All Over, Bar The Fighting

Relax, it's all over. Until it happens again. In typical Thailand fashion its people will use their 'live for the moment', 'one day at a time' philosophy to turn the crisis into a fast-fading memory. A pragmatic approach in some ways - after all, why fret over that which cannot be changed. The main hope is that protest fatigue has set in after two years of building tensions culminating in demonstrations and, finally, the occupations of the airports.

Want to skip the politics? Click here... or here... I don't give a monkey's about Thai political games, I just want to look at some Thai boxing or more photos of ladyboys.

Or if you can bear some more serious stuff, read on...

In a country where it is part of the psyche to avoid confrontation at all costs, the Thais have discovered that they have the same capacity for conflict as the rest of us. The pressure just takes longer in the building, and consequently the damage is considerable when it is no longer containable, and finally explodes onto the streets.

(Remember, you can click on any photo in this blog - whatever the size - to see the full resolution images)


On the eve of King Bhumibol Adulyadej's birthday, there is a slim chance that the Monarch will come up with a formula that will lead to peaceful resolution of these issues. He has refused to invoke article 7 before, a get-out clause allowing the Constitution to be set aside in the event of insoluble problems arising. So it will need to be an inspired speech. There is so much bad blood, and little if anything has been resolved, despite claims of victory from PAD. The main points of contention that led to PAD's formation are still an issue - PPP has simply been reborn as the Peau Thai party. The next PM will likely come from the Peau Thai ranks. PAD has warned that it will be back if that happens. Here we go again ...

In the Thai mix there is rife corruption, cronyism, and a disproportionate and and to a large extent unmerited, ingrained respect for the 'successful' elite - which has contributed to the belief that the latter have carte blanche to direct Thai society as they sees fit. As much as anything the latest conflict was born of the struggle for supremacy between these big players. For these, transferring power to the people in a new Thai democracy has been a bitter pill to swallow. All these powerful individuals retain influence to a degree; the only difference is that positions have, if anything, become more entrenched.

PAD overplayed its hand. Just as it seemed to be on the point of victory, it became overconfident and gifted its opponents with some high cards for the next game. The airport occupation has damaged its and Thailand's reputation, as well as the Thai economy. Recovery will be slow - although I would bet it'll only be a short while before surprised Thais are saying "the airports are open, why aren't the tourists coming back to the Land of Smiles?"

Some quotes, comments and figures from the last few days...

Apichart Sankary, president of the Association of Thai Travel Agents told Reuters: "I have never faced this in my life". He went on to predict that there would be a drop of one million tourist visitors over the 'high' season (November to March) and that this would costs the tourist industry £2 billion. This figure doesn't include all those that depend on indirect income from tourism.

The Bank of Thailand confirmed these figures, estimating losses of £3 billion over the whole of 2009. This equates to 1.5% of Thai GDP.

The Novotel general manager stated that his hotels are currently operating at 10% of capacity. Occupancy rates at other major chains have dropped by between 50% and 80%.

"People are going to avoid this place like the plague", according to a Bangkok trade fair organiser.

Government ministers were not slow to comment. One suggested visitors from abroad during 2009 could fall to 6 million from a previous estimate of more than 14 million. Another bluntly stated that the PAD action in occupying the airports was akin to Thailand "shooting itself in the head".

Thailand has proved itself to be remarkably resilient in the recent past, tourism bouncing back despite bird flu, a tsunami, coup d'etat, Islamist terrorism spreading from the south of the country. But as the Bangkok Post suggested yesterday, images from the latest chaos "will take a very long time to go away"...
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Getting away from the politics...

Finally decided to get involved in the expat community a little, after trying hard to steer clear of farangs for the best part of two years. The Chiang Mai Photographic Group seemed a good place to start... With a digital SLR that I barely know how to use, some tips on composing and editing decent photos wouldn't be a bad idea for the blog. Unfortunately practical photography was hardly on the agenda at the first meeting I attended, which turned out more as an evening of close navel inspection in typical Anglo-Saxon committee style. Still, it was pointed out that this was just a blip and not typical of normal proceedings -so better luck next time... I hope!

I strolled through town, 9.15pm - Chiang Mai was deserted. At Thapae Gate an impressive display for the imminent 81st birthday celebrations of the King had been erected. A lonely hill tribe woman sat on the steps preparing her croaking wooden frogs and various trinkets in front of an empty square. It's unlikely to be the carefree celebration we would usually expect on such an occasion - there is a definite undercurrent of tension amongst the majority of Thais, even if unspoken... they seem embarrassed by the whole affair. Justifiably so I reckon - if the UK were to put a similar farce on display to the whole world, I would be mortified.


