Archive for October 2011

Halloween in Kamphaeng Phet

31 October 2011

After a bowl of noodles at the night market, I stopped off at one of my favorite watering holes (cafe by day, patio bar by night) for their Halloween party, advertised by a whole bunch of orange balloons and waiters wearing multicolor blinking devil horns. It turned out those were about the only “Halloween” aspects to the evening– otherwise it just seemed like the usual sparse Monday crowd gathered for dinner and a bucket of Chang beers.  That is, until an elephant showed up. And I’m not talking about a fat man in gray spandex, I’m talking about an honest-to-betsy five ton pachyderm that took a bowling ball-sized poop right there on the patio and proceeded to obliterate the tastefully landscaped greenery abutting the road in search of something delicious before his mahout managed to coax him on down the road.  Not a minute later, the (hands down, no question) most beautiful woman in Kamphaeng Phet (who, it so happens, is a man… a little secret that doesn’t reveal itself until she starts talking in her gravelly tenor) arrived in full costume (she dressed up– get this– as a man) with a toolbox full of cosmetics to do everyone’s makeup.

And that’s about when I left.  Happy Halloween!

My Name is Farang

26 October 2011

The hospital where I go to work every day is sandbagged in. Big vinyl rice bags decorated with dancing elephants, filled with sand, tied off with twine, and piled two feet high against the fence around the hospital. They don’t look serious enough to hold back much, and, fortunately, it doesn’t look like they’ll have to. Prime Minister Yingluck has declared a five-day emergency holiday, and certain of the doctors– those with elderly parents in the suburbs Bangkok, mostly– walk around all day looking nervous, but the River Ping has fallen fifteen feet from its peak three weeks ago, revealing the islets that disappeared a few months ago, and the water’s surface has resumed its glassy meander by the town, after a few long months of swift, choppy water lapping at the banks.

Still, the highways to Bangkok are underwater; I only made it up the river on a marathon 13 hour bus journey, tiptoeing along narrow, rice paddy roads, trying to stay dry (with mixed results: at one point the driver was ankle-deep in sloshing brown floodwater). So I, like most people in town, consider myself more or less stuck: here I’ve been for two whole weeks, and here I’ll be for two more, uninterrupted.

Kamphaeng Phet is a pleasant town. A city, it should be properly called, as capital of its eponymous province. Think of Kamphaeng Phet as a cousin of Des Moines: the small provincial capital in the heartland, politically moderate, off the tourist circuit, where bulky women roast nuts in honey and dance to country music at the annual festival. A bit more history, here, perhaps: Kamphaeng Phet means “diamond wall” and the crumbling city walls faintly remind visitors that centuries ago, this was the northwestern-most outpost of the Sukhothai empire charged with the solemn task of fending off Burmese invaders. When I tell a fellow prisoner of the Bangkok-to-Chiang Mai bus where I’m headed, he responds with what I gladly interpret as a look of steely significance. “Ah, Kamphaeng.” The wall. (more…)

History of the Diamond Wall

20 October 2011

A couple weeks back was the festival of the city of Kamphaeng Phet. Monsoon rains couldn’t stop the opening night celebration of the city’s ancient history.

Political Protest and the Digital Message

2 October 2011

An article published in the NY Times last week that has been garnering a good deal of chatter and attention pulls together disparate incidents of public protest and revolt from around the world, and paints a global picture of discontent with politics and democracy. Followers of NDN’s work won’t be surprised by the argument: the world is changing rapidly, and precious few governments, political parties or elected officials are adapting adequately to the evolving conditions. Today’s youth make up the largest generation in history, and yet they feel woefully unrepresented by their governments. The world’s middle class has been growing, and yet they have suffered and regressed since the 2008 financial crisis. From New York to New Delhi, Berlin to Tel Aviv, in Spain, Greece, Egypt and Tunisia, people are turning out to protest their respective governments.

All these protests seem targeted less at the principles of democracy than at the institutions we have– the parties, unions, trade associations and other bodies that dominate politics in most democratic countries. In Berlin just a few weeks ago, the Pirate Party– yes, that same party founded in Sweden on a platform of radical copyright reform– surprised everyone (including themselves) by winning 15 seats in the city-state’s parliament. While it was tempting to cite the results as an indication that an increasingly young and tech-savvy electorate put data privacy, copyright reform, and internet policy at the top of their personal agendas, that probably wasn’t what was actually going on.  Rather, a vote for the Pirate Party was a protest vote, a ballot cast against Germany’s traditionally dominant parties, and in support of a burgeoning if inchoate faction that voiced a shared discontent with politics as it has been.

The policy demands of this growing global cohort may not be tech-focused (the impetus for revolt is the same as ever: high unemployment, low wages, prohibitive costs for food, housing, education, and everything in between…), but the mindset of the protesters– the way they think the world should be– is deeply informed by our internet age. Societies are increasingly networked through mobile phones and the internet in ways that are non-hierarchical and user-defined, and as a result, people around the world increasingly expect their government, party, and other representative institutions to be equally responsive to their demands. Needless to say, the current situation is frustrating, whether you’re a liberal in America, a working class family in Europe, or an activist in India. (more…)