Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Sawatdee to Thailand

I had been waiting at the airport for four hours and the plan was half an hour late in boarding. It was after midnight and I was tired. But as I entered the Thai Airways plane, the willowy stewardess in the long dress softly said "Sawatdee ka," welcome, and I was instantly transported out of the chaos of India and into the gracious hospitality of Thailand.

It was easy to fall asleep for most of the two and a half hour flight, and when I awoke we were landing at Bangkok's brand new Suvarnabhumi international terminal at Nong Ngu Hao east of the city. When it's fully operational, it will be the largest airport in Asia. The halls were gigantic and could easily accomodate many times the passengers that were arriving on pre-dawn flights like mine from all over the world. I changed some dollars into baht and passed smoothly through the immigration and customs desks. The first thing I saw was a giant Christmas tree, three storeys tall. The Buddhist Thais love Christmas and when I was here a year ago all of the stores were fully decorated.

Since I knew my room at the P.S. Guest House would probably not be ready at this earlier hour, I decided to hang out in the terminal. I had coffee and an omelet at the Bluecup Restaurant (I'd slept through a meal on the plane, but God knows why they wanted to feed anyone in the middle of the night). Then I found a bookstore and bought a copy of the Post, one of Bangkok's two English language dailies, and the International Herald Tribune. I took the papers down to another coffee place, ordered a cappuccino and set up shop.

The news was not good. Cabin personnel working for British Airways had voted to go out on strike. And I left behind nine pilgrims who were supposed to take a 4 AM flight on that airline to San Francisco via London. Were they stranded? I'm still trying to find out. Last night at the farewell dinner in the Radha Park Inn in Chennai I received a bouquet of compliments from the pilgrims for my enthusiasm and grace (i.e. smiles) under pressure. On my part, I thanked them for the opportunity to serve, and for the chance to share my love of India with them. Now the thought of them stuck in Chennai brings me almost to tears. I feel like I abandoned them. The reason I left before they did was I found a half-price flight to Bangkok but it left four hours before their flight. Penny wise, poud foolish?

Some of the other news was disconcerting. Apparently bombs were set off in Bangkok on New Year's Eve, killing three people and injuring over 40. Last September the military ousted Prime Minister Thaksin in a coup and the Council for National Security (CNS) has ruled the country since then, at the wishes of the King. According to the Post, the bombings may have been conducted by disguntled soldiers and not the Muslim rebels in the south. Also there are rumors of a second coup by the military which is apparently disenchanted with the civil servants it put in charge. Eventually, there are supposed to be elections. Thaksin, a wealthy businessman who has been accused of corruption, was enormously popular in the countryside where he spent lavishly to win votes, and was elected in a landslide. But he was unpopular in the cities and the military took their cue from discontent among the elites. Or at least this is how I understand it.

The papers also contained news about the Ardh Kumbh Mela in Allahabad where millions are gathering on the banks of the Ganges to wash their sins away. Yesterday was astrologically the most auspicious day and some five million, many of them naked sadhus, stepped into the river. I saw a documentary about this event, which occurs ever seven years, and thought it would be amazing to witness. But I failed to hear that it was happened while I was in the vicinity. Perhaps Cyprian, up in Delhi to meet with folks from Mount Madonna including Baba Hari Dass, will drop in on the festivities and report back to us. Another story in the papers here and in India reports that women whose livelihoods were devastated by the tsunami have been selling their kidneys in record numbers, despite laws designed to prohibit trafficking in human body parts. And in souther Malaysia, floods have stranded thousands who are not getting sick from water-born diseases. And finally, George Bush and Dick Cheney have ordered an increase of 12,500 U.S. troops in Iraqi while the Democratic-led Congress wrings its hands. Clearly the Executive branch is out of control and something must be done. But from here it seems very far away.

I took the express bus from the airport to Sukhumvit and get a look at the huge construction project for the airport and related business and services. Acres and acres are still empty, but the giant chrome and metal terminals, with roof sections that look like pieces of geodesic domes, dominates the horizon, along with the tall control tower. Everything is new. The road towards Bangkok is quite new and contains statues of Thai guardians every few yards. What a contrast from the roads of India, with their uneven surfaces, absence of sidewalks, and throngs of people. The contrast between the two countries is stark. One has a billion people and claims to be contesting with China to become the economic leader of the world. The other is a royal kingdom, presently ruled by a military dictatorship, but with an infrastructure worthy of a first-world country.

My room should be ready in a couple of hours and I'll check in for a much needed nap. This evening I hope to get together with Jerry. It's been a year since we last got together and I'm looking forward to his perspective on the changes since then. I've already noticed new business and construction on Soi 8 off Sukhumvit where Jerry lives and my guest house is located. But the lane still has a multilevel feel, high rises for wealthy residents and small stalls serving street eats for village people.

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