Tuesday, September 29, 2009

In the Shade of a Hilton

A large Hilton hotel dominates the center of Hua Hin, the coastal town where Nan and I spent last weekend, much of it reclining on chaise lounges under an umbrella close to the surf in the shadow of the resort high-rise. Paris was nowhere in evidence, and the bathers in bikinis nearby were mostly older and overweight ("the pot calling the kettle black," my mother would say) Europeans. Hua Hin, which morphed from a small fishing village into a tourist destination after King Rama VII built a palace there, is a sedate alternative to Pattaya, the infamous sin city on the opposite bank of the upper Gulf of Thailand. Our small hotel was several blocks from the beach. We wanted to swim and eat, and there was ample opportunity to fulfill both desires.

Clouds came and went during the weekend with a shower one evening which prevented our eating outside at a restaurant on a pier. But the rain began in earnest just as we reached the bus station Sunday afternoon for the three-hour ride home with the streets of Hua Hin quickly flooding. It was perhaps an advance warning of Typhoon Ketsana which has since devastated Manila. The current path of the storm takes it onshore in central Vietnam where it will move quickly into Isaan, the poor farming region of northeastern Thailand. I expect that we will soon feel its effect here in Bangkok.

Nan's arms were sore when we arrived home from holding the rope while riding the "banana boat" (it looked more like an inflated rocket pulled by a jet ski). I chickened out after watching previous riders tossed off at the whim of the pilot. She turned out to be the oldest passenger and the kids laughed when she was the only one to fall off. Besides bathing in the shallow surf, entertainment on the beach was limited to the boat and a herd of ponies, but there were few riders for the horses, either due to the steep price (600 baht for 40 minutes) or to the obvious lack of tourists. Our hotel was nearly empty and there seemed to be few people on the streets except for the busy night market. Although it is currently the low season, tourism in Thailand has been strongly impacted by several years of political instability which included at one point the closure of Bangkok's international airport by anti-government demonstrators. A recent TV documentary in England, "Big Trouble in Tourist Thailand," has stoked the fire (some politicians have claimed there is a conspiracy by outsiders to smear Thailand as a way to avoid accepting blame).

Since her recent accident, Nan has been a bit shy of motorbikes. So on Saturday morning we took a song tao (pickup taxi) to Khao Takiap, a hill south of the city that contains several Buddhist temples and an army of hungry monkeys. We got out of the truck at the foot of the hill and walked past a dock where fishermen were picking crabs out of a pile of nets, and climbed past the large standing Buddha to the temple at the top. I wanted to show Nan the Chinese shrine around the corner facing the sea with its golden laughing Buddha and large statue of Qwan Yin, but we had to pass through monkey territory. We made the mistake of buying some food from a mae chee in white to feed them, and Nan was attacked by a hoard of simians. The babies were cute but the dominant males growled menacingly. She escaped unscathed and we got to the Chinese temple without incident, although the few monkeys there like this one had no respect for the sacred precincts. Later we attempted to walk north along the beach but ran out of sand and were forced to return on the main road by taxi.

Besides Nan's sore arms, I cut my left foot on rocks under the water. As I recuperated with my foot in the air, I noticed that I was not the only one. I saw at least three bathers hobbling up the sand with injured feet. Walking around my hotel room I nudged the edge of the bed with my leg and a few minutes later noticed blood flowing. The wooden bed sported a lethel splinter. The hotel supplied emergency first aid and we bought iodine and bandages at a pharmacy. On our next vacation, we'll take medical supplies with us for the unexpected emergencies.

The palace on the north side of Hua Hin built by Rama VII, called Wang Klai Kang Won ("Far from Worries"), continues to be used by Rama IX and his family, although at the moment King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 81, the world’s longest-reigning monarch, is at Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok recovering from a lung infection. Early announcements just said that he was taken to the hospital with a fever and loss of appetite. Yesterday it was announced that he was diagnosed with a lung infection. Now the news is that the fever is gone, he is eating, and is receiving physical therapy (though for what was not explained). The King's illness is of considerable concern to Thais. According to the London Times, "The King’s indisposition, after some of the most tumultuous and chaotic months in modern Thai history, is a reminder of the degree to which the country’s stability depends on his continuing survival – and of the uncertainty that is likely to follow his death." Recently, the red shirts rallied peacefully in Bangkok while a large mob of yellow shirts fought with Thai villagers on the Cambodian border where conservatives claim that a disputed temple actually belongs to Thailand. This violence, which occurred while Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was in New York addressing the UN, is described by the Economist in "Thailand's rowdy royalists: Thugs templar." While the yellow shirts claim to represent the monarchy and the military, current calls for “unity” and “reconciliation” by threatened elites have left little room for dissent from the discontented poor, according to Dr. Thongchai Winichakul, a Thai historian who lectures at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (quoted in a "Seismic Shifts Challenge Thai Elites to Compromise" published in The Malay Insider). Those elites include a powerful military involved in politics, daringly exposed by journalist Philip Golingai in "Discussing the Unspoken." For a look back at the good old days in Thailand, check out this story, "Siam: Garden of Smiles," from a 1950 article in Time Magazine.

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