We had started to think that we were getting pretty deadly on the navigation front… enter Bangkok. We couldn’t have made more of a dog’s breakfast riding into that place. There was one very critical piece of information we didn’t have – motorbikes aren’t allowed on their expressways. Murphy would also have it that we encounter a stupid person at the toll booth expressway entry. Please don’t get us wrong, we have nothing against stupid people… we encounter them all the time and get along with them fine… it’s just frustrating when they’re in a position of influence on the backend of a ten hour ride day. “Sir, no enter for motorbike. Turn around,” said the stupid person. Turn around? No worries… we’ll just elevate our bikes, pivot them 180 degrees, put them into flight over the column of vehicles backing up behind us and then proceed against traffic back down the expressway. We put our case forward but nothing… “Turn around! You need to turn around!” persisted the stupid person for the next I have no idea how long. We adopted our ignore and wait tactic. Finally an official looking person rocks up and takes a one second glance at the situation… “You need to go through the toll-gate, over to that side-road then loop around. Open the gate stupid person.” They didn’t actually say stupid person but that’s what we heard.
We then worked out a route that would encounter all the major roadworks operations going on in Bangkok… our poor air-cooled big singles. We knew nothing about Bangkok… our accommodation choice was based on being central to the embassies and advice from our mate Rick, who we met in Sumbawa. Rick reckoned, “You want to be close to Soi Sukhumvit 11… it’s central to everything!” Central to what exactly Rick?! Turns out Rick had a mate with him in Bangkok… family man with a couple of kids. His mate pulled out day two and went home… but Rick stayed til all his money was gone. Point is, we weren’t in the most glamorous part of town at first… but a cracker spot for people watching.
Bangkok is a city that HUMS… many options for a traveller. We channeled our energy into the street food option… and a bit of party. Each little street cart has a specialty… the challenge is to taste every specialty and then double check some. We ended up staying in Silom right next to Lumphini Park… beautiful spot mainly because of the park and proximity to public transport. The public transport network fed us from one street food location to the next… our days were regimented around REALLY GOOD FOOD.
Our priority in Thailand was VISAS. One of the best bits of news for overlanders is the recent opening of the Myanmar (Tamu) – India (Moreh) border crossing to foreigners… guide and government officer required through Myanmar… but still a much cheaper option than the obscenely expensive China option. In the past overlanders air freighted their motorbikes from Bangkok to Kathmandu – hard to believe that was the cheap and practical option but it was. Anyway, our upcoming Visas required were: Myanmar – India – Nepal (on arrival) – Pakistan – Iran – Turkey (eVisa) – Europe hooray.
Visas were straight forward… the only issue is the fact that you need to apply for your Pakistan Visa from the Embassy in your home country. There is something very unnerving about placing your passports in a DHL bag and watching that bag drop out of sight into a box. We have a mate who got stung trying to send his passport home from India to get his Pakistan Visa… his passport got confiscated. He had to backtrack to reclaim his passport and then fly back to Australia.
Overlanding with your own vehicle through Myanmar requires a guide, government officer and therefore guide vehicle… perfect opportunity for Mum to join a leg of our trip. Mum would meet us in Chiang Mai with our passports (stamped with Pakistan Visas). We may have also cruelly loaded Mum up with a few supplies and parts, including a pair of exhaust pipes. Sucks carrying other people’s luggage. We were very excited to see Mum… always a grounding experience to see our parents 🙂
We had a look around Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son and Pai District. We even had a crack at Muay Thai… going from zero fitness to two sessions per day was a shock to say the least. Days play out like this: train – eat – sleep – eat – train – eat – sleep REPEAT… the professionals do that for LIFE! We have new found respect for Muay Thai fighter’s shin bones… and the fact you don’t want one wrapped around your head.
The sex industry is very much in your face in Thailand… depends on where you put your face but it is the sex-tourism capital of the world… a status born around the time of the Vietnam War. Bangkok, Phuket and Pattaya are the main hubs for it but red-light districts can pretty much be found everywhere. Prostitution is illegal in Thailand… buuuut licensed establishments can provide services such as dancing, massage and let’s not forget a drinking buddy. The reality is that it’s an illegal industry… therefore controlled by criminal networks more often than not involved in other illegal enterprise. Women and underage girls are exploited and mistreated… there are countless horror stories that make you sick in the stomach. It’s a very serious problem that government agencies and activists are struggling to address.
On a lighter note, we did a lot of people watching and mingling… and obviously encountered plenty of old guys cruising around with young girls… our opinion changed on this one. Women in the industry work obscene hours with only a couple of days off each month… they transit long distances from outer suburbs every day… many are under pressure to be sending money back home… not to mention the actual work they do. Given their low education, alternatives are even bleaker. Put yourself in that position… I reckon a washed old man who provides for me would all of a sudden be VERY SEXY. And let’s not forget about the men… plenty of lonely men in the world who have love to give and want companionship. I’m not saying that the industry makes for rainbows and butterflies… but there are happy stories.
