IT’S all so covert it’s like I’m a character in a spy novel. I am instructed to have my bags packed ready to go for Monday morning. There’s no itinerary and my plane tickets arrive in the cab on the way to the airport. I am whisked through customs and immigration and before I know it I am on an empty Thai Airways flight to Bangkok. I have no idea what I’m doing or who I’m meeting apart from this sliver of information: “You are on a fact-finding mission for the Thai government”. My imagination gallops like a wild bush brumby. Am I being summoned to Bangkok to learn something from the Thai government or do they wish to learn something from me? I scan my mind for what I could teach them. I have become somewhat of on expert in Brisbane’s disastrous dating scene and am convinced they wish me to confirm the unbelievable tales about which I have been writing for some time. Yes, Your Honour, he really did say his three favourite things were his gun, sex and bible. No, he can’t spell. Not even his own name.
Nine hours later the plot thickens. There’s a sign at the airport with my name, and a woman checks my passport just in case I am someone else masquerading as me. A private car with a female driver, whose name I later learn is Fa, ferries me through a series of dark back alleys like we are being tailed, before we arrive promptly at the Rembrandt Hotel and I am hurriedly shuffled to the Executive Lounge and checked in.
The next morning a familiar face sidles up to me at breakfast. I realise it’s the Rembrandt’s General Manager Erik Hallin with whom I had dinner at the hotel’s signature Indian restaurant on my last trip to Bangkok just six months ago. We talk politics, the reason I suspect I am really in Thailand. Since last November, protestors disgruntled at what they say is a corrupt government run by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra have been taking to the streets of the Thai capital in what have been largely traffic-disrupting, but peaceful protests. Erik informs me that occupancy of his hotel is running at 70 per cent, which isn’t bad but “people are scared off by the protests”.
“You learn to walk everywhere in this city,” he says wryly.
From what I can piece together, the Thai government has called me, and three other colleagues – one from Sydney, one from Melbourne, and the other from Auckland, to write a piece proclaiming it’s “business as usual in Bangkok”. Except there’s a few hiccups with this scenario. Problems which becoming increasingly more apparent as the week wears on. The day I arrive, disgruntled rice farmers from rural Thailand have also joined the democratic protestors, claiming they have not been paid under a rice subsidy scheme instigated by the Thai government. And, less-widely reported, so have rubber plantation farmers. And they are trying to block Yingluck’s physical return to Government House with barricades established in key parts of the capital.
At first it does seem like another day in Bangkok. If anything, it’s a bit more quiet than usual, like the capital is nursing a New Year’s Day hangover. I wander down to the protest site and take some photos. But after lunch things change swiftly. A restaurant owner asks me what I’m planning to do next. “I’m just going back to my room to do some work,” I reply. “Good he says. The traffic is very bad, the fighting has broken out again. But don’t worry, you will be safe.” Given the protests have been peaceful, I take his words “fighting” to mean little more than a war of words and return to my hotel room to work. At 6pm I turn on the BBC and am shocked. At this stage, three people have been killed and dozens others have been injured when a grenade was tossed and riot police moved in on the protestors. I meet my Sydney colleague Rod Eime http://www.traveloscopy.com
and we head down to one of the protest sites and there are crowds of people, but no violence in this particular area.
By the end of this one night in Bangkok, four people are confirmed dead, 64 are injured and there’s speculation by witnesses that the police, not the protestors, tossed the grenade. Our planned visit to the “peaceful protest” site is rapidy cancelled by the Thai government, along with a press conference that evening, with “bad traffic” cited as the reason. Wading into another country’s politics, as a foreign journalist visiting for just a few days, is a risky business. You snatch a glimpse, often polished by the PR machine, and are then diverted. And the truth remains the casualty.
A local journalist, who didn’t want to be named for fear of deportment, tells me over breakfast that it is essentially “business as usual” in Bangkok, but warns me to stay away from the protest sites as things can escalate rapidly.
“I’m not concerned at all. The Thais will sort it out in their way. The best thing for this country is for the Generals to take over. Forget what other countries say. It is Thai culture, it has been happening for hundreds of years. Let them sort out what they’ve got to do,” he says.
“Today is going to be a an interesting day here. (Exiled former Prime Minister) Taksin’s ex wife saw a fortune teller in Burma who said if Yingluck didn’t get back into government today she never will.
“The Thais are very superstitious. I don’t know whether there will be more violence. But no one is particularly perturbed.”
It is a surprisingly peaceful day but despite the obvious casualties, there is another victim in this scenario: tourism. Thailand relies heavily on the tourist dollar, particularly from Australians who have long held a love affair with the Land of Smiles. Mark Armsden, a mate and former colleague from our Gold Coast Bulletin news reporting days some 20 years ago, now lives in Bangkok and handles the PR for Tune Hotels. He’s passionate about how the situation is impacting on Thailand’s key income earner: “If you think the protests are having little effect on tourism, speak to hoteliers, tailors, restaurants and bars and other local businesses between Sukhumvit 33 and MBK. Then speak to the thousands of young working Thais who rely on the service charge they earn to supplement their income – this nonsense has been devastating on the “spine” of Bangkok tourism….and that’s before you get down to the river and all the businesses that rely on tourism there as well. You should also check on how devastating it has been on the flag carrier (Thai Airways) as well.”
