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Sorry to use a cliché, but the past 12 months have continued to be spent in tropical Thailand, and while Bangkok lacks the beaches and tranquility that most would associate with an earthly Eden, it has, for the most part, been a year that was good to me.
What a shame that the country’s political scene is once again threatening to spoil 2014 almost as soon as it starts, but for now my focus is on what did happen, rather than what might, as I sum up 2013.
Thankfully, all my loved ones remained fit and well last year, including my three 80-something grandparents. Most importantly, my Scottish Grandma, who has always been full of vigour, has remained so since the death of Grandpa in 2012. If anything, she has thrived, having now been freed from the duties of caring for him virtually full time in the decade or so before he passed away. She has travelled, met her great-grandchildren and been busier than ever in her community. On top of this, when I visited her in June, we enjoyed some brisk walks amid the glorious Highland scenery and she set a pace that would put many people half her age to shame. Long may this continue!
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“Hey, where you go?” “How much you pay?” “Meter not work.” Phrases that are all-too familiar for anybody who has been to Bangkok, beginning as soon as you leave the arrivals area of the airport and following you all along downtown, around the visitor attractions and surrounding your hotel. Yes, it’s the hawking call of the notorious Bangkok taxi driver.
There are an estimated 60,000 of them in the city, and to be fair, the majority of them are reasonable enough. It’s just the majority of them do not congregate at the airport, the tourist traps, the nightspots, the malls and the big hotels. It is the unscrupulous few who dominate these places, who can spot a freshly arrived holidaymaker at a hundred paces, who can speak enough English to negotiate a con, and who foster the negative image many visitors take home of the corrupt cabbie.
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Thailand’s image needs all the help it can get right now. Last month’s dramatic footage of bomb sites and gun fights across Bangkok played out internationally and many countries have yet to lift their travel warnings to the erstwhile Land of Smiles.
For sure, confidence has been rocked, and even beyond the photos of war on the streets, the reputation of Thai people as gentle, benevolent Buddhists has been tarnished by displays of downright ugly behaviour during such fractious times.
Whether the protesters promising – and almost succeeding – to turn Bangkok into a “sea of fire”, or their opponents cheering and swearing as the death toll neared a hundred, there was precious little positive humanity on display.
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Front-page headlines from the past few days in the Bangkok Post which are in no way an exaggeration.
The anti-government protests by the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), or “Red Shirts”, have been going on for two months now, and friends and family back home who’ve seen dramatic news footage have enquired about my safety, to which I had always replied that “it looks much worse than it is”, and that I was completely safe so long as I stayed away from the demonstration zones.
Not anymore. Continue reading
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It is often assumed that the people who complain loudest about something have the most to hide. That’s the prevailing logic about homophobia – that those who hate gays do so because they are seeking to deny something about themselves.
And it is certainly the case with the recent controversy over the Leo Beer 2010 calendar launched here in Thailand last week – and promptly banned from sale or distribution by the government.
The reason for the ban was two-fold. First of all, alcohol advertising laws in Thailand forbid the linking of alcohol with fun. Secondly, nudity is forbidden in the media. As this was a calendar promoting beer through the use of body-painted (so, officially nude in that they weren’t actually clothed, even though they were at least visually covered) models, it was always likely to offend someone in a position of power.
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Former Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej died yesterday. He succumbed to liver cancer in Bangkok’s Bumrungrad Hospital, aged 74.
Samak was PM when I moved to Thailand in April last year. He was quite a character and his presence – along with the movements of his rivals and his interactions with the press – could at times be quite comic, if not downright farcical. Before Thai politics turned sour with mob protests, airports seiges and coups, it could even be quite fun to read about Samak’s exploits.
He was the first of three PMs in my time here (three leaders in 19 months in itself is an indictment of the state of Thai politics) and by far the most memorable. He was nowhere near as photogenic as current PM Abhisit Vejjajiva, nor was he anything like as polite as his successor, Somchai Wongsawat, but that is precisely why he made his mark. He behaved aggressively, he was beligerent to the media, he sulked in public, he was unafraid to belittle people if he felt they deserved it, he was stoic in the face of political pressure – and his hardened appearance matched these, ahem, qualities.