Discovering the world on $20 per day ......................

Post 317: Back in Blighty ..... bugger

The flight back to England with Etihad Airways was uneventful. No delays, four empty seats to myself, access to the 1st Class Lounge and not even a hint of volcanic dust. The only pain was the fact that I was leaving Thailand behind me. For obvious reasons, this journey didn’t turn out as initially intended, but then anything that I've planned seldom does. I’ve been away for three months and I’m really not looking forward to returning to England. Despite all that has happened, or more importantly all that hasn’t happened, I’d still like to make Thailand my permanent home. There are however some things that I wont miss, Google Blogger in Thai being one of them …. mai pen rai

Heathrow is just as gloomy as when I left it. Down in the tube station before midnight, one operational ticket machine that’s not giving change and one open window that is. A long queue for a ticket. Frustrated would-be travellers standing in line. Trains enter and leave the station. I shuffle forward. The third Piccadilly Line train enters the station. A girl in front of me, the last barrier between me and the barrier. She’s heading abroad, she’s impatient. She scolds the minimum wage ticket seller for being slow. She’s been standing in the queue for more than twenty-five minutes. If he doesn’t hurry up, she’s going to miss her flight. She wants a refund for the remaining credit on her Oyster Card …. £1:09.

At Braintree railway station, I open the door to the first taxi on the rank. ''Can you take me to ....... ''. I don't get to finish my sentence, ''Coldnailhurst Avenue'' the driver says. ''How did you know where I was going?'' I'm confused. ''I picked you up from there and dropped you off here on the day that you left''. I was impressed, the guy had a really good memory, and I told him so. He seemed to find that quite amusing ........ ''Besides which ...... you've been my next-door-neighbour for more than a year'' .... mai pen rai

For some reason best known to Triumph, the Tiger fires into life on the first push of the button. It’s stood outside in a garden, unused since the 7th of February. It’s now the 12th of May. It’s a little smoky and the fuel pump whines, but it settles down onto tickover and it’s almost as if we’ve never been apart. Unfortunately, the spring rain and sunshine has done wonders for the weeds and it’s a daring ride through brambles and nettles to reach the back gate. If only corn grew as fast as nettles, then the world would never be hungry … mai pen rai

Down to Silverex Engineering in Braintree, the tiger needs an MOT. Bloody hell, it’s a lot heavier than a Honda Wave and the gears are upside down. The front brakes are binding but a few alternating pumps and kicks seem to sort the problem out. Twenty minutes later, I’ve got a new MOT and not a single ’Advisory Note’. Same as last year.

I’m heading up to Peterborough for the BMF Show. £14 for entry. I get in free with a ’Show Pass’, but I can feel the paying customers pain. £2.00 for a coffee and now I’m feeling my own pain. I filled the Tiger’s tank on the way up here. £20.00 and it wasn’t even empty. Conclusion …….. Keep on moving ….. mai pen rai

Post 316: Homeward Bound

It felt a little strange travelling back to Bangkok. I’d grown very attached to my Honda Wave, but now I was relegated to the bus. To be fair, it was a very nice bus, but it was still a bus. ‘Chan Tour’, the cream of luxury coach travel in Thailand. Thai TV, air conditioning, stewardess service, massaging seats and a toilet only for the petite and the brave. Four hours to cover 200 Km, four hours with a monk asleep in the seat next to me, his head resting on my shoulder and snoring like a horse. I’m not familiar with any etiquette concerning the waking of sleeping monks, so I suffered in silence and tried to see the funny side. The bus service to Bangkok is twice as fast as the train and at just 230 Baht (£4.20) for a one-way ticket, if your not ringing the neck of an under-powered motorbike, then it’s the only way to travel.

The Red Shirt’s were supposed to be dispersing. I’d read that piece of news on the BBC’s website, but clearly the protestors hadn’t. I’d been away from the camp for less than a week and in that time it had actually grown in size. A new Thai family had taken over the small piece of pavement where I’d previously slept, squatters squatting on my squat. Last week I’d felt welcome here, but now I feel like the outsider that I clearly am. At the barricades, where once the unofficial guards had shared food and water with me, the black uniformed militant elements now patrol. Outside of the barricades, the soldiers now stand guard 24 hours a day. They’re little more than kids with big guns and small incomes and not an officer in sight. I get the feeling that the situation is about to get very ugly again. I’d intended to stay within the camp for my last night in Thailand, but it seems that the friendly people have already left and while I might be a little slow, I’m certainly not stupid. Time to find a cheap hotel.

On Sukhumvit Soi 12, I walk to my favourite restaurant. I’ve eaten here several times. In Poor Circulation terms it’s quite expensive, but this is my last night in Thailand and the food is absolutely delicious. It’s name is 'Cabbages & Condoms' and it was established by Thailand’s former Minister for Health.

