Thursday, February 10, 2011

These are Turbulent Times

Paradise doesn't stand still.  If I thought that coming home would pacify all of my concerns, I was mistaken.  Events near and far have ruffled my waters.  First, my dear friend Jerry collapses in the street and, after being taken to the cardiac care unit at Bangkok's most prestigious medical tourism site, has a heart attack.  He's recovering nicely, and seems less discombobulated by the adventure then I, uncomfortably reminded of my mortality.  Then I learn from the Facebook page of the son of my former brother-in-law that his father has been diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), a rare, degenerative, and invariably fatal brain disorder.  David's blog has been charting its rapid and heart-breaking progress.  I remember Kenny (we share the same birthday) fondly as a generous and energetic friend, husband and father, and I grieve for his family. 

As if to echo personal tragedy, the world is changing rapidly in unexpected ways.  For two weeks I have been following events in Egypt, particularly through the complete coverage by Al Jazeera's English web site (where streaming video can be seen).  First the government in Tunisia was driven out by street protests, and then Cairo erupted with hundreds of thousands of Egyptians demanding that the dictator Mubarak, a faithful lackey of the U.S., leave the country and return the billions he stole from the people.  It's still too early to know if people power can actually overturn an entrenched autocratic regime like Murabark's; After all, they failed in Beijing's Tianamen Square over 20 years ago.  But the courage of the Egyptian people, particularly the women, is inspiring.  Maybe democracy might work after all!

In Thailand, the conservative yellow shirts, members of the People's Alliance for Democracy, are once again wagging the tail of the dog they put in power after a military coup five years ago deposed an elected prime minister and a disastrous sit-in two years ago closed the international airport and helped to unseat two subsequent prime ministers.  This time the yellow shirts and their allies, the Thai Patriots Network, are demanding that Cambodia return a small plot of land that contains an ancient Khmer temple despite the fact that an international court awarded them the border territory 50 years ago.  The long-running dispute resulted this month in shelling by the military on both sides with  the deaths of a number of villagers and solders.  Yellow shirt founder and media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul even suggested to the 5,000 demonstrating in the streets of Bangkok that Thailand should invade and capture Angkor Wat in retaliation for Cambodia's occupation of the Khmer temple land.  Because Prime Minister Abhisit has not yet declared war, the yellow shirts are calling for his ouster, or, better yet, a fresh military coup.   Insanity.

So what is one to do with such a mixture of hope and despair?  Head for a tropical island.

Our trip to Koh Chang over the long Chinese New Year weekend was made possible by an exceptionally generous wedding gift from two old friends from high school, Ernie and Mark.  It allowed Nan and I to have a second honeymoon (the first was last October to Koh Samed) and we made the most of it, flying via Bangkok Airways to Trat rather than endure the long bus ride, and staying in a "VIP Double" at Sofia Garden Resort halfway down the west coast of the island in Khlong Prao.  The hotel was owned by a man from Finland and featured a sauna as well as a pool, Finnish dishes on the restaurant menu, and it was populated by refugees from the cold northern European winter (a large number of whom were driving classic motorcycles and sported elaborate tattoos).  The cable TV include several European channels and we sampled a bit of "Titanic" and "Back to the Future" dubbed in Russian (which appears to the third official language of Thailand now).  This "resort" was not located on the beach, however, and we had to walk around a swamp and down a lane that passed a couple of luxury hotels to get to the sand and palm trees. 

