A Travellerspoint blog

Long live the King

"Every Monday, pink."

sunny 27 °C

December 7, 11:30 AM

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Rush hour on the Bangkok skytrain, hordes of suited business commuters, giggling students, scrubbed up farang English teachers, yummy mummies toting yoga mats, camera-laden tourists and kids heading to the mall. Rushing, running, dashing onto trains. 6 pm on the dot. The Thai national anthem starts streaming from the PA system and the entire crowd just stops. Stalk still. Standing. At attention. Quiet where 5 seconds ago it was chaos. The tourists look confused.

Same same but different. 8 am. Cruising by the university and government buildings on the back of my motorbike taxi, wee bit late for work. The anthem comes pouring out of the loudspeakers and all the uni kids and civil servants stand still in the middle of the road. My bike whizzes by, pays the nation no mind. The music stops and they hustle on to classes and offices, swinging school bags and briefcases.

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Popcorn and iced green tea. Never-ending previews. Now the little spot to tell you to turn your cell phone off. Is the movie gonna start?? The music swells, everyone gets to their feet. Stands reverently still. The benevolent face of King Bhumibol Adulyadej emerges onscreen. Highlights of his reign are played out, his earnest face, his scholar’s glasses, thin but stately in his monk’s robes. Crisply saluting the military. Laying his hands on the head of an emotionally-overcome subject. His always smiling Queen.

Friday night video hits on TV. Korean pop stars, Thai bad-boy rockers in high-tops, lethal doses of lipgloss. Rolling across the bottom of the screen, where pre-pubescent teens text in flirty messages to their friends at 10 baht a pop, “Long live the King” over and over and over…

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Swanky spa. Popping in for a little mani-pedi combo. Mix of well-heeled Hi-So Thai, Japanese housewives, farang business chicks. My feet in soapy water, sipping jasmine tea and flipping through fashion mags I can’t read a word of. On the wall and tucked away on the shelves with the gleaming row of nail polishes, framed photos of the Queen when she was young and 60s glam. The epitome of Thai beauty & regal fidelity enshrined.

Monday at the office. Pink golf shirts abound. Small regal crest on the left shoulder. “It’s in honour of the King,” my office mate tells me. “His colour used to be yellow. But now because the protesters against Thaksin use that colour, his colour is now pink. Every Monday, pink.”

Posted by DenaAllen 20:58 Archived in Thailand Tagged living_abroad Comments (1)

Contradictions on the morning commute

sunny 26 °C

October 22, 3: 27 pm

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Stopped at a red light on the back of my motorbike taxi. Exhaust fumes, early morning humidity, caffeine cravings, mental to-do list for the day running through my mind as I wait for the light to turn.

Sukhumvit Road, in the heart of Bangkok’s financial district, at 8 am on a weekday morning is packed solid with business commuters and Thailand’s white-collar troops heading into the office. So the line of young novice monks, in their bright orange robes and holding brass beggar bowls, looked rather incongruous as they made their way down the crowded sidewalk.

They looked to range in ages from about 10 to 17 and were being led by an older monk in a robe of a more sedate burnt shade of orange. The good and hurried people of Bangkok made plenty of way to let them pass. No one batted an eyelash at what looked to me a rather anachronistic sight amidst all the spikey-waxed hair of BKK executive hipsters and high heels clicking down concrete.

The line stopped at the cart of a street hawker selling chicken and beef skewers he was grilling up on the corner. The middle-aged man came out from behind his cart, make a full obeisance, getting right down onto his knees on the dirty sidewalk and touched the feet of the young monks in turn. Standing up, he put money in their brass bowls and freshly grilled meat in their hands.

The line of young monks continued on their way, the street seller went back to serving up quick bbq breakfasts and my mototaxi leapt back into life, whisking me into my office of glass and steel.