Aside from it’s role as one of Bangkok’s finest restaurants, 'Cabbages & Condoms' was established in order to provide revenue for a program of sexual education across Thailand. Back in August 2009, I brought Hannah and Tassaneeya here. As soon as they’d seen the sign 'Cabbages and Condoms' they’d probably thought that I was bonkers, but once inside they’d loved every morsel of food and every minute of the experience. I said that it was expensive, but everything’s relative. A meal and several beers cost me around 500 Baht (£10), which in most other parts of the world would be something of a bargain.

At the end of the meal, instead of receiving the usual after dinner mint, each diner is given a complimentary condom. It’s a humorous touch, but with my recent relationship record, a cabbage would probably be much more useful …. mai pen rai

Post 315: Nothing is quite as it seems .....

Something that I’ve learned about Thailand is that beneath the surface, seldom is anything as straightforward as it appears. People don’t say what they really think, they talk in strange riddles and in order to save friends and family from embarrassment, they’ll employ the art of the ‘Noble Lie‘. Thai’s fully understand this system but as a Westerner it’s still totally bemusing ….. mai pen rai

It looked and sounded like a Norton. But, it wasn’t. It was a single cylinder Yamaha SR, an import from Japan and sadly a bike that’s not readily available in the UK. The owner had modified the bike himself and I have to say, I liked it. Sure it’s a fake, but it’s a fun fake and that appeals to me. The ‘SR’ is just one example. There was the ‘Honda Dream’ dressed as a more modern ‘Wave’ and of course the more recent ‘Honda Cub’ that turned out to be a new Thai produced copy. But, this is not restricted to motorcycles. Posh watches that are not, designer clothing that isn’t and beautiful girls that were once, or perhaps still are, actually boys. The ’SR’ is clearly not a Norton, but nobody here will ever mention that fact. The owner and his friends are simply happy with exactly what it is ….. mai pen rai

This structure is the famous stupa from the ancient ruins at Phi Mai close to Nakhom Ratchasima. However, it’s actually the scale model at Muang Boran just outside of Bangkok. It looks and feels the same, until you try to walk upright through the entrance.

Last week Prime Minister Aphisit and the Red Shirt anti-government demonstrators reached an agreement. Everybody seemed relaxed, the atmosphere within the Red Camp was celebratory and the barriers were temporarily opened. As far as I’m aware, that agreement remains in place but the violence has erupted again. Angry young men are once again manning the barricades and a state of ugliness has returned ….. mai pen rai

Leaving Bangkok, I returned to Korat for my last few days in Thailand. I revisited my favourite restaurant, the place where I’d celebrated my birthday a few weeks earlier. That night there’d been more than twenty people, four of whom I actually knew. Everybody had feasted and most had ended the evening quite drunk. As the only Farang, I'd picked up the bill. Just less than 1,500 Baht. That's less than thirty pounds for more than twenty very good nights. The restaurant has a name but I’ve absolutely no idea what that name is. The food is quite delicious and the resident blind musician is really very good. He sings and plays guitar every night. Thai songs, so no confusion over western lyrics. At the end of his set, he milks the applause and receives the tips and free drinks with a smile.

This morning I met the singer at Klang Plaza, the local shopping centre. His Yamaha Fino scooter was parked next to my Honda Wave. Not so blind after all then. Thinking about it, nobody ever claimed that he was blind, it was just implied and nobody ever contradicted the perception ….. mai pen rai

Post 314: Leaving Bangkok ... bite sized Thailand

I’m a lucky guy. Three months in Thailand and I’ve be fortunate enough to visit many of it’s amazing sites. The list was long and even with three months of travelling, the time to see everything was all too short. There are many more things to see and do, but my time is running out.

Muang Boran? Even regular visitors to Thailand have possibly never heard of it. Located just outside of Bangkok, Muang Boran is a 200 acre site containing scaled replicas of many of Thailand’s attractions. The original concept was to create an 18-hole golf course but as with many things here, everything changed.

The brainchild of Thai philanthropist Lek Viriyaphant, Muang Boran is now one of the worlds largest outdoor museums. The site is in the shape of Thailand and located in their correct geographical positions, the historical structures have been reconstructed by craftsmen using traditional building methods. The concept ran the risk of being quite ’Disney’, but thankfully it hasn’t turned out that way at all.

The site is too extensive to walk, but golf buggies and bicycles are available at the entrance. It feels a little weird revisiting some of the places that I’ve already seen, but in some amazing way, the builders have managed to capture much of the atmosphere and beauty of the full sized originals.

For anybody with only a few days to spend in Thailand, this is a great sample menu for everything that Thailand has to offer. Why then is it deserted? Perhaps at an hours drive from the centre of Bangkok it’s a little too far for your average tourist, or perhaps people simply haven’t heard about it ..... mai pen rai

I honestly didn’t expect to enjoy Muang Boran quite as much as I did. It’s just like the real thing. Same same but different ….. mai pen rai

Post 313: Removing the Barricades? .....

