Mini Myanmar

January 3, 2013

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I’ve been in Bangkok for a few days over the New Year.  I was coming to get a new visa but that turns out not to be strictly necessary these days.  I had a second reason to be here so I came anyway. My normally Yangon-based monk friend Ashin is here for a month or so and I’ve been to visit him.

Ashin is staying in Bang Boon about 15K from downtown Bangkok in a makeshift monastery in the heart of an ex-pat Myanmar community of about 6000, mainly younger people, all living in the same few streets. Myanmar is spoken everywhere and by everyone, even many of the Thais living round about, Myanmar foodstuffs and Myanmar branded products are on sale in the shops. Myanmar TV is here and there is of course a lively tea shop.

Some of those I met and shared a New Year Lunch with at the ‘monastery’ came over, legally, as teenagers and are now in their late twenties. Others are still teenagers, more recently arrived. They work, mostly, in a shoe factory and a fish factory. They make about $300 a month for a 66 hour, 6 day week. Most hope to return to Myanmar sometime soon, particularly now as it opens up politically, socially and most importantly for them economically.

Over New Year they had five days off and were using that time to make donations to the monks, to head to the beach at Pattaya (where they would swim fully dressed, Bamar-style), and to get married. In front of the ‘monastery’ a wedding was being set up for the next day. A marquee was put up on a patch of dusty land, loads of balloons and flowers were added for decoration. The sound system was being tested; it worked, it was loud. There were plenty of cups and glasses to wash up, which was a team effort of course.

(Inevitably) that afternoon I ended up amateurishly (I have to say that don’t I TEFL friends?), if humorously (I like to think), teaching English for a couple of hours (again).

It’s a great way to learn more Burmese. And it was great fun.

I’ve already been back to Bangkok’s Mini Myanmar.

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Well there’s a bit of time to fill so let’s go with a couple of short stories – I guess we’re pretty much working backwards from here. No photos at this stage; there seem to be a lot of viruses about so I’m not going to be sticking my stick in during my one night in Bangkok.

1. Taking it as red

This afternoon I took a motorcycle over to Siam Square where normally you can while away hours in some of the finest shopping centres you’ll ever come across. When Nottingham’s Broadmarsh Centre sells Lamborghinis and Ferraris on its fourth floor I’ll start to believe in the top five retail destination. In the meantime let’s just settle for saying that Bangkok has even better shopping than Nottingham. Normally. This week the Siam Discovery Centre (which used to be great), the Siam Paragon Centre which put it in the shade, (such a modest name. Will it be bettered? Can it be bettered? Siam Nirvana Centre?), a bunch of other shopping centres and lots of restaurants and other businesses are closed because, as you will have seen on TV (though obviously not since GB called that bigoted Rochdale woman a bigot), the red shirted supporters of that nice Mr Shinawhatsit – who got a mention in post one all those weeks ago – shifted camp following the exchange of blows with the army and police that killed 25 plus and injured many more. Their occupation of the commercial retail centre of the city is very sizeable, there are a lot of people there making a lot of noise and there are no signs of the security forces (they are elsewhere where yesterday’s – rain interrupted – clashes and stand-off took place).

The Lamborghini and Ferrari (and Paul Smith) shops are all shut. Sorry folks, no glitzy gifts upon my return this time. According to the Bangkok post businesses are losing more than a billion Bhat a day. A couple of months of this and they will have lost as much as Thaksin had seized as ill-gotten – and about which all the fuss really.

That the FCO should issue a travel advisory saying to avoid all but essential travel to anywhere in Thailand is bonkers. Like saying avoid all of the UK because Covent Garden has been taken over and shut-down by a bunch of folks from the sticks threatening violence and Civil War with sticks (Countryside Alliance anyone?) if they don’t get their man back. That kind of advice scares the horses and sends foxes running when they really need not. (Tally Ho!). OK the pack did kick off right by Kao San Road in mid April so I can understand Middle Class Mum and Dad urging their little chickens to get out of town, but it’s a damned big town and life in most of it goes on pretty much as normal. Right now I can hear some guy in the bar next door knocking out ‘You’re so vain’ so all in the world must be well enough. To see the Kao San Road area with only ten to twenty percent of its normal numbers is interestingly weird but not interesting enough to write about at any length. Wannabe super-shoppers, road users and the business community, particularly any relying on tourists, are getting more and more pissed off with the Red Shirts. Why don’t they just go home? Before they get hurt. Which they will. Thailand’s government is no more elected than Myanmar’s; it too kills civilians.

