Bikes. Elephants. Rafting. Orchids. Military. Chiang Mai, Thailand

27 Nov

I had to get out of my hotel room. Out of my head. I’ve been in the glorious Chedi Hotel in Chaing Mai for two days now editing China. It’s consuming. And, I believing biking, white water rafting and elephant riding are in order.

I called  my new BFFers at a local travel agent for Asia. The day prior I scared the shit out of their Chiang Mai office by knocking on their door. That’s right. I went to their physical location. Apparently, people don’t go to the office. They only email. American girl does not email when wanting information about travel and transport in communist countries.

I hired a Tuk Tuk to take me to their offices. Off I went in a Hello Kitty motor-bike with a covered seat. The Tuk Tuk driver dropped me off at someone’s house insisting it was an office. I thought, “fine. I’ll knock.” Got out of Tuk Tuk and she raced off. I knocked on the door. Two young women peered out. I peered at them. Smiled. And, said, “I need travel help…”

Thirty mins later, after my face to face with them, I’m emailing my travel ideas. Looks like the Chiang Mai office is for operations only. Hey, website did NOT say that. I gave them something to talk about for the day… But, they did help me with a day bike trip exploring Chiang Mai.

My tour guide picked me up at 8 am and we’re off. My tour guide’s name is Bae. It is short for a very long Thai name. Bae was on fire. He’s highly irritated with his government, royal family, military, corruption, education, health… you name it, he’s mad.

I told him “Welcome to America… We’re all mad too…” I have not found one Thai who would speak the truth on how they feel about their government. Not one. So, I was surprised at his spewing. Taken back actually. And, I LOVE talking politics and learning about other country’s governments.  It says so much about the energy of the people.  And, his rage was another birthday present. Yes, I’m still celebrating my birthday a month later.

In my opinion – and take this with a grain of salt for I only rested my head in this beautiful country for a few weeks and I’m NO expert – Thailand could implode economically or politically in the forseable future.  I’m not talking Chinese future, like 1,000 years.  I’m talking US future, like 2 to 8 years.

Why? Well you have two old farts running the country. The King and the Military General are in their 80s…  on their last leg.  So, what the Thai people are up against is the elite ruling from a place of fear….  It’s your typical fear — Fear of change.  Fear of their legacy. Fear of being found out.  When one manages and leads from a place of fear, then expect the worst.  And, we all know what that is like for we have had bosses who use fear to motivate, lead and direct their employees.  Not a happy place to spend 8 to 10 hours a day.   So, in my pee-size brain opinion, Thailand is a ticking tomb bomb.

According to Bae, this mess started about six years ago. And, it’s complicated and simple in one breath. The Prime Minister at the time – forgot his name – was from Northern Thailand. Smart man. Business man. Studied in the states. Made a lot of money in Thailand. Owned the largest telecoms business. I believe he brought wireless mobile phones to Thailand.

He ran for Prime Minister. Overwhelming majority. The country was progressing. He invested in infrastructure, education, tourism and business.

Goal was to open up Thailand. And, it was working. More business was coming in. Tourist flooded in. Thailand was moving. Then, the opposition started asking more and more questions about his business dealings. The kick-backs. Bae, my tour guide, went in detail, which I don’t recall now. In essence, the Prime Minister was getting $$ under the table. But, it could not be proven. His supporters do not believe it is true.   He said he would sell his business to avoid future conflict. And, he ended up selling the largest Telecoms/wireless company in Thailand to a S. Korean company or to another government.  Details escape me…

At any rate, the Thai people could not believe that a foreigners owns their Telecoms company. Found this disrespectful. It became a scandal. The opposition and military said they were going to arrest him for corruption.

New elections were held. And, he fled for the new party in control wanted to arrest and try him. His wife is still in Thailand.  Now, the Northern Thailand political contingency and the poor call themselves the RED Shirts. It’s all about the color shirt you wear in Thailand. Either you’re a Red Shirt or a Yellow Shirt. They keep it simple in Thailand.

This was six or so years ago. The new government came to power. Military backing. This new Prime Minister is just a puppet for the military. There was a quote in the Bangkok Post that said he is just a pretty face. The military has grown stronger and stronger. Their goal is to wipe out any opposition and try the old Prime Minister. They want old Prime Minster to go to jail, thinking if they show he’s corrupt – unlike them – then his followers will join their side. Easy Breezy. Cover Girl.

The military has been suppressing freedom of speech and freedom of assembly for the last few years.

