Monday, April 19, 2010

The Power of Water

Nothing under heaven is as yielding as water.
And yet in attacking the hard, the unyielding,
Nothing can surpass it. Nothing can take it's place.

--Tao Te Ching (trans. by Sam Hamill)

Three days after the bloody clash between soldiers and anti-government protesters in Bangkok, tourists and Thais were throwing water at each other on Khao San Road, a block away from the intersection where over 20 people died and more than 800 were injured. The battle with water was a celebration of Songkran, the traditional Southeast Asian New Year, when Thais splash water and colored powder on each other. The photo above was taken last Tuesday on the main drag of Ao Nang, a tourist destination on the Andaman Sea where Nan and I spent a very wet and wonderful week, with many ups and a few downs..

It was hard for me to leave Bangkok a week ago Saturday because the government had obviously chosen that day to remove the red shirted demonstrators from their rally at Phan Fa Bridge in the old city of Rattanakosin. On live TV, large numbers of troops could be seen moving toward the site in the afternoon. Although soldiers were supposedly supplied only with shields, truncheons, tear gas and rubber bullets, across from the United Nations headquarters some of them were pointing their guns at the crowd and one reporter showed where a real bullet had hit her car. The reds fought back with sticks, stones and water bottles. From my apartment window I could see a helicopter across the river circling above them. Thousands of red shirts at the other rally site in the heart of Bangkok's shopping center were in a tense standoff with police. But it was time to go.

The Southern Bus Terminal was filled with people waiting for their buses home. Most Thais who live and work in Bangkok have family elsewhere and they usually return home for major holidays: January's New Year celebration, Songkran, and Loi Krathong in November. Many like us choose to take a holiday. Plane, bus and train tickets sold out weeks ago. We ate in a packed food court while watching a Thai comedy on the overhead TV. I didn't bring my laptop with me and only learned about the bloody battle several days later from an English newspaper at Starbucks in Ao Nang. The last time I traveled to Krabi a year and a half ago, it was by plane. This time we took an overnight "VIP" 24-seat bus for about $29. The steward passed out water and snacks and it was relatively comfortable, but I was unprepared for the arctic air conditioning. The TV featured a bloody Thai historical video with the volume turned on high, but I blocked it by listening to the new Sade CD on my iPod. Around 11:30 were were awoken when the bus stopped at a huge restaurant to feed us a set meal along with hundreds of other travelers.

At the beginning and end of my first trip to the Andaman coast I stayed in the nondescript provincial town of Krabi but spent most of the 12 days on the islands of Ko Phi Phi and Ko Lanta. I visited Ao Nang only to take a long tail boat from there one morning to the beautiful landlocked Railay Beach. It's a town devoted to tourism but not obnoxiously so like Pattaya or Phuket, and it offered a variety of sea excursions like the two we took from Ko Samui. Two months ago we found Ao Nang Mountain Paradise on the internet and prepaid for six nights. After our early morning arrival, we found it in the shade of a large cliff. Our room was not yet ready so we set out for the beach and soon realized that it was a very long walk ("1 minute," claimed the web site). The pool was green and slick with algae. The shower handle was attached by gravity rather than a screw On our second night there, the electricity failed in several of the bungalows including ours. The apologetic night manager said it was a problem at the power plant but I suspected faulty wiring. After two hours in the hot dark battling mosquitoes, we rented another hotel room up the street. In the morning the electricity was back and we took our first speed boat excursion. That night about 10, the electricity gave out again. This time we told the embarrassed employee that we had to leave, and he told us to come back in the morning for a refund. It was too dark to pack, so we found another room and returned in the morning. The unsmiling day manager said refunds could be only given by the online agent. She said we would have to pay for the two nights we slept in another hotel since we left our belongings. I angrily refused to return the key when we left. Later she called my mobile phone and threatened to summon the police, so Nan took the key back. Our hotel for the next three days, Pranang Flora House, was exceptionally comfortable.

Fortified by 50 SPF sun block, Nan and I spent our days on the beach (in the shade where we could find it), in the surf and on board the speedboats operated by Baracudas Tours Krabi. We signed up for two trips, the 4 Islands tour on Tuesday and the Phi Phi Islands tour on Friday. The Andaman seascape is dominated by numerous karst rock formations that rise up out of the water, whether pillar or island. On the first excursion we joined an extended family from Trang, stopping first at Pranang Cave on the Railay peninsula where the local spirit of a princess is placated with phallic objects offered by fishermen hoping for a good catch. From there we traveled around Chicken Island (which looked more like a turkey to me) and stopped at a small beach where we had a set lunch in a tiny restaurant constructed from driftwood. At low tide, you can walk from that beach to the nearby Tup Island, our next destination, to snorkle and swim. Our final journey was to Poda Island with a wide white sand beach and shady trees inland.

It was Songkran and there were large crowds at every stop, almost all of them Thai (or at least non-European), which surprised me. All of the guests at Ao Nang Mountain Paradise had been Thai, while the two main streets of Ao Nang were filled with farang tourists and businesses that catered to their perceived needs (tacky souvenirs and identical beachware on sale in every shop). When our speedboat returned to the beach at Ao Nang, the Songkran festivities were in full swing. Revelers of all ages strolled the boardwalk, squirt guns in hand, and pickup trucks filled with Thais drove slowly, looking for likely targets on which to pour buckets of water. Two years ago in Chiang Mai I noticed that tourists love Songkran. There the watery holiday lasted a full week. In Ao Nang, only a few foreigners kept up their water fights the next day.

