that we went back to Phnom Penh, which is kind of great. As previously noted, Harriet had a tarantula (not particularly delicious) and the National Museum is very nice. The National Palace is infested with monkeys and also cats. There are a lot of playgrounds and Harriet had a fine time with the Cambodian children:

And then we left Cambodia and Harriet was sad to go.