Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Fights, Beaches and Water Cannons - Thailand

With tiny Thai fighters dancing in Dany's head, I made sure the first thing we did in Bangkok was to see a Muay Thai fight. The Small stadium was half full, literally. The smoking section (left side) was full and the non-smoking section (right side) had two people in it with Dany and myself at ringside directly in between the two sections. It gave the stadium a slanty shanty kinda feeling.

Before every fight the fighters enter the ring and do a traditional dance while a simple three piece band (two drums and a chime) play. To my pleasant surprise the band continues to play as the fighters punch, kick and knee each other black and blue. The music moves with the fighters as the action increases and decreases like a theatrical score. In spite of the violence in the ring there is an incredible sense of respect and admiration between the fighters. With eight fights on the card there was plenty of action including a wild knock out. One fighter came out at the bell, kicked the other square in the temple and knocked him out cold for at least a four minutes. Three seconds, fastest fight I've ever seen. The place was quiet with everyone's mouth hanging open waiting for something to happen as the first fighter shrugged with disbelief.

Next stop, Chiang Mai for the Songkran festival. This is the Thai New Year and is celebrated form the 13th-15th of April. In Northern Thailand this festival is stretched to a week or more. Historically, the first day of the festival is spent cleaning ones house. This includes cleaning any Buddha statues in the house by pouring water over them. The now "holy" water is then gently poured over the shoulders of loved ones for good luck in the New Year. It has, however, evolved into one of the most colossal, outrageous water fights I have ever seen. Chiang Mai's Old City is surrounded by a moat where thousands of people line the street brandishing plastic pails with ropes tied to them. Pails are thrown into the moat and pulled back up full of water ready to splash pedestrians, motorcyclists and trucks filled with people armed with their own arsenal of water projectiles. On the other side of the road, businesses have sizable vats with water running into them continuously. Others, like myself, are equipped with water guns and 10 liter backpack reservoirs (these don't last nearly as long as you would think) as they roam the streets looking for trouble.
One minute you are engaged in an intense water fight with a group of Thais and the next you are refilling your water supply from them and idly chatting only to have one more quick fight before moving on to the next. The best "fights" are with the Thai children. Eager to initiate a water fight but once retaliation is commenced shouts of "Meow! Meow! Meow!" (No, No, No) are heard with laughter to quickly follow. Laughter is unavoidable and the only draw back is the threat of getting a mouthful of funny smelling brown water. I was sure that both Dany and I would be fighting for the bathroom the next day.
After an afternoon of being continually pummeled with water, a stop at the amazing food stalls were welcomed while we slowly drip dried in the shade and listened to bands playing across the promenade. Near the end of the day a large precession of Buddhas (one from each Wat in the city) traveled through out the city as thousands of worshipers line the streets to throw scented water on the Buddhas. This was so much fun that we repeated the events the next day and the next...... I'm still pruney.

The only negative point to this amazing festival was the fact that I forgot to leave my money belt that contained all my documents and travelers checks in the guest house. Everything was completely soaked and even after becoming dry again my passport looked like an accordion.
Now it was time to hit the beaches. After a bus, bus, tuk-tuk, train, bus, ferry, truck, long boat and a hot 46 hours we were at Hat Kuat (Bottle Beach). The closest thing I've seen to paradise. Beautiful beach, lush jungle, very few people, great food, and an amazing staff at Smile Bungalows that quickly transitioned from strangers to friends as we ate, drank, sang and teased each other for five amazing days. Days were spent eating, reading, eating, swimming, eating, hiking, eating, kayaking, eating and bobbing in the water every evening as the waves gently pushed us from side to side and we discussed the rigors of life.

With one more train ride to Bangkok, Dany was gone back home and I was on my way to Laos.

Thailand pictures Part I

Thailand pictures Part II

"Truly great friends are hard to find, difficult to leave and impossible to forget."

Sunday, April 11, 2010

What Could Go Wrong? - Bangkok, Thailand

Let me first preface this blog with the fact that Dany and myself were very careful and had escape routes and meeting places sorted out in the event that something unfortunate might have happened. No tourists were hurt in the making of this blog.

A very short Thailand history lesson as I understand it. In 2006 the Royal Thai Army staged a coup d'├ętat against the then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The military closed the airports, abolished the constitution, dissolved parliament, canceled the elections to be held in a month, censored the media and banned all protests. In the two years that followed the new government failed to find evidence of corruption, which they claim was the reason for the coup, within the Thaksin administration. Since then, a group called the Red Shirts have been protesting the "illegitimate" power of the Thaksin administration and lobbying for an election. Now, a million Reds Shirts from all over Thailand had been protesting near the parliament building in Bangkok since April 3, 2010.

It was our last day in Bangkok and we were looking for something to do. Having exhausted our desire for markets and wats (temples), I suggested that we go investigate the protests by the Red Shirts. It seemed like a great way to understand the plight of a people. We received far more that expected. Dany and I walked towards the two kilometer protest area not knowing what to expect or how to act. We entered the site and quickly became the only westerners in sight and the streets became increasingly saturated with red with every step we took. That alone should have given us enough warning to the magnitude of the protest. After some initial hesitation we let our guard down and began taking pictures. It seemed that the more pictures we took and the further into the epicenter we went the more the Red Shirts wanted to talk to us. Before we new it, Thais were shaking our hands, sharing their story and pointing to things for us to photograph (like the helicopter firing waring shots in the air). I know what you're thinking. Their anger, passion and commitment to their cause was palatable as they spoke to us with tears in their eyes. These were all things that I would have never received from a newspaper.Soon we faced barricades with riot police, barbed wire and military soldiers in ever increasing numbers. Even thought the scene had all the elements of doom, there was an eerie calm over the whole situation. I even bought an iced coffee thirty meters from one of the barricades. Many Red Shirts smiled at us and welcomed us in-between political slogans and giving the passing helicopters the finger. Numerous protesters offered us water in spite of the fact that most of them had been there on the streets for a week in 40 degree weather. A testament to the Thai culture. After three hours of taking pictures, talking to people and drinking iced coffees, we both had the feeling that it was time for us to go. Part of me wanted to stay, but I always seem to regret not listening to my instincts. With a million Thais from all over the country protesting since April 3 in the torturing sun, tensions were bound to come to a boil. As we rounded a corner to leave the now volatile area, we came across a battalion of 300 Thai soldiers and a long line of armored cars. Apparently we picked the right time to leave. Feeling trapped between the Red Shirts and the military we decided to walk beside the military in the opposite direction to the shelter of a near by restaurant. Three hours later we boarded a bus to Chiang Mai wondering what was happening in Bangkok. I was not looking forward to reading the paper the next day.
Waking up from a terrible sleep on the bus, I soon learned that my night was significantly better than many others. The protests turned ugly shortly after we left and led "to some of the worst bloodshed in the country's history." Twenty one dead and nearly nine hundred wounded in the skirmish. The Red Shirts are maintaining their position and will not evacuate. A million Thais risked their life for a right I take for granted and rarely use. I understand how important and powerful the people are. Change starts with one person, one idea, one act.

"Nobody can claim victory if the victory is the wrecking of the nation."
King of Thailand

If you want to read more click here.

For more Red Shirts pictures click here.