Just when I was beginning to think that there’d be no swift solution to this political unrest, once again Thailand might have surprised me. It seems that Prime Minister Aphisit Vejjajiva will soon announce that a compromise has been reached with the Red Shirts. To understand the significance of this, if indeed it’s true, then it‘s important to understand that ‘Compromise’ in Asia has a slightly different meaning to ‘Compromise’ in the West. Here in Bangkok, ‘Compromise’ probably has as much to do with ‘Saving Face’ as it does to ‘Saving Lives’.

Aphisit’s term as Prime Minister was due to run until 2012 but the protestors had originally demanded that the government be immediately dissolved and new elections be held within one month. Even if this demand had been both logical and achievable, it would never have been accepted. By accepting, Aphisit would have appeared weak and therefore he would have lost face. Aphisit countered the demand with a promise to hold new elections within 12 months, but by accepting this first counter proposal the Red Shirt’s would also have lost face. Whatever compromise has actually been reached will result in both sides walking away from the turmoil each looking as if they’ve won a great victory. The reality of the situation matters little, it’s the perception that's all important.

Face is similar to what we would call ’Respect’, but it’s far deeper than that. ‘Face’ is all encompassing, more important than money, more important than love, and in many cases more important than life itself. ’Face’ and ’Respect’, as the Thai’s would say, are ’Same same but different’. That’s one reason why you’ll seldom win a fight and never win an argument with a Thai. It’s something that I’ve discovered to my own cost, but I’m slowly learning to go with the Asian flow. If a Thai tells me that my Triumph Tiger is painted a shade of blue, I’ll agree with him. I’ll then delicately drop into the conversation the fact that although he’s absolutely right, in a certain light it also turns to a deep shade of orange. We’ll both nod, smile and share another beer. Everybody is happy, nobody is wrong, everybody saves face …. mai pen rai

Last night, there was none of the gunfire of the previous evenings. The masked and menacing protesters who arrive each night to man the barricades seemed to have lost much of their anger. Last night, instead of hurling rocks and taunting the well armed soldiers that surround the camp, they mingled with the more peaceful faction in what turned out to be the largest street party that I’ve ever attended.

As day breaks, the atmosphere both in and outside of the camp is much more relaxed. The barricades are open and traffic is allowed to pass through more freely. Outside, the police sit around enjoying the calm. This is Thailand as it normally is, everybody smiling. I can only hope that it lasts. My few days inside of the encampment have been an experience and I’m glad that I've been here. But, this is a side of Thailand that I hope never to see again ….. mai pen rai

Post 312: Bangkok ... Business as unusual ...

"For almost seven weeks, Red Shirt demonstrators have brought the commercial heart of Bangkok to a complete standstill". That’s what you’ll read in Thailand’s English language newspapers, The Nation and the Bangkok Post. It’s probably also being reported that way by the BBC. "The commercial heart of Bangkok?" For a tourist perhaps, but for your average Thai it's the centre of absolutely nothing.

The shopping centres of Zen, Central World, Erawan and Siam Paragon are all closed for business, as are some of the more exclusive International Hotels, but does your regular Thai give a flying crap about that? Probably not. For your average Thai, the above mentioned places are vanity venues where you might go to impress a new date. They'll go there to window shop for Prada, Louis Vuitton, Burberry or even a Porsche before heading off to their own markets to buy a locally made copy ... well perhaps not the Porsche .... mai pen rai

These shopping centres are certainly not where you’ll find most Thai’s spending their hard earned Baht. No, these places are simply money magnets for the tourists. If protesters in London closed down New Bond Street for a few weeks, would your own life be dramatically bent out of shape? Probably not, and in that respect the Red Shirts have chosen their location quite wisely.

As you walk the streets within the encampment, aside from the many Thai owned 7/11 Mini Markets, every recognisable 'Western' retail outlet is closed, but every 'Thai' outlet is open for business as usual. The Red Shirt’s have no need, and no money, for the delicacies and trinkets offered in the Western shops. They can live without their skinny latte’s and the things that they do need, they tend to make for themselves inside of the encampment.