I wonder where have all the (often-self-defined-adventure)-seeking backpackers gone at the first sign of trouble? I bet there are few beds to be had ‘on the islands’. That will have been a very Full Moon Party last night, or the night before. Or have they transferred their rabble rousing to Pub Street (no really) in Siem Riep (where Angkor Wat is, Cambodia)? . Or are they floating-stoners making their way down the Mekong on inner tubes at Vang Vieng (Laos)? Wherever they are they are being missed here.

2. Ping Pong not Pat Pong.

I met Jessica on the bus from the airport this morning. She had been on the plane from Yangon but we only spoke on the bus. Did she have a good time in Myanmar? Yes she did; she got married. Her husband was one of Myanmar’s leading table tennis players when three of them defected during a tournament in the USA. One of them was a soldier so political asylum came easy enough. Like so many immigrants to the US getting residency was harder. He’s sorted for citizenship now.

To get to his own wedding in Mandalay he had to enter and leave Myanmar illegally crossing a river to and from Thailand in the south, easing his path with ‘gifts’ along the way – including at one point ping-pong lessons. Yesterday he left Yangon at 11am and was in Bangkok only 18 hours later. I think it would take longer doing it the legal way.

His Mum lives close to the Hotel that’s my residence-de-choix in Mandalay. Jessica stayed there at the same time as me during water festival but we did not see each other before today. Maybe we’ll meet up another time we’re all in Mandalay; for sure we’ll all be going back.

Ping Pong might be a minor league sport but it gave one guy (with an out-sized head apparently) the chink of opportunity he needed to get out of Myanmar and get on with his life (and if he wants to get up at 8 every Sunday to go to the pub to support Liverpool that’s his funeral). Now Jessica and her new husband live in Miami and I wish them all the very best in their life together. Nice lady.

* The name of a sport has been changed to protect the innocent.

Whoops! Wow!

March 24, 2010

It can never be a good start to a trip when you lose your mobile in the cab from the airport. I could blame the ongoing effects of a sleeping table but I hadn’t taken one. Maybe I was still dewy-eyed at Sandra Bullock’s performance in The Blind Side shown inflight – I enjoyed it but an Oscar for just what exactly? (Maybe the kid should have got one though). Certainly the cab driver and I were both distracted by the large part of Bangkok razor-fenced-off to contain the red-shirted protesters intent on bring down the government in the name of Thaksin Shinawhatsit.

Neither of us paid much attention when something went clattering down the side of the seat. Nothing to do with me I imagined – until abandoning / abandoned by the cab to walk, with luggage, the last mile or so (nevermind only 36 degrees) to the backpacker heaven / hell of Kao San Road.

It was as I made my way through the second line of riot police that I thought “I think I know where I am but why don’t I use GPS to check?” (how times have changed), reached into my back pocket to find nothing but an Oyster card. Whoops! That clattering will have been my phone then. Oh what mixed emotions – how will I manage without it? / brilliant, now I am really going to get away from it all / ah well no big deal it doesn’t work in Burma anyway / shit I didn’t bring a separate source of music, I’ll have to make do with BBC World (which is repetitive, licence fee wasting rubbish).

If you’ve ever taken a cab from Bangkok airport you will know that it’s a slightly convoluted process that involves getting a chit from a service counter, the person there then getting you a cab and driver. Have you ever bothered to look at that chit? Ever noticed it has not only the cab number on it but also the driver’s mobile number? The cops at the “May We Help?” Kao San Road Police Station have. One phone call later and we’d arranged for me to get my phone back. And a couple of hours later I did. Wow!

In a worrying trend, six months ago I managed to leave Los Angeles airport without one of my bags. The one containing all the things I wanted to hang on to – laptop and other valuables – was left standing on the ‘sidewalk’ as we scooted off to our hotel. A couple of hours later thanks to the taxi rank guy and a couple of cops I got that back too.

Human nature, human honesty – don’t you just love it.

And so my holiday has begun.

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