WOMEN IN GENERAL
RESPECT is another issue. We hung out with a number of local Thai girls and learnt that their pet hate is the disrespect shown by foreign men for Thai women… and our friends weren’t working girls either. Apparently one of the BEST MOVES you can make with a Thai bird is to BE RESPECTFUL… might even apply in other countries too.
THE KING & THE OLIGARCHY
One of the first things you’ll notice cruising around Thailand is shrine-like tributes to the King in people’s homes, shops and pretty much everywhere. Being hardcore travelers one of the first things we did in Bangkok was go to the Imax Cinema… before the movie starts there is a long tribute to the King… everybody stands in the cinema like you do for the national anthem at big sporting events… and maaan, what a great guy! You should see his benevolence and all the work he did! One can easily believe that this guy is the all-powerful and all-loving leader of the nation.
Not so. For centuries power in Thailand has been held by an elite class… an oligarchy of aristocratic families who control key roles in the palace administration and running of the state… which is in turn linked to everything else… big business, military, the courts, etc. The oligarchy has broadened today but the concept remains the same… a powerful and interlinked elite class with close ties to the palace and everything else. The king may not wield much control… but his symbolism is all powerful. ZenJournalist comments that conflict is common among the oligarchy but they have always shared the common interest of maintaining the ideology that the king is godlike and to be worshiped… their dominance is dependent on this ideology. For those not on board the Criminal Code hits the message home: Whoever defames, insults or threatens the king, queen, heir-apparent, or regent shall be punished with imprisonment of 3 – 15 years. King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) has become increasingly unwell and no longer plays an active role in Thailand’s dramas… a critical aspect to the current conflict.
SOURCE OF CONFLICT IN THAILAND
Most of us are pretty familiar with seeing Yellow Shirts and Red Shirts on TV causing a ruckus around Bangkok… but what the heck is it all about? The guts of it is that the oligarchy have been desperately hanging on to power by destabilizing the nation… over what has now been a decade long conflict. The source of the oligarchy’s frustration: Thaksin Shinawatra transforming Thai politics… well, transforming in the sense that he conformed to the democracy that Thailand claims to be. Here’s the last 15 years in 500 words…
Thaksin decisively won 2001 elections on a platform of policies aimed at helping the rural poor… not a surprise considering that Thailand has seen considerable economic development with no substantial improvement of living for the poor… not to mention the massive disparity in government expenditure between Bangkok and the poorer regional areas (70% of expenditure for 15% of population in Bangkok). Anyway, get this… Thaksin followed through with his policies!… even introduced stuff like universal access to health care… and would you believe it, he became very popular. Thaksin continued to target his voting base among the poor in the 2005 elections and flogged the Democrats 377 – 96 (in a 500 seat parliament).
So what was the problem? Pretty simple: Thaksin wasn’t paying patronage to the oligarchy / traditional elite class… he was too focused on the poor voting base on one hand and a new elite class on the other. The oligarchy are also very concerned by a likely alliance between Thanskin and the heir to the throne, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn. Did I mention that the palace fortune is in the vicinity of $40–70billion?!
Enter the Yellow Shirts… and a heap of other nation destabilization tactics… movements triggered by the oligarchy following the alarm bells from the 2005 election flogging. It’s pretty much been political chaos in Thailand since then. An ANU professor put the Democrat Party’s path back to power by the end of 2008 into some perspective: it had required the assistance of a military coup, two party dissolutions, a new constitution, an activist judiciary, royal backing, an ultra-nationalist crisis, six months of escalating street provocation, military insubordination and an economically disastrous airport shutdown… but they got there. Thaksin and others then retaliated by tapping into the population’s resentment for was happening… and launched the Red Shirt movement. Uprisings were launched against the illegitimate government in 2009 – 2010… violence and bloodshed ensued.
Roll round to 2011 elections… Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, led the Pheu Thai party to a convincing victory 265 – 159 (out of 500 seats)… the clustered division of seats between the two parties is clear in the image below. Once again, the oligarchy’s destabilization tactics come into force… late 2013 to beginning 2014 saw the climax of these tactics with a campaign of disruption and violence. Finally the May 2014 coup came to be… justified because things were so out of control. The country’s military has long been the most powerful force in politics… they’re a special kind of military. A military as we know it defends a country from external threats. The Thai military is focused on internal issues with business and political related end games. Since the absolute monarchy was overthrown in 1932 the military has launched 18 coups!!!
So where are they now? Thaksin is an exiled fugitive… Yingluck faces 10 years prison if found guilty of charges brought against her… and the current junta are in quite the predicament. The junta can’t allow elections to go forward as promised because they’ll get thumped again… and no one will make a deal until the royal succession plays out. ZenJournalist makes the very interesting point that although dreaded by many Thais, King Bhumibol’s death will lead to greater stability, because one side or the other will gain a decisive advantage, enabling a new equilibrium to emerge. Not surprisingly the junta announced that elections will be delayed to August 2016 at the earliest, which will give them time to make a new constitution.
One thing is for certain… the Thai poorer class are pretty jack of their democratic aspirations being overthrown by the oligarchy… can’t help but feel for them.