The Red Shirts had enough. In 2009, they protested against the military (governments) policy. And, riots broke out. Military came in and with their big, bad guns. CNN aired the riots. So, the world thought these people were hooligans. US State Department posted travel warnings. I read some place that almost 100 people died in the riots and over 2000 were injured. After that, the military went crazy. Shut down everything. They shut down TVs, newspapers, blogs – anything against the government. The World Press Freedom Association downgraded Thailand to 153 on their list, below Democratic Republic of Congo and Palestine. Hello, Houston, we have a problem??? Democracy to military dictatorship in a matter of days. Though, Thailand still calls herself a democracy. Another example of using the wrong word to describe a government. Communism in China. Democracy in Thailand.  Both get the ax in Websters.

Oh, after these riots, the King Bhumibol Adulgadij – longest reigning King in Thai’s history and the world – had a nervous breakdown. Couldn’t deal. Guy is 83+. Broke him that people might be a wee bit upset. He has been in the “hospital” since 2009. When Thai’s say the word “hospital” their voices convey doubt. So, the military, in essence, is running the country.

Let me give you some perspective. Right now, a Thai Editor for a newspaper/blog is facing 70 years in prison for remarks she made about the monarchy. The government claims she breached some computer law and Thailand’s majestic legislation, prohibiting criticism of the royal family. Can you imagine the US pulling that one? What would Glen Beck and Morning Joe talk about? All the advertising dollars lost because NO ONE can speak ill of Obama, Palin, Biden, Bush or Clinton.  Again, raise a glass to our country! Thank GOD we have freedom to rant and rave.

Back to editor. So, I read that ANY Thai can make an accusation of insulting the monarchy and the police MUST investigate. You are guilty until they prove you innocent. When I was in Bangkok, the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon came for a visit. The Army Chief had some fab quotes in the Bangkok Post. He told the “bad people and outlaws” not to rally. Not to embarrass Thailand. See if our local police, or Obama for that matter, could get by with quotes like this…

Army Chief  quoted in the paper…

“Do what civilized people do….They must NOT show up in masses or cause trouble before the eyes of foreigners. I think that is embarrassing.”

“There are two groups of Thai people: the good and the bad, normal people and outlaws. The bad and outlaws must be prosecuted, no matter what they do, and they can later defend themselves by legal means.”

“Young kids should not protest. You should not do that. If you do not know, you can ask your parents.”

“All people, from their grandparents’ generation down have been blessed by the royal institution. From past to present, Thailand has existed thanks to the royal institution. So no matter what the political expression, do not involve the royal institution.”

Bae talked in length about the government corruption. They take bribes. Take the people’s money. Once again, there is no social safety net. The outsiders think Thailand is an nice place. To travel, yes. For freedom. To raise a family, no. Bae was raised on a farm. He was the youngest and was in charge of feeding the water buffalo every morning and harvesting rice. He came from a very poor family. I asked him how he learned English? How he broke out of poverty?

Summary of Bae’s story: “I have three sisters and two brothers. I was the youngest. My father was a farmer. We grew tobacco, rice, corn, vegetables to sell in the market and to feed our family. I did not want to be a farmer. Very hard life. I went to primary school. Did not graduate from high school because my father said we could not afford college. He told me I must become a farmer.

My sister worked in Bangkok. She worked in a bar. Served drinks to foreigners. I went to live with her. I was 16. I learned to make drinks and worked in a bar. I worked all night. My sister said I must learn English to get a better job. There was an English school down the street. She made me go. I was so tired. I worked until 3 am. And, had to be at English school at 8 AM. I would study English until 2:00 pm. And, start work at 4 pm. Other students dropped out. I was the only one that stayed. I studied English for three years. Worked in a bar. And, practiced my English with foreigners. Always practicing.

I worked at the bar for many years. My other sister was working at a travel agency. She helped with reservations. They needed English speaking guides to answer tourists questions. My sister gave me the job. I went to tourism school. You have to be trained and certified to be a guide in Thailand. I took classes for two years. Passed the test and became a guide. I know everything about Thailand. I love my job.

I’m married. Have two daughters. My wife works as an accountant. I have two Labradors. I jog with them everyday. And, very happy that my sister made me learn English. I have a good life. I’m not a farmer…”

Of course, tears welded up in my eyes from the backseat. I love his story – story of perseverance, faith, struggling and overcoming GREAT odds. And, he had the support of his family. Love Bae.

We biked through the countryside. We stopped at a rice house. I really don’t know what they call it, but I’m calling it a rice house. A woman about 70 was cleaning the rice with a machine that costs $4,000 US. It’s old. Rusted. And, amazing.

