Apr/May 2006   Travel

Peace and Protests in Thailand

by Michael Spice

I wanted to go snowboarding in the Sierra Nevadas of Spain and see snow on the Al Hambra--the beautiful Moorish palace of Granada. But we don't always get what we want, and sometimes, so I am told, we get what we need. So our travel agent sent us to Thailand instead.

Thailand is the kind of place you kind of just know will be a great holiday: sunny, affordable once you get there, great culture, nice people. We flew, as always, from Dubai, to Bangkok and then directly on to on to Chiang Mai in the north. We were met at the airport by an obsequious tour guide that our package provided as a greeter, who expected us to book all of our excursions through him. Annoying, so we got rid of him quickly. We stayed at the Sheraton Hotel, which was a little out of the way, but on the Mae Ping river and built to a very comfortable standard. It used to be the Westin, but seems to have been downgraded to a Sheraton.

We were a short tuk-tuk (three-wheeled motorcycle rickshaw) from the center of Chiang Mai and its famous Night Market. Famous, I guess, for having goods of dubious authenticity at very low prices. I picked up a pair of Teva sandals for around $4. They look real, but I wouldn't bet my Air Jordans on it. Central Chiang Mai is a walled city full of wats (Buddhist temples), all ornately decorated. It would have been nice to have come here in my early twenties when I was well into Buddhism. The beauty of the temples and the lush gardens within their walls really put me at peace with the world and with life. I was truly happy to be there. The first time we left the hotel, we were taken to the walled center of the city bytuk-tukand were dropped off at Starbucks. Being Seattlites, we had to stop. Besides, the hotel coffee was not of a very nice standard, so we had given up on that and we needed a proper wake-up cup. It was a Sunday, and the courtyard in front of the red brick walls of the Old Town was full of vendors at the Sunday Market. There were beautiful batiks and traditional hill tribe clothes for sale, as well as art works, jewelry and all manner of trinkets and knick-knacks. The colors were bright and luscious.

While wandering around, we stumbled into a small travel shop and booked a tour for the next day to the hill country for elephant riding, a hike to a waterfalls for a bit of a swim, and then a spot of whitewater rafting. The next morning we were met by our guide with a pick-up truck that had seats mounted in the back, and we were taken on a trip around Chiang Mai picking up our companions for the day--a married Canadian couple, two British college gals on a gap year tour around the world, and three hard-partying Aussie guys. Just over an hour later, we were let out at our base camp for the day: a clearing by the river in the midst of a valley of banana trees and gum trees, lush, green and idyllic.

We were quickly seated on elephants for a ride up the hillside. Elephant riding is pretty well overrated, but worth a shot at least once in a lifetime. We had passed on it when we were in Sri Lanka a couple years ago, so we had a go this time. The first part was nice enough. Our huge bull elephant took us up the path to a hut where they sold us a few bunches of bananas that we fed to our beast of burden every couple of seconds until they were gone. It was a good way to get a look at the business end of our elephant's trunk. About ten minutes later we had to descend the hill we had just climbed, and we were forced to hold on to the saddle/chair upon which we were perched atop the elephant. It was uncomfortable to say the least, and we had the sensation that any second, disaster would come, but the elephant knew what he was doing and we were soon back at base camp, where a lunch of pad thai awaited us. It was good simple traditional food. We then headed up to the waterfalls, walking up through bamboo forests and small clearings with bamboo huts for rustic tourist accommodation. The waterfall was nice, and we had a refreshing swim. We hiked back down and got ready for our whitewater run.

It was a short run of whitewater, but it was super. My wife Joanna is not a real adrenaline junky by any means, and there were times on the river that were calm, but the rapids were a lot of fun and we all got soaked. We were with the Canadians, and during one particularly calm stretch of the river, the guy turned to me and said, "Nothing like the smell of napalm in the morning." He had read my mind: the only thing I'd ever seen like what I was experiencing in this moment was Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket; of course without the war--just the sheer beauty of the natural world in those films.

At the end of the run, we were at a little hill tribe village, and I bought an embroidered and beaded hat from an old Hmong lady there. I think it was a ladies hat, and I've seen children wearing them as well, but I wore it anyway. It was a fun hat. The village had a bamboo footbridge over the now shallow and slow flowing brown river, and in the distance bamboo huts sat over rice paddies in the flood plain with elephants tethered to gum trees in the glow of the late afternoon light, the shadows beginning to grow long. It would have been hard to not be at peace with everything at that moment.