Here, a Thai girl is making quite comfortable sleeping mats from discarded plastic water bottles. The intricate weaving pattern provides an amazing cushioning effect. Mine for 50 Baht (£1). I’ve slept on one for two nights and have absolutely no complaints. Behind her you’ll see waterproof blankets made from discarded noodle packets. The seams are welded together with a hot iron and while it’s not Gore-Tex, it’s a hell of a lot better than the so-called 'waterproofing' on many Western products. Again, mine for only 50 Baht (£1). This is Thailand and absolutely nothing is wasted ... mai pen rai

Red is the colour of the protesters and "Truth Today" their slogan. Within the encampment you can buy an amazing range of regalia. Headbands, tee shirts, big-clappy-hands, big-wavy-fingers and even washable diapers. The official protest patches are available from a makeshift store and business is really quite brisk. I can’t help but smile to myself when I notice that the ‘Official Regalia Store’ is surrounded by similar stores all selling underpants. Being a diplomat, I try to keep the irony to myself …… mai pen rai

There are certain things that any tourist must understand before coming to Thailand. Always smile, don’t ever lose your temper and never point the sole of your foot towards another person. For Thai’s, the sole of the foot is the lowest part of the body and pointing it at another person is the worst insult imaginable. On another stall I find flip-flops for 40 Baht. On the soles of the flip-flops are the faces of members of the current government, including Prime Minister Aphisit. I didn’t buy a pair ….. mai pen rai

Post 311: Red, Yellow or Blue? ......

Red, Yellow or Blue? It’s quite confusing. The colours refer to the ‘Shirts’ worn by followers of the various people's political factions in Thailand. Red is for the Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship (DAAD). Yellow is for the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD). Blue is for the United front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD). Confused? Well this morning four bus loads of Pink Shirts drove past me, but fortunately it was just some sort of marching band on it's way to a jamboree. For some reason this whole political faction thing reminds me of a sketch from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Anyway, it’s the Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship (DAAD) who donned their Red Shirts at the beginning of March and took to the streets of Bangkok in their thousands.

The Red Shirts support Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Prime Minister of Thailand who following a brief spell as Economic Adviser in the Cambodian Government, now resides in Russia. Back in 2006, following political unrest and allegations of corruption, Thaksin was ousted in a military coup. The current Prime Minister and leader of the Democratic Party is Aphisit Vejjajiva. Aphisit’s major problem is that he was never really elected as Prime Minister of Thailand but came to power through some form of coalition. I don’t pretend to understand it, but the Red Shirts want Aphisit out because he was never ’Elected’ and the Yellow Shirts don’t want Thaksin in because they think he’s a bit of a crook. Just to demonstrate an unbiased approach, Aphisit is also under investigation regarding allegedly illegal political donations to his Democratic Party. I however could not possibly comment on such rumours about either man, at least not whilst I reside in the fine Kingdom of Thailand. As for the Blue Shirts, I haven’t got a bloody clue what they stand for let alone who they support … mai pen rai

So, the Red Shirts set up camp between the BTS Stations of Chit Lom and Siam, and then extended along Rajadamari Road to the side of Lumpuni Park. That’s where I’ve been for the past few days and I have to say that it all seems really rather happy and cheerful. The people are warm, friendly and welcoming. During the day, a few police loiter around the entrances to the encampment and share food and water with the protesters manning the barricades. As night falls, the mood in and around the encampment seems to change. The army silently encircle the camp with their guns and the atmosphere changes dramatically. It still doesn’t feel threatening, but there is definitely a certain 'menace' in the air. I know that there has been extreme violence on both sides, and that people have lost their lives, but I can only really say what I see. Without exception the people that I meet insist on telling me that they are "Peaceful Protesters" and want to totally disassociate themselves from any form of violence. I have no reason to doubt their statements, but I fear that when it comes to deciding what actions to take next, the Red Shirt leaders might be just a little bit divided on how best to deliver their.

There have been violent incidents at the National Monument, Khao San Road and of course Phan Fan Bridge where twenty six people were killed and many more injured. In the main, these incidents reflected quite badly on the authorities and quite possibly gained new support for the protesters. However, on Friday a more radical Red Shirt Leader stormed the Chulalongkorn Hospital in Bangkok. Six hundred patients had to be evacuated, including Thailand’s most eminent religious leader. As evening came, the other Red Shirt leaders had to back down and apologise for the renegades actions. It was a major PR disaster and was later compounded by another break-away group of Red Shirts causing chaos on the Bangkok Sky Train System (BTS). I'm not Max Clifford, but I don't think that either of those actions were vote winners. If you want to bring people around to your way of thinking, then you shouldn't really piss about with hospitals full of sick people or stop commuters from getting home after a hard days work.

As the majority of Red Shirt protesters are farmers from the rural North, Prime Minister Aphisit probably hopes that as the seasonal rains begin, they'll drift home to begin planting their flooded fields with rice. It's logical that they would, but then again, Thailand is one of the most wonderfully illogical countries that I've ever had the good fortune to visit. Prime Minister Aphisit has declared a 'State of Emergency' in Bangkok, but he hasn't declared 'Martial Law' because it's not within his power to do so, only the military can do that. Amongst all of this mess, somebody somewhere will spot an opportunity. For political or financial reasons, or more probably both, somebody will raise their head above the parapet and the political map of Thailand will inevitably change. But, whether that change will be for better or for worse I have no idea ... mai pen rai