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Posted by DenaAllen 06:32 Archived in Thailand Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

Bangkok ramblings

Motorbikes, Buddhist rites & the boys in brown…

storm 29 °C

Bandolier style, my laptop and briefcase straps criss-cross my chest. I’m casually checking a text on my phone with one hand while my motorbike taxi weaves in and out of Bangkok rush hour traffic down the perennially-packed Sukhumvit Road. I don’t even bat an eyelash as the driver squeezes us through a hole between cars so close I can feel the exhaust on my shins.

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This is a far far cry from my first white-knuckled terror trips down Asoke a few months ago. Having to literally close my eyes as we barreled straight into oncoming traffic and letting out occasional panicked yelps as we’d avoid a collision by mere centimeters. Yesterday my overly rammy driver tried to smash my sweet self between a bus and a BMW – so I gave him a solid shot to the ribs. He just laughed. I must be a BKK native now!

Last night I took a motorbike, two trains, a boat and a taxi to get to dinner at this lovely restaurant on the river. That is a myriad of transport methods for one dinner! But it was well worth it to sip a Singha on the deck with a stunning view of Wat Arun all lit up like a Siamese fever dream.

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A new company moved in to the office next door to ours yesterday. All the employees kneeled respectfully on the floor as 7 monks in orange robes performed rites meant to christen the new business. Chanting, incense, symbols indecipherable to my foreign eye chalked on the glass doors. I was thoroughly intrigued but politely dropped my gaze as I walked past en route to my morning coffee.

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My office is in the same building as the Israeli embassy and yesterday we had about 100 Thai Muslims protesting outside. The building security guards set up barricades to hold them back and were wheeling mirrors underneath all the cars coming into the parkade. In true Thai style the protestors aired their grievances vocally but politely and then went away in time for lunch.

More protests from the Red Shirts today at the government buildings –with between 20,000 and 30,000 red-clad supporters of the former Prime Minister expected. But from the pictures I can see on the news they’re in pretty good spirits and hopefully the violence of April will be averted. No one’s come to hassle my neighbour, the current Prime Minister, on our street just yet but the boys in brown (Royal Thai police force) are out in full effect just in case…incidentally, does anyone know why these gentlemen wear their uniforms so gosh darn tight? Aiyeeee!

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Posted by DenaAllen 01:47 Archived in Thailand Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

Surfing the crest of the chaos

Riding the wave of humanity in Bangladesh

semi-overcast 35 °C

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Dhaka. The traffic knocks you on your ass. It’s the first thing – among many – about this city that overwhelms you. The sheer intensity of it – millions upon millions of people crammed into a small space, all hustling and striving and pushpushpushing to eke out an existence. Waves of traffic with no discernible rules, where you force your way in and honk your way through, those with the highest tolerance for potential collision win. The collective energy of it is dizzying.

The humidity is like walking through soup. The garbage lies in rotting piles, the sewage is open. The staring is constant. And hard. But it gives way to the most unguarded face-splitting smiles in the instant I say hello.

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Ancient battle-scarred busses plough through the chaos – rusted rivets, flaking paint, home soldering, adverts and posters pasted to their sides, crammed to bursting with people and young men riding on top. Motorized three-wheelers called “baby-taxis”, bits of their bumpers held on with wire, knotted rags or duct tape, buzz in and out of the rush like angry green hornets. Vehicles fight for inches, grinding by so close they set off car alarms mid-stream. There’s shouting and hawking and honking so incessant and insistent it loses all meaning. Beggars knock on your car window, holding up sad-eyed babies, waving amputated limbs, pointing to deformities, hands outstretched and pleas on repeat. Street kids with hard eyes and quick easy smiles dart in and out, selling snacks, maps, dodgy water in Evian bottles, and flowers.

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And the rickshaws. Dear lord, the rickshaws. It’s estimated there are a quarter of a million rickshaws in Dhaka. Each has a story painted on its sides – cricket heroes, Bollywood babes, prominent political figures, birds, trees, flowers, memories of pristine rural landscapes far, far away from Dhaka’s crowded streets.

