January 2008


From One-Party Dictatorship to Post-Coup Constitutional Monarchy, here we are in beautiful Thailand.  As you may know, Thailand had a coup just over a year ago to oust an allegedly corrupt Prime Minister who also happened to favor the rural poor, possibly as part of his own political maneuvering.  With him in exile, a political party favorable to his cause recently won elections here, and the Supreme Court is currently sorting out various alleged election irregularities which may either deny the party a governing majority in the parliament, ban them outright, or hand them the keys to power.

Although the military is currently largely in control, Thailand is anything but a country under martial law.  Although in our week here we’ve been limited to Bangkok, the capital, and Chiang Mai, the largest city in the North, we haven’t seen any overt military presence in the streets, with the notable exception of air-force jet flyovers that woke us up one morning. 

Of course we haven’t been to the South, where 40,000 police and soldiers are suppressing an insurgency by members of the Muslim population, and bombings and drive-by shootings are an almost daily occurrence.  Thailand is 90% Buddhist, and some in the Muslim minority feel mistreated, although no organization has yet emerged to identify a list of demands or put forward any kind of ideology.

While the constitutional side of Thai government is sorted out, the Monarchy is going through their own changes, as the King’s sister recently died.  There are pictures of the King everywhere you  go, and his sister has now joined him in poster-sized tributes.  Our first night here we walked out of our hotel in bustling Bangkok to completely still traffic and everyone on the sidewalks also standing still.  Knowing something strange was happening we were soon informed that the King was coming and we should stand and wait.  Sure enough motorcycle police with their lights flashing and a convoy of SUVs suddenly appeared, speeding down the road surrounding a very regal looking car with Thai flags flapping from each side of the hood.

Despite being ruled by a King and being at the tail end of their 18th Coup (although the first in 15 years), Thailand feels much more free and open than China.  The modern has not bulldozed the past the way it has in China.  Ironically, the Cultural Revolution layed waste to any potential cultural opposition to the emergence of blatant consumerism.  Thais seem not to have lost their connection to their own history, the way people in China have.   The old and the new are better integrated here and, quite frankly, Thais are a lot cooler than people in China. 

People here smile, with a warmth and sincerity one doesn’t encounter in China, or most places in the West for that matter.  In a way similar to India, there is a real sense of benevolence here.  It may sound ridiculous, but the mere fact that cars stop for pedestrians is striking after four months in China where that never happens.

So this is our Winter break.  Chinese New Year is February 7th – the Year of the Rat is upon us.  Classes don’t start for a month, so Lara and I are here, with a potential visit to India in the works.  The sun is out every day, it’s in the ’90s, and we’re very happy.  Thailand feels a lot closer to our home in Portland, both because the people here are more like home, and because we feel more like ourselves.

I know it’s cruel to post a Blog about Thailand and not include any pictures, but that’s what I’ve done.  Once we work out some technical issues, photos will be forthcoming.

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While visiting Lara and I here in Chengdu, China our friend Jon made the mistake of taking us up on an offer to see a genuine Sichuan Opera. More akin to vaudeville theater or a circus than an Opera per se, we were all having an enjoyable time. Midway through the performance a gentleman came out in the audience in search of a “volunteer.” Jon immediately went into to a ‘pick-anyone-but-me’ body language routine, which drew the man like a shark to blood. With a look of panic, Jon went up on stage.

Below are some photos of the opera, the section in which performers instantly change their faces, going through a whole series of masks throughout the performance. This is followed by a video of the knife throwing routine which Jon “volunteered” for. In watching the video, I don’t know what’s funnier, Jon up on stage, or Lara, his friend Mark, and I all laughing hysterically.

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We recently visited the Leshan Buddha statue, the largest Buddha in the world. It was built 1,300 years ago, begun in the year 713 and completed in 803. It’s 233 feet high. It’s surrounded by Buddhist and Daoist shrines, temples, and cave drawings.

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An image in a nearby cave. Notice the tri-grams on the monks robe.

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This past week our good friend Jon visited us from New York City. We had a blast while he was here, showing him and his friend Mark all around Chengdu. We went to the Sichuan Opera. We also took two trips out of town. The first, to see the pandas, is recorded below. The second, to see the Big Buddha at La Shan, will be documented soon. In the meantime, this photo of Jon observing a sign on the way up the hill to see the Buddha, is indicative of several we encountered along the way. More, even funnier signs, have been posted on the Signs page, listed in the column to the right. Enjoy!

On a cold morning just after the 1st of the year, we visited Chengdu’s Pandas. Set amidst a dense bamboo forest, the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, as it is known, is divided up into several enclosures containing Red Pandas and Giant Pandas. Each morning the pandas are feed fresh bamboo leaves, which they spend an hour or two eating. The following photos give you a peek of what we saw.

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The Red Panda

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The Giant Panda

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Baby Panda born in 2006

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