Mark’s opinion is one echoed all over Thailand. Perhaps it’s our isolation as a nation, but Australians adopt an interesting approach when it comes to violence overseas. We hear there has been conflict in a city and we avoid a country altogether. We’re strangely conservative like that. But the reality is somewhat different. Even in Bangkok, while the protests were exploding in some parts of the city, it is business as usual in others. We dine at the exquisite Naj restaurant on high-end Thai food while the protestors are outside. Attend a Muay Thai boxing class. And there’s plenty of parts of Thailand that remain unaffected. Along the ravishingly beautiful River Kwai, a tour guide tells me the situation is having a massive impact on tourism, far away from Bangkok.
“It’s high season here and we should be full but we’re not. This is how we make our money, from tourism,” he says.
On Saturday afternoon and back in Bangkok in a beauty salon, I ask the girls whether there has been any more strife since I’ve been down in the remote River Kwai. They laugh and talk to each other rapidly in Thai, the only word I can understand is “farang” which means foreigner and I ask them what they are saying. “Farang knows more about Thai politics than Thai people,” they giggle. I fly out midnight Saturday night and on Sunday afternoon the situation has changed again, when a woman and child are killed, and 22 more people injured, in a grenade attack near a popular shopping area. In recent months, a total of 19 people have died and hundreds more have been injured. As far as I know, none of these have been foreign tourists.
But as we know, perception is everything. After the 2012 Bali bombings in which 88 Australians were killed, we all boycotted Bali. But we were also the first nationality to return. We may be a conservative nation but we are also resilient. So spare a thought for Thailand and those who are dying in the name of democracy, whose livelihoods rely on the tourist dollar and do what Aussies do best. Bounce back. Your neighbours need you. I’ll certainly be back, apart from the fact I love this city, I’ve got a Brisbane dating report to deliver to the Thai government.
The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, Thai Airways, Rembrandt Hotel, Bangkok and the River Kwai Jungle Rafts. For more information go to http://www.tourismthailand.org
INSPIRED by a friend and fellow travel writer’s blog – No Impact Girl – in which Lou Southerden is trying to reduce her impact on the planet, I’ve decided to devote a blog to environmentally friendly ways to find men.
Here are my Top 10 suggestions:
1. Hide in the recycling bin and wait until Tuesday morning, around 5am, when the garbo comes around. While waiting, and if you’ve been sorting through your rubbish properly, you’ll have plenty of newspapers to read to keep you company and very few cabbage leaves attached to your head. When your hear the roar of the truck, jump up like a jack-in-the-box and say “surprise”. Don’t forget to accept the compliment when the garbo points out you are not trash.
2. Go to an airport. But don’t fly. Anywhere. Flying = bad carbon pollution. Sitting on one’s bum = moderate visual pollution. Spend the entire day in the departure lounge with your recycled water and banana (the skin will later become compost) and strike up conversations with handsome strangers looking like they are going somewhere interesting. Try not to look disappointed when he says he has to rush to catch the red eye to Bangkok. You know there is no red eye to Bangkok.
3. Visit your local library. Among all those recycled books which have been read by hundreds before you, you’re bound to find someone lurking between the shelves. So what if he’s 90 and thumbing through the 1970s Playboy collection? At least he can read. Unless he’s 90 and hanging around the children’s books. Move on. Fast. And call the police.
4. A nudist/eco retreat. What could go wrong? There can be no lies, no subterfuge, just let your body do the talking. If he’s a hard-core Greenie, you don’t even have to wax! There will be no surprises when you get your man home, you already know how his extremities cope with cold water.
5. The beach. Take a frisbee (made out of bamboo, rather than plastic) and start throwing it. Men seem to love playing frisbee at the beach. Once they realise you have no one to throw it back to you, they’re bound to join you. Unless a mangy dog gets there first in which case try to act cool and pretend the dog is yours.
6. Walk. Everywhere. Doesn’t matter how far you have to walk, just keep walking. Afterall, you’re not going to meet anyone sitting inside the confines of your air-con car singing Celine Dion now, are you? If you can’t walk, cycling is also a great option, however I fear whizzing past someone at speed is not conducive to snappy pick-up lines. Go back to walking.
7. Funerals. Not your own. Not even someone you know. Complete strangers. What could be more environmentally friendly than watching someone go back from whence they came? Don’t pick a cremation. All that smoke ash cannot be good for the environment. Because you are not emotionally involved with the deceased, you’ll be in a much better position than any other single woman at the funeral to make your move on any vulnerable men. And who on earth is going to question your attendance at a funeral?
8. An environmental rally. Nothing screams sexy more than angry protestors. Imagine the testosterone. You may have to wait for your knight in shining hemp to be released on bail should he be arrested, but he’ll be worth the wait. He loves the planet and all her foibles. Imagine how much he will love you.
9. The Great Southern Ocean. If you can hang in there with the whales, eventually a group of hunky eco warriors will come down and save you all from the evil spear guns of the Japanese whalers. Don’t, whatever you do, wear a black wet suit. It might, however, get a little chilly. Take a cardigan.
10. Not on the computer. Who ever met someone on the computer? How many trees and brain cells are we killing sitting on these things for hours on end? Get out there. Hug a tree. You never know who might be hugging the other side. OK, so he’s a deranged escaped mental health patient. Go to the next tree.
While The Global Goddess may have her tongue planted firmly in her cheek about environmentally-friendly ways to find a fella, she takes the issue of the planet, and what we’re doing to it, seriously. We need to learn to love Mother Earth. Check out No Impact Girl at www.noimpactgirl.blogspot.com for some serious ways to do your bit.