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The city outskirts at twilight, watching floods of workers pour out of the garment factories – 12 hours sewing the same button on shirt after shirt after shirt. Construction sites where the lack of technology is obliterated by the sheer abundance of cheap labour and brute force. Men and women in equal numbers carrying unbearable loads on their heads – bricks balanced on wooden planks, baskets of rocks and wet cement. Market porters struggle under staggering heaps of produce, rickshaw-wallahs dismount from ripped bike seats, sacks of garlic piled a man and a half high with a man perched atop for good measure…forcing it first into and then forward in the flow.

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Unbearably blessed me, with AC & driver, ensconced in the backseat with nothing but time and a bottomless well of amazement. To each street corner its market and barber and shoe-repair and tea cart. Each a whole economy, each a whole world.

Dhaka is a force of nature. You can’t fight it, you just need to let go – of frustration, of your punctual schedule, of your notions of justice and of your sense of your own deserving – and ride it.

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Posted by DenaAllen 05:38 Archived in Bangladesh Tagged living_abroad Comments (6)

Back to the village

And it feels good!

sunny 33 °C
View D heads back to Asia on DenaAllen's travel map.

July 7, 2009 – 12:25 pm

I was relieved when the dogs started barking. Dogs meant people. And people meant the village and an end to the mud-slick uphill climb that had been burning my thighs for the past hour and a half.

I was recently in the Philippines to visit some of the projects my organization has in the remote highlands of Occidental Mindoro. We are working with Mangyan communities, indigenous people who live in the forested mountains and have very little contact with – and plenty of mistrust for – “lowlanders”. I flew from Bangkok to Manila to San Jose. A two-hour truck ride down pitted gravel roads got us to the trail head. An hour and a half later, I have crossed streams up to my thighs, am pouring buckets of sweat, and am scratched to sh*t by not-so-friendly jungle foliage.

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The village is a tiny collection of palm huts. There is a dilapidated wooden building with a dirt floor that doubles as their local church and community centre. There is no access to clean water, basic sanitation or health services. There are no roads to transport the small surplus of bananas, cassava and red rice that they produce.

And there is no school. That’s why we’re here today.

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Shy and freaked out, the village kids hid behind adults, trees, fences, pretty much anything that would put some distance between them and the bizarre sweat-soaked foreigner. But, after one brave little munchkin let me snap her photo, they warmed up to me once I showed them her image on the screen. Bingo! The giggles and smiles started to creep out…

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There are over a hundred and fifty kids in this village, and not a one of them goes to school locally. The closest school is three hours away on little feet. Some of the older kids go on an irregular schedule – if there’s enough food in the house to last them the school week, they’ll head out. If not, they’ll stay at home. The most educated adult in the village has a grade 8 standing.

Of course these people have their own knowledge, their own ways of knowing, I’m not trying to belittle that. It’s just – as a person who has been afforded pretty much every educational opportunity on offer in the Western world – it’s hard for me to wrap my head around communities with no access to education. How, from the elevated vantage point of the village, I can just see the touristy dive sites of the Apo Reef in the coastal distance yet a lack of basic sanitation here means kids die from diarrhea on a routine basis.

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The plan is to build a school here. We’ve made the trek here for our third round of “meet-n-greet” chats with the village elders. My organization, Plan International, is currently being checked out by the village leadership. They are, quite wisely, talking with other Mangyan communities in the area who have already worked with us. They’re collecting references and making sure we are legit and a reputable development partner.

We have a solid standing in the community – we’ve helped build other schools, health clinics, latrines, helped train community health workers, and provided water buffalos and tools for farming. We’re helping Mangyan communities gain title to their ancestral lands so they can’t be summarily displaced by the mining companies currently eyeing up their mountains.

The meeting is over. Tomas, the village elder, is bouncing his last-born on his knee and telling us he hopes we’ll be able to work together. He seems to have decided we’re alright, for lowlanders ;) Shy but smiley small-fry wave us off. I hit the trail, hoping it’ll be easier on the way down.

Posted by DenaAllen 22:49 Archived in Philippines Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

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