Tuesday, May 04, 2010

A Cooling Off Period

We left overheated Bangkok for the hills and waterfalls of Kanchanaburi province on Saturday morning and found a brief respite from the stress of political uncertainty in the waters of Erawan Falls. Scads of holidaying Thais joined us on this three-day (Monday was Labor Day) weekend.

The trip was a treat for Nan's brother Nok who has been visiting us. Most of the time he stays in our room, playing his guitar and talking on the phone with his girlfriend back in Phayao. If he were home during this school vacation, Nan says, he would be required to work on the farm. So he's happy doing nothing in Bangkok. Surin, his sister Ann's boyfriend, drove us to the mountainous province on the border of Burma, three hours northwest of Bangkok. Thankfully, we skipped the "Bridge Over the River Kwai" (a reconstruction for tourists) and the controversial Tiger Temple, and headed for a couple of scenic temples before stopping at a government guest house near Srinagarind Dam in the Erawan National Park.

Wat Tham Seua (Tiger Cave Monastery) and Wat Tham Khao Noi (Little Hill Cave Monastery) are cheek-by-jowl on a pile of rocks not far from the Mae Khlong Reservoir at the confluence of the Khwae Yai and Khwae Noi rivers (prounced "kway" rather than "kwhy"). We took a cable car to reach the top but had to hike up another nine floors in the chedi to appreciate the impressive view of the surrounding countryside. While both temples are Buddhist, Tiger Cave follows the Chinese tradition (Mahayana) and the other one is Thai (or Theravada). It was brutally hot and we passed up a visit to the caves which required yet another climb. Everyone paid their respects to the large golden Buddha while I took photos of the architecture and religious images. A half dozen large tour buses had disgorged hundreds of pilgrims just before we arrived, but by the time we left they were all gone. Surin took us to a waterside restaurant for a feast of fish, sheltered from a passing shower.

We checked into the government guest house which is owned by the Electricity General Authority of Thailand (EGAT) and features a conference facility, a large garden, and many other amenities. You have to know someone to stay there (I saw no other Westerners or signs in English) and Surin is a regular. Some of his old friends were there, and, since he is married, I was asked to pose as the ajahn, Nan, Nok and Ann's English teacher, to provide cover (he and Ann have been together for four years). We had a lovely house with three separate bedrooms (each with toilet and shower). It was a short walk down to the reservoir, but the water was low due to the current drought. Srinagarind is one of the largest dams in Thailand and provides electricity to Bangkok (we couldn't visit the dam because guards were worried about red shirt sabotage and blocked access to the public).

The next morning we drove the short distance to Erawan Falls which consists of seven separate waterfalls. It was a good hike in from the parking area and we settled on the 3rd waterfall as our destination. Hundreds of Thais and a sprinkling of Westerners chose likewise, bringing children and carrying water toys and provisions of food. On the walk in we saw warnings about snakes and "fierce monkeys" but never saw either, to my disappointment. At the pool I quickly realized where the current craze of fish spas as an adjunct to massage parlors got its inspiration. Tiny fish (and some not so small) immediately began nibbling on our feet and legs. It was a regular piscine banquet. Negotiating the rock and root shoreline was not easy for me, now that my balance is challenged by age. But the crowded water was delightful and I stuck my head under the falls to get a mock shampoo. Surin dozed while resting in the water and the rest of us played and took photos.

Getting away from the strife was restful. Nan has noticed that the computer connected to the internet is my cocaine, my yaba (Thai speed). I am addicted to twitter and Facebook and depend on them to know what's happening, in Bangkok and far away. But I found it quite easy to let the computer go and even enjoyed its absence. We ate well and I found rural and hilly Kanchanaburi reminiscent of the Sierras in California. This was my second trip to the area, the first a meditation retreat at a riverside resort several years ago. Along the highway to Erawan park, I saw many large and colorful boulders on display for sale, some of them carved. Not marble, Surin said, and Nan told me the rocks were "bombed" out of the hills. I saw many mounds with huge gouges out of them. Apparently the ubiquitous round tables with benches can be shaped from the stones. The trip home Sunday night was quick, for Surin is a fearless (and scary) driver. I noticed how difficult it is for me to give up control, but in Thailand it is a constant practice. And of course I turned the computer on as soon as I got home.

