The Wat Next Door

Just downstream of the school is a small wat. We don’t usually spend much time on the river going downstream, as most of Bangkok is to the north of us. But the last time we were on the river we noticed the wat had an enormous reclining Buddha facing the river. So we went to go see. Here he is:

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The wat also serves as dock for express boat service, albeit not one that’s used that often:

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(It’s generally called Wat Chanyawat, as far as I can tell.) Like most wats on the river, there’s the opportunity to feed the catfish and/or pigeons:

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There’s a lot going on at this wat: it hosts an immense number of massage parlors. There was also an old woman with an enormous sleeping pig.

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A Christmas Miracle

You may recall, from previous posts, Mr. Harriet and Mr. Pendleton, Harriet’s two fish who live in the pot of our lotus plant. At a certain point Mr. Harriet seemed to disappear – maybe a bird ate him, maybe he flew away – and then Mr. Pendleton also disappeared – same issues – but somehow there are now four smaller fish. Also the lotus plant is somehow alive, which is against all reason. But yesterday I cut off a wilted leaf to prettify things for Christmas, and the cut stem kept miraculously bubbling all day, as you can see in this video. Mr. Harriet and Mr. Pendleton’s successors (children?) also make appearances.

Alas, Poor Starbung

So. Things carry on here; protests have been on hiatus all weekend because it was the King’s birthday on Thursday and nobody thought that anything could be done on only Friday. But Suthep (background info here) says that something will happen tomorrow, so maybe something definitive will happen? More likely: it won’t.

In the interim, I went up to Phra Arthit to pay a visit to the coffee-maker previously known as Starbung. Born Damrong Maslee, his nickname is “Bung”, which means “brother” in Malay; when he started a coffee cart, he naturally enough called himself “Starbung”. Starbucks took offense at this and demanded 300,000 baht in damages (plus 30,000 baht a month for legal fees); Mr. Bung has been fighting them as best he can, though he’d have to sell 500 cups of coffee per day just to keep up with their stated legal fees. So he gave in; the coffee cart is currently named Bung’s Tears.

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They are not selling t-shirts, which seems like a missed opportunity. His coffee is delicious, certainly more than that of Starbucks, who should be ashamed of themselves. You’ll also note that his coffee is halal.

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I left my telephone in a taxi this afternoon, which means that you won’t get to see poor-quality videos of the fireworks for the King’s birthday. What was most notable about these was that really powerful fireworks appeared to have been launched from the 7/11 across the street, which presumably means that I could be acquiring and launching such fireworks. Also I need a new phone.

Political Situation Update

Thai politics continue to be surprising. After a somewhat violent weekend, things calmed down yesterday and there’s a ceasefire for the King’s birthday. Suthep Thaugsaban, the leader of the protesters, declared yesterday that he was going to invade the headquarters of the police – who had, you might remember, been spraying the protesters with tear gas. The police decided that the correct thing to do was to have an open house, and everyone had a nice time. Today everyone’s cleaning up for the King’s birthday tomorrow.

What this all means is extremely unclear. Suthep declared victory, though as far as anyone can tell he hasn’t won anything. Yingluck Shinawatra hasn’t stepped down; nor do the protesters control any of the government ministries as had been an earlier plan. The military still hasn’t stepped in. There’s a warrant out for Suthep’s arrest on charges of insurrection, but this presumably means nothing: he also has an outstanding warrant on murder charges because of people being killed during the 2010 protests, for which he hasn’t stood trial yet; if you’re rich in Thailand, ordinary laws don’t apply to you. Presumably everything will start up again on Friday.

Yesterday I passed through the Flower Market, and this time I remembered to take some pictures. It was winding down by the time I was there – this is mostly an early morning market – but it’s going strong right now with flowers for sale for the King’s birthday.

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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:

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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.