Koh Chang is the third largest island in Thailand and is close to the Cambodian border (from which, thankfully, we were not shelled).  It's mountainous and the curvy road is no doubt treacherous in the rainy season.  Renting a motorbike seemed dangerous, so we traveled up and down the coast by song thao, the ubiquitous pickup truck taxi (which charged higher fees than transport on other islands I've visited), and sampled the waters at Kai Bae, Hat Tha Nam (Lonely Beach) and Halt Sai Kho (White Sands).  On the first day we paid our respects at the local Buddhist temple, receiving a blessing and a string bracelet, and a couple of nights later we visited an elaborate Ganesha shrine on the main road.  The east coast is dominated by uninviting mangrove trees while the west, where most of the resorts and hotels are located, lacks the wide beaches of some other islands, but the many trees offered welcome shade.  Although it's the peak of the tourist season, we only noticed crowds at White Sands where the only Thais Nan saw were vending items up and down the beach and giving massages.  Thankfully, we saw no jet skis or banana boats.  The other beaches, including even recently popular Lonely Beach which resembles more the backpacker haven of Pai rather than Koh Samui, were sparsely populated.  I doubt that the many accommodations, from shaky A-frames and guest houses to luxury oases, were anywhere near capacity.  Development, it seems, has maxed out.

While the surf is low key, the water around Koh Chang is warm and clear, and colored many shades of turquoise.  Liberally protected by sun block, we made the most of four days of relaxation.  Although I kept in touch with email, Facebook and Twitter on my iPod Touch (when the Sofia's wifi was working), I didn't keep up with the news (I did check in with Al Jazeera's cable channel occasionally).  We ate well at a variety of restaurants, from KATI Culinary which features a cooking school, the first evening to Iyara, an exceptional seafood restaurant (you knew it was good because most of the customers were Thais) in a old building on a lagoon where the after dinner treat was a gondola ride inland to see fireflies.  On the final night we traveled down to Bang Bao at the southern tip of the island where a long covered pier sports a number of restaurants and a generous helping of tourist shops.  We ate at Chow Lay, and although we'd enjoyed this restaurant's cuisine in Hua Hin, the Koh Chang branch was not up to par.  Iyara spoiled us for anything else.

The high point of the weekend was an all-day trip on Sunday by boat through the islands of the Koh Chang archipelago.  Conducted by Thaifun, the large boat held close to 50 travelers who swam off the beaches of Koh Wai and Koh Maak and snorkled among the coral around the tiny atoll of Koh Loan.  There were a couple of Thais among the guests but most spoke variations of guttural northern Europe languages that sound like Greek to me.  Lunch was an on-board feast and our guide Nok (she pronounced it "knock") kept everyone informed and amused with information and games, and at the end of the trip she encouraged us to throw food at the inhabitants of Monkey Island off the tip of Koh Chang.  The sea was flat and the sun was glorious.  Under the clear water, I saw numerous spiny sea urchens and waving fields of anemone.  Nan spotted what she delightfully called "cartoon fish."  Koh Maak is flat and can be explored easily by bike.  It's on the list of future possibilities, along with the much larger Koh Kood to the southeast which we did not visit.  There are 52 islands in the archipelago (used to be 53 but one was blown up during World War Two; I missed the details about that).  At least one, Koh Kham, is privately owned, and I saw a couple where I could easily live out the remainder of my days (if we win the lottery).

The trouble with coming home is that the turbulence of life you avoided by taking a vacation resumes.  Nan is back at the office and I gave my 28 students a midterm exam yesterday.  Today I'm going to the birthday dinner of a Thai colleague and tomorrow I plan to join Ian at the trial of the moderator of an internet chat site who is accused of lèse majesté for allowing comments allegedly critical of the monarchy.  It's an important test for freedom of expression in Thailand.  I received a Social Security payment this month but for less than I expected, and learned this morning by long-distance phone call that I was billed for Medicare payments after I'd withdrawn from the system (it can't be used over here).  Hopefully this will be straightened out with next month's payment.  Because Ajahn Aphivan covered for me while I was in California, I got paid for the first half of the school term even though I wasn't here.  Now I'm covering for her.  This means that for the first time in nine months we might be able to live within my income.  Hallelujah for that!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hallelujah indeed Will !

Many blessings to you and your wife.

Just being back is a big one indeed ! : )

Love those beach photos.