The day before our trip, I visited the areas of central Bangkok controlled by the red shirts. First I took the Skytrain from the river to Chid Lom and got off to examine the barricades set up there and a block east at Phloem Chit. Dr. Holly lives nearby and I dropped in on her for coffee and conversation before heading several stops east on the BTS to Kinokuniya at the Emporium for some book browsing (what I wanted was in stock but missing and could not be found). The Emporium is getting all the business lost by Siam Paragon and Central World several blocks away which have been closed by the protest. From there I returned to Chid Lom and descended into the red encampment. It was midday and hot, so the presence of protesters looked sparse until you examined the shady areas. On the stage singers entertained the crowd with Thai folk music. My last visit to the red city was before we went to Krabi, before the violence began. Since then, 26 people have been killed and more than 1,000 injured in several incidents. Pictures of the martyred red shirts were everywhere, on the stage backdrop and at improvised shrines throughout the encampment; the one of the woman with half her head blown off is especially gruesome. But, as before, I found the protesters to be friendly and high-spirited. Thais do everything in a spirit of sanuk (fun), even what some have called the beginnings of a civil or class war. Food and revolutionary artifacts were on sale everywhere. And although the demonstrators no longer exclusively wear red, that color was dominant in the landscape.

I walked from Rajaprasong, the intersection where the main stage is located (and an area filled with five-star hotels and luxury shopping malls, all closed now) down Rajadamri Road, past Lumpini Park where many reds were resting under the shady trees, to Rama IV Road where a large "Mad Max" barricade with tires and sharpened bamboo sticks separates another red encampment surrounding the Rama VI statue from the business district of Silom. All of the long road is occupied, a virtual tent city, with many people resting in the shade of the overhead Skytrain track. I saw people selling food and eating it, playing checkers, getting their photos taken for official red ID cards, and selling souvenirs like sandals bearing the photos of government enemies. There were slingshots for sale with bags of marbles for amunition, and piles of rocks on the sidewalk ready for throwing when necessary. There were monks in a portable temple receiving tam boon, and I saw another monk hosing off a hospital tent to keep the patients inside cool. Walls and signs everywhere were covered with graffiti I couldn't read as well as personal photos, photos of the martyrs, and of Saint Thaksin and his nemesis, Abhisit, looking a lot like Hitler. A demonstration this large must take incredible organization. I saw large containers of potable water and enough basic provisions for an army. And I saw a pile of portable toilet seats, apparently unused, and long lines of port-o-potties to take care of the needs of this small city. I also noticed there were many elderly people and numerous children which must give pause to the authorities who wish to forcebly remove this revolutionary installation.

Last night the Prime Minister announced that he would call for elections in six months, on Nov. 14. It's a slight compromise from previous statements and indicates that negotiations might be continuing in secret despite recent bellicose pronouncements of government agents warning that a crackdown was imminent. Also worrying is the government's claim to have uncovered a conspiracy to overthrow the monarchy, a desperate maneuver reminiscent of McCarthyism in America. Even so, there is some small sign of hope that the current impasse may be resolved. Today I am going to a luncheon meeting at the Foreign Correspondents Club to hear a discussion about the current crisis led by Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a respected scholar whose newspaper columns have been impartial and insightful. He is returning from a stint at Stanford. The FCCT clubhouse is high above the Rajaprasong intersection so I'll get another look at the encampment this afternoon.

1 comment:

Mike said...

Hi what an interesting tale. I know the area well and its certainly different to BKK.Erawan can be great mid-week or at least not on a holiday.

One small point if I may, the Bridge on the River Kwai you refer too is partly reconstructed but the original, including much of what you see today, was indeed built by Allied prisoners of war.