One sunset Nan and I discovered the Moon Terrace restaurant on a small beachfront alley where numerous places specialized in fresh seafood. The view was spectacular as we sat outside to eat on the deck. We returned again on our final night. If I were a Colman Andrews or an Ed Ward, two friends who specialize in writing about food, I could describe the dinners. Suffice it to say that each were divine. Early in the week we explored Railay with its magnificent beach on the east and mangrove-studded shoreline on the west. We sipped cold drinks at a restaurant with a view on the western hillside and watched students pulls themselves up the face of a nearby cliff at one of the many climbing schools in the Krabi area. In between island trips, we spread our mat on the ground in the shade of the treeline and enjoyed the main Ao Nang beach watching the tide roll out, from high in the morning to low in the late afternoon. Of course we occasionally worried about a possible tsunami, since Ao Nang was struck by the big one in 2004 (you can read about its impact on Ao Nang and see photos here). One day we walked to the southern end of the beach where there are numerous massage pavilions and each of us received a pummeling for 200 baht. And in the evening we had a delicious do-it-yourself barbecue dinner at a packed sidewalk restaurant (this is one form of Thai food farang can only find here).

Our final speedboat trip was to the Phi Phi islands, Phi Phi Don and the smaller and uninhabited Phi Phi Lay. It was a larger crowd which included a couple of farang, a bigger boat, and only one passenger threw up (a couple of them looked distinctly unhappy). I'd stayed a few days before on Phi Phi and found it small and crowded. Much had been rebuilt after the tsunami which was particularly destructive there. Our first stop was to go snorkling in the channel off Bamboo Island. The fish were abundant and the coral lovely in the turquoise blue waters. Next we headed with a fleet of tour boats to tiny Phi Phi Don with its hidden inlets, lagoons and beaches. Our first stop was Viking Cave (misnamed, obviously), now privately owned, where bird nests are collected for the famous soup. We continued on to Lohsamah Bay and Pileh Bay but the many boats made the water too rough for snorkling. Finally, the pièce de résistance, Maya Bay where "The Beach" was filmed. We were warned when the tour guide describe the beach as "a market."Numerous boats had anchored in the lagoon and hundreds of visitors milled around on the sand or in the surf. Many sought shade in the lee of a cliff. All were taking photos. Since it was high tide, there wasn't much of a beach. Back at home, I compared scenes from the film with my photos and saw that the filmmaker had hidden the entrance from the sea with a cg effect, but the lagoon, minus people, would be no less beautiful.

After a short trip to a remote side of Phi Phi Don where monkeys live in the trees along the shore, lunch was another set meal at a restaurant on Ko Phi Phi's Ton Sai Bay where the boats dock. Since we had 40 minutes to spare, I walked Nan through the twisting lanes of tourist shops to the lovely beach on Loh Dalam Bay. I doubt that any Thais vacation on Phi Phi. It's a backpacker's paradise, with bars, shops selling banana shakes and pancakes, and videos of American movies showing in the evenings. We stopped for drinks at D's Bookstore, much expanded now with a terrace on the other side, where I used to sip cappuccino and browse the book titles in the late afternoon during my last visit. Back on the boat, our final stop was Bamboo Island with its broad white beach and good snorkling close to shore. A group of Muslim girls were enjoying the water while fully clothed, head to toe. After more swimming, we ate absurdly high priced ice cream bars in the shade of a grove of pine trees before heading back to Ao Nang.

It was a wonderful vacation and eminently suitable for Songkran since we were wet most of every day. As the days lengthened, I began to suffer withdrawal from the internet and tried to catch up on the news that I'd missed with the hotel's computer. I found copies of Bangkok's English papers at the local Bookazine, but the news was old by the time I read it. Mysterious and unknown elements were believed responsible for the worst of the violence on April 10, whether rogue soldiers or renegade reds no one seemed sure. Abhisit called them "terrorists" and hinted them someone wanted to radically change Thailand's government (code for overturning the monarchy). The red shirts consolidated their demonstration at Rajaprasong, continuing the shutdown of five-star hotels and luxurious shopping malls, while the military positioned snipers in surrounding buildings. Arrest warrants were issued for red leaders but an attempt to capture a couple backfired and several of the police were held hostage. The fascist yellow shirts began a demonstration, first calling themselves people of no particular color and then yesterday demanding that Abhisit end the red rally or they would take to the streets again. The Prime Minister put General Anupong, the military commander-in-chief, in charge of ending the anti-government protest even though earlier the soldier had said that only a political solution was possible for the protracted conflict.

Back home, with swollen feet and ankles after another 11-hour bus ride, I watch the tweets from Bangkok closely and search the relevant blogs and web pages for news and information. It's hard to synthesize since events are moving rapidly towards some kind of a conclusion. I agree that only political negotiation can lead toward a settlement, but it seems obvious that the different sides are not willing to listen to each other. "In the facile political taxonomy we use to categorize nations, Thailand is considered a democracy," wrote one writer in Time Magazine. "Yet the country remains, if not a banana republic, a juicy, messy mango republic." Pavin Chachavalpongpun wrote this morning in the Bangkok Post, "Thailand has long lived in a fairy tale world in which the supposed ideal of perfection effectively eclipsed the huge differences and fragmentations in society." But he predicted that out of the current struggles a new Thai identity would emerge. The red shirts, he said, "are seeking to reinvent a national identity of their own. They are eager to reject the top-down process of identity making, while campaigning for a bottom-up way of how Thais should express their nationhood."

Water is powerful. The 2004 tsunami and the Grand Canyon are proof of that. Can Thailand's politicians learn from the wisdom of the Tao?

But the muddiest water clears as it's stilled,
and out of that stillness, life arises.

-Tao Te Ching (trans. by Sam Hamill)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting piece with some great photos. Thanks for this.