Farmers bring her their rice. She puts it through the grinder. It takes off the brown stalk. Cleans the little rice, turning it to white, and dumps into a 20 kilo bag.   There is NO bleached or random products applied to turn rice white.  For whatever reason, I thought that was the case.  White rice is natural.  And, there a billion-and-one types of white rice…

Back to rice lady.  She charges $1 to clean (take mini-stalks off each rice grain) one 20 kilo bag of rice. Dumbfounded. She needs to charge MORE. She said, she can’t because the farmers would get mad. Mad, who cares. Again, it gives me a greater appreciation of rice.

Next, we stopped at a random shack. It started to rain, of course. When I was in Thailand, they were experiencing the worst floods in 50+ years. Nice.  A family of six were sitting in their house with no doors cutting up marigold yellow flowers. They were going to sell the pedals in the market. People will buy and make it into tea or  wreaths for the dead or Buddha.

They had a small radio playing Thai music in the background to keep them going. They will make $4 for all their work, if that. The family seemed very joyful. Happy to be together. They offered us tea. Out of dirty glasses.  We drank.  Sat.  Talked.  Even the men joined in the conversation, which was unique for they are the ones that sit back in a corner and stare at foreigners with distrust.  I tried my hand at cutting too.  Didn’t work out so well — Cutting pedals with a dull knife  and bike helmet is HARD work.

As we trekked on, the roads became more and more muddy. Our next stop was the elephant farm. This is a “must do” in Thailand. My elephant was PMSing or something.   She growled.

I did NOT think elephants growled. She got really pissed at the teen who was sitting on her head making her move. He would talk, cluck and them hit her. When he used the stick, she growled. I tapped in the shoulder and waved my finger – “Don’t do that… No hit.” I felt better. We walked a mile, which took a good hour. Very slow. And, it was raining. I was over the elephant ride about 4 mins into it. Check to box on riding an elephant in Thailand…

Next on the docket was white water rafting down a polluted river. I love rafting. Right up my ally. We loaded up and off we went.  I asked what “class” river this was.  And, they did not know.  They said, “fast because of the floods.  A lot of water.  A lot of rocks.  A lot of  fun.”  Got it….

We hit the first rapid and Bae, my guide, flipped out. I mean, flipped out of the boat.  Yea, it’s fast and rough all right.   Bae landed in water that was teaming with sewage and other random particles I learned in chemistry.  Glad it was him, not me. No skin disease today please.

After white water rafting, we biked to an orchid farm. As we biked, he vented more. He was linking military life with monastery life.   According to him, both were the same. Really?

The monastery is for lazy boys or poor kids, according to Bae. People really don’t have a “calling” to be a monk, per se. At least, I did not hear it. If a family can’t support a child or the child is not that motivated, the family sends him to a monastery.

Everything is free for the boy. Free food. Free housing. Free orange robe. Free education. Free. The poor see this is an insurance policy. The boy spends nine years in the monastery. I asked about what the kids learn. I mean, this education is “free” but what are the filling their brains with?

He said 80% is Buddhism. 20% is math, science, Thailand history/culture. And, they are starting to teach them English. That is good. When the boy is around 20, there is a ceremony. He “graduates” into monk-hood. He has learned his 227+ rules. Remember, the plebs or commoners only have 5 rules. Monk have a few more. Their Buddhism they practice is from India – so it is very restricting. Bae said around this time is when the Monks leave to go into the military, go to university, find a job or get married. He said about 95% of kids who graduate from the monastery leave. But, they leave armed with knowledge.

The Thai military is compulsory for all Thai boys. But, there are some rules there too.

You have to be over 160 cm (not short), be built, have good coordination and not be a Lady Boy. What is a Lady Boy? Google it. I beg you. Then, you will understand why Thai Lady Boys are not permitted in the military. The govt has a supply and demand issue. More and more boys are voluntarily enrolling in the military after university or later in life. They see it as job security. Especially, given the Thai economy. So, there is a large chance that you will not have to serve time in the military right after high school or college. In other words, the military is full.

If you do serve time, then your life will ONLY be complete if you also do time at the local monastery. Boys are encouraged to enter into a monastery for 3 months or 15 days to learn more about Buddhism. The story goes, once they do military and monastery time, there life is complete. That is all it takes for a male in Thailand. A little M&M – military and monastery – then you’re good to go.

We ride up to the orchid farm. All I can think about is my stepmother Dewease and my Mom. They would DIE. I mean this is orchid heaven. I took a zillion pictures to share with them when I return. Amazing. The grow and export these babies all over the world.

Bae was a gift. His rants, raves and remarks made me curious. And, opened my eyes to another Thailand. I could tell he was unconformable sharing all of this when we parted. He apologized. I told him I LOVED every minute of it and gave him a nice tip. Thank you Bae for your honesty!

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