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

Post 395: Thailand, the final nail in the coffin of morality? : Posted 1st March 2014

When it comes to political unrest, Thailand has more history than most. Eighteen military coups in the last eighty years, but still, the political turmoil continues. Thailand is a deeply divided nation, perhaps it’s always been that way, but today those divisions are deeper than they’ve ever been and it’s doubtful that they can be easily healed.
The Western media seem to portray the current political crisis as a fight between the rural poor of the North and the rich elite in Bangkok and the South. Historically speaking it’s much more complicated than that, but currently, it’s also much simpler.
What we have today is a battle between two distinct gangs of rich and privileged Thai’s, waging war against each other using the poor citizens as their disposable infantrymen. The winner of this war will get to control the political trough, and in recent years, that trough has been absolutely overflowing with riches. Thailand has always suffered from corruption, but now, corruption has spiralled to an unbelievable, and thus, the incentives to hold power have dramatically increased.
For many Westerner’s, the most memorable vision of this current conflict will be the harrowing video of the policeman kicking away an exploding grenade during the battle at Phan Fah Bridge in central Bangkok. It was a truly awful sight, but sadly, that was just one of the many deadly incidents.
Attacks by as yet unidentified assailants on anti-government rallies have so far cost 21 lives, including 5 innocent children aged 4,5,6,6 and 12 while 750 others have been seriously injured.
The number of deaths and injuries is saddening, but perhaps even more saddening is the reaction to those deaths from the pro-government movement.
On the evening of Saturday the 22nd of February, supporters of the anti-government movement (PDRC) gathered in the small town of Khao Saming in Trat Province, 200km to the south of Bangkok. Two young girls aged 5 and 6, were helping to wash dishes at their grandmother’s food stall close to the rally site. Two pick-up trucks carrying unidentified assailants drove into the area and showered the market with automatic gunfire and fragmentation grenades before speeding off into the night. 5 people were killed, including the two young girls, and thirty five others were seriously injured.

One day after the killings at the market in Trat, the pro-government movement UDD (Red Shirts) were holding their own rally in support of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her Pheu Thai Government. This YouTube video shows a leader of the UDD talking to the 4,000 strong audience from the stage. 51 seconds into the video, you see the audience reacting with jubilation to his enthusiastic announcement. The audience included at least two serving Government Ministers. At 1:06, the organiser of the rally steps in and asks the speaker to stop. If you have any interest in the future of humanity, then please take a minute to watch this video before you read what was said, and who was speaking.

The speaker on stage is Dab Daeng, a serving officer with the Royal Thai Police Force, and a high ranking official of the UDD pro-government movement (Red Shirts).
This is what he said:

"I have good news to tell my Red Shirt brothers and sisters. The People’s Democratic Reform Committee members at the protest stage in Khao Saming in Trat province were deservedly given a reception by the locals. Five of the PDRC supporters were killed and over 30 have been injured"

This speech came from a serving Officer of the Royal Thai Police Force, an Officer from the force responsible for investigating the crime, and was jubilantly applauded by 4,000 citizens and two Government Ministers. To put this into a British context, it would be like the Foreign Minister and Home Secretary cheering a speech by a Chief Constable declaring that the Dunblane massacre was a glorious victory for England.
This video went viral across Thailand and the reaction to it, and even the reaction to the deaths of these two young children, and the three other children who were killed in another fragmentation grenade attack the very next day, was divided along party lines.

The hatred that has been created by the leaders of the two political factions is now far stronger than their followers underlying love for Thailand itself.

Post 394: Vientiane - Vang Vieng - Laos PDR: Posted 21st February 2014

When the Thai Government opened their new Immigration Office on Chang Wattana Road, life became an awful lot easier for me.  Efficient, organised, air conditioned and just a stone’s throw away from my apartment.  No more travelling across town to wait in a disorganised queue in order to extend my tourist visa. Then, along came the Anti-Government protest and all access to the new and improved Immigration Office was blocked. That for me was a personal inconvenience, but rightly or wrongly, the protesters were seeking to shape the democratic future of a nation, 65 million people, so I thought it best to keep everything in perspective. So, once again, in order to remain in Thailand, I first had to leave.

When I travel to Laos, I usually take the overnight bus from Bangkok to Nong Khai - VIP Service, twelve hours onboard for around 650 Thai Baht. However, perhaps as a result of the political crisis, Air Asia were offering some amazing deals and if I could travel with just hand luggage, the one hour flight would cost just 800 Thai Baht - $27. There was really no contest, so I hopped onto a taxi-bike and headed to Don Meuang Airport for the one hour flight north to Udon Thani.
(Laos Kip ... feeling rich)
 After landing at Udon Thani, a minivan whisked me directly to the border crossing – Thai Friendship Bridge - and an hour later I was enjoying my first Beer Lao at the Chokdee Cafe overlooking the Mekong River in Vientiane. The sun was shining, the beer was cold, and having changed $200 into the local currency, I had 1,650,000 Lao Kip in my pocket. I really do enjoy spending time in Vientiane before heading north into the country. For a capital city, Vientiane has a homely village feel ling about it and relaxation comes easy. It’s a city that’s changing, rapidly, with money flowing into infrastructure projects, many that possibly threaten the atmosphere of the city, but I guess that change is inevitable and I’ll enjoy the ambience while it lasts.     

On previous visits to Laos, I’ve rented a scooter in Vientiane and then headed north. However, if you wish to take your rented scooter beyond the city limits then you’ll be charged double the daily rental price. That price is still reasonable, but it’s much easier to take the bus to Vang Vieng and rent a local scooter when you arrive.
Vang Vieng is 150km north of Vientiane, about four hours on the bus and $2 in expense.  Most tourists seem to bypass Vang Vieng in favour of Luang Prabang a further 150km to the north. That might not be good news for the local economy in Vang Vieng, but it works for me. Rooms, food and beer are plentiful and cheap, and the views of the phallic mountains are breathtaking.
(Early morning balloon over Vang Vieng)
(Amazing sunsets at Vang Vieng)
In order to explore independently, a scooter is really the best option. Larger bikes are available, but to be honest, the Chinese copies of the 110cc Honda Wave’s are all you’ll really need. They’re easy to ride, indestructible, will go absolutely anywhere and cost around $4 per day. Mornings and evenings are cooler, and probably the best time to explore. You could use a map, and head for highlighted attractions – swimming holes, caves, mountain lookouts etc – but I prefer to go freestyle. I just head off around the paddy, across the rivers, and see where random tracks will take me. Whichever direction you take, you’ll meet people, structures and geographical anomalies that constantly draw you in and plant questions in your mind.  
(Local kids doing what what local kids do)
(Random caves to explore, alone of with guides, according to your level of bravery)
All in all, I spent 10 relaxing days in Laos, mostly in and around Vang Vieng. I ate well, stayed in decent rooms with en suite bathrooms, rented scooters and drank beer to capacity. The VIP bus service back to Vientiane wasn’t all that I’d hoped for, but as I’d spent less than $200 on the entire holiday, I’m not going to complain.
(VIP Bus Service?)