Up Loi Kroh, a beer in one of the bars of the Chiang Mai Entertainment Centre. The girls were somehow more effusive than usual, when a rare customer strolled in. Or maybe it was just the cold weather, any excuse to get out of their chairs and move about a bit, to try to keep warm. I suspect it wasn't my fatal charms. Mamasan from one of Chiang Mai's three go-go bars wandered past looking pretty pensive. Her establishment was just across the road, known locally as 'Star Sick' (with the emphasis on 'sick'). I've no idea why the Thais call it Star Six, seeing as it is in fact, according to the label (see photo), Star XIX - ie Star Nineteen (for those who don't speak Roman ;-) No point asking - such a question would only produce blank incomprehension. Gone 10pm now, and not a single customer had crossed the threshold since I'd arrived. So Star Sick is a pretty accurate description at the moment, given the number of potential punters in town...

A far cry from a year ago, on a typical November night in this glitzy, sleazy Chiang Mai nightlife area. Some thirty bars of loud music, pool, friendly girls, helpful hostesses, katoeys (so make sure you have your glasses on if needed), and Muay Thai boxing. Packed solid with tourists back then, especially on boxing night during high season. An evening of the real thing (boxing) usually only happens once or twice a week - back then it was on a Monday, starting around 9.30pm. On other nights the local Muay Thai club members just go through the motions. They have the annoying habit of going round with a collecting box every few minutes, asking the same people several times for a tip - so be firm and tell them to go away - (politely... they all pack a pretty mean right hook).

If you're feeling really brave (beware, it's usually the alcohol talking), you can pay a couple of hundred baht to go a round with one of the boxers. They will take it easy - so long as you don't take the mickey. One of the best moments (apologies in advance, warped sense of humour again) since I arrived in CM was when a fit-looking, muscle-bound American strutted up, cheered on by his equally loud and drunk pals, and climbed into the ring. He was literally twice the Thai's size, in girth, height and reach. He proceeded to insult the elaborate ritual dance pre-fight preparations by stupidly imitating his Thai opponent's moves, and carried on playing the fool, laughing at the "midget" Thai when the bout commenced. It was obvious that the Thai was finding it hard to keep his cool. Finally one particularly blatant piss-take proved too much. A solid left kick to the back of the legs to bring him down to reachable height, an right uppercut to the chin, and it was Goodnight America. There's something gratifying about seeing arrogant Anglo-Saxons taught a lesson now and again...

The programme starts with some youngsters who look as young as 7 or 8 years old, then gradually works through to the main bouts later in the evening. Around 11 there is usually a farang v. Thai fight. Although there are some pretty accomplished boxers amongst the Westerners who box here, they usually have one major weakness - kicking, and taking kicks - especially to the legs. Most are classically-trained, whereas the Thais have been taking kicks to the shins since they were barely out of nappies.


So any chances of success are usually down to a good defence, height and reach advantages, and putting the Thai's lights out with fists before he can do any major damage, rather than genuine Muay Thai skills!

A US boxer takes on a deceptively unfit-looking Thai. (Note the yellow shirts, a sign of love and respect for the monarchy happily worn a year ago on Mondays - rarely seen these days because of the association with PAD...).

This video clip shows some of the younger Thai boxers mixing it earlier in the evening...












Unfortunately before the main bouts of the evening, we have to endure the katoey (ladyboy) cabaret...




I just want to make it crystal clear that despite any impressions to the contrary, I was NOT enjoying myself, and the wild-eyed, glazed look was entirely down to the amount of alcohol consumed over the course of the evening...
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So, back to the present. Never one to shy away from trying something new (except for the above, I hasten to add), for lunch earlier that day I'd opted for an odd-sounding item on the menu (see photo) - "fried organ meats". Couldn't be any odder than grilled cockroaches, surely? It turned out to be nothing more sinister than liver (I think)... but still, I wasn't too keen. Time to leave the frantic ladies of the Entertainment Centre who refused to believe I was only good for a game of jenga ... to go and get a decent meal. On to the Kalare Centre in the Night Bazaar - which is usually packed out.

Not tonight...


Completely dead. Ultra quick service as a result at this (usually) popular eating place for locals and tourists alike. There's a voucher system, with a kiosk at the entrance. Cash isn't accepted, the theory is that this helps ensure standards of hygiene are maintained. Any leftover vouchers can be cashed in when you leave (but not the next day if you forget).

Great food, a selection of all types... Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, it's all there. Well worth a visit if you find yourself in Chiang Mai. Should you think it worth the risk of holidaying here in the next year or so, the north of Thailand is - for the moment at least - safer than the south. So long as you don't wear a yellow t-shirt...

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3 comments:

PLANET EXHIBITION said...

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Camille Lemmens said...

Sad but true,

Thailand will see some empty spots in the near future I'm afraid.

Hoo Don said...

Really enjoyable read, feels like I've known Chiang Mai a long time and as you know I've never been there. Planning to put that right sometime next year.