The next day, we woke up to the sounds of protests in the street below our hotel. The US Trade Delegation was staying in our hotel and US-Thailand Free Trade Agreement meetings were being held in Chiang Mai to avoid protests in Bangkok that could threaten the talks. So the protests followed the talks north. That day the protests wound through the town, starting at the Sheraton and then marching all over the place, settling down at the more central Imperial Mae Ping where our friends from Fujairah, UAE, were staying, and presumably where the talks were being held that day. The following day when we were going to meet Paul and Donna, I asked thetuk-tukdriver to take me to the Imperial, and he told me it was impossible. I didn't believe him, so I told him to take us there anyway. It turned out the protesters had left and were marching about town again. The police had set up a command post in the lobby, and now that the protestors had shoved off, they could be seen sleeping at their desks.

So we had a walkabout in the town with our friends and a nice dinner and headed back to the Sheraton. When we got there, we could not cross the bridge over the Mae Ping as the protestors had relocated to the base of the Sheraton and occupied the road and the bridge. Thetuk-tukdropped us at the bridge and we walked in from there. The protestors were mostly young students, but also farmers and working people. They looked a little bit hard, like life was tough for them. But they were all nice and friendly, we were offered oranges and smiles from many of them. Having lived in Seattle during the WTO, we were somewhat aware of what was going on, but I didn't really know much about it until I read the Bangkok newspapers the next day. As one condition of the FTA, the US was asking Thailand to extend protection of patented drugs for an additional fifteen years past the normal period of patent protection. Thailand has a decent national healthcare system that the people are in favor of because it provides very affordable treatment, and one mechanism of this system is generic drugs. The Thais were worried that the FTA would threaten the effectiveness and affordability of their national health care system. There were other issues, like sugar import and export quotas, but it seemed health care was a key. The other factor was purely political, as there was/is a very strong sentiment among some Thais that Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is totally corrupt and a Bush lackey, and they want him gone. It is March now, and we can see that these protests have moved with full force to Bangkok, and Thailand is having a serious political crisis due to the protests. Shinawatra was re-elected by a landslide in 2005, yet it looks like another Orange Revolution on the streets in Bangkok, except that the Thai protestors wear the King's Royal Yellow to show support for the monarchy despite their opposition to Shinawatra.

I had the feeling those days in Chiang Mai that I was seeing history in the making, just a bit. Riot police in shiny black helmets protected the front door of the Sheraton, maybe a hundred of them with plexiglass shields and riot control batons, and there were hundreds more loitering in the hotel's main parking lot behind their well-maintained cordon. The protestors must have been in the thousands, yet we could come and go as we pleased. One guest, a British lady, told me that as an American it was dangerous for me to go outside. Poppycock. Another guest asked me if I was part of the American FTA negotiating team. I told him "not yet." Never did we feel the least bit threatened. In fact I would go for walks around the area just to see and photograph what the protestors and police were doing. All of this happened under the watchful gaze of a forty or fifty foot tall poster of the King of Thailand, which was proudly displayed on the side of the Sheraton.

We left Chiang Mai and had a week at Patong beach in Phuket in the south, where the Tsunami hit a year ago. There we met our other friend from Fujairah, Tim, and we proceeded to have many drinks. The next day, definitely worse for wear, we played a silly game of mini-golf at a nice little surfing town called Karon. The thing about a place like Patong, is it's full of debauchery, and after our first day of over-imbibing, we really tried to avoid the hedonism. It was interesting to walk down Bangla Street though, where the pretty girls stand around with little to do. It was a half-fascinating, half-revolting display, but there are those tourists for whom these ladies are the main attraction.

We took a couple of trips from Phuket Island, one to Phi Phi for swimming and snorkeling and the other to the James Bond Island in Phang Nga Bay (so-called because it appeared in "The Man with the Golden Gun"). The snorkeling at Phi Phi and the other islands that day was excellent, and the day we spent in Phang Nga Bay was also very nice. The karst formations in Phang Nga Bay make it an incredibly beautiful place to spend a day on a boat.

Overall, the weather was great, and we enjoyed our time there. One of the most important things on any vacation is to actually relax. Thailand really allowed us to do this, in spades. We were there in January, which is high season, but it was not too crowded. Phuket Island seems to have done an amazing job recovering from the tsunami. Perhaps the tourist numbers are still down because people don't know how quickly they have recovered.

We had two last days in Bangkok. Another city that never sleeps, ten or twelve million people live here, which is one in every five Thais. It probably has the highest density of massage parlors in the world. I thought Bangkok would be a bit much, a bit tense, a bad way to end our vacation, but it was really very nice. We did the river boat cruise and saw the big Wats and the Royal Palace, and we shopped in the evening. Our last day, just before we left for the airport, we went to our hotel's spa and had for full-body scrubs and the best massages we've ever had. We left Thailand feeling clean, relaxed, and in a trance at what a truly brilliant time we had just had.


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