musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Posts tagged ‘Bangkok Post’

Festival of Death

Thailand’s annual holiday of death and delight, otherwise known as the Songkran water festival, starts today. Songkran is officially a three-day holiday, but invariably stretches out to last nearly a full week when you factor in weekends and bank holidays. Songkran can be an especially fun and festive time with people — both locals and foreigners, many of them tourists — playfully squirting, throwing, and dumping water on one another out in the great outdoors. Unfortunately, the “playful” antics can sometime escalate into mischievous or even cruel forms of water warfare. And then there is the powder that celebrants enjoy smearing and wiping over the body parts of anyone that orbits into their range. So no, it’s not always good-intentioned fun.


I have very fond memories of Songkran, my first exposure to Thailand having occurred during a water festival 22 years ago. What an amazing sight: thousands of people riding around town in trucks and motorcycles all day throwing water and laughing and singing. But there is/was a downside to the happy vibe; some of those celebrants also consumed large quantities of alcohol, became shit-faced drunk, yet reasoned that they could still operate a motor vehicle and of course had an accident, maiming or killing themselves or some innocent bystander. Another happy holiday ending in tragedy.

Death and destruction have become synonymous with Songkran in Thailand. The headline of an article in yesterday’s Bangkok Post blared: Nine Killed in Fiery ‘Danger Day’ Smash. The only reason that this article didn’t make the front page was because the casualties (9 dead and 12 more injured, 4 of those in critical condition) were “only” Cambodians, and probably not deemed important enough for the editors to devote major page space. The Cambodians were travelling in a van that was taking them from Rayong to a border checkpoint in Chanthaburi when the van hit a tree and burst into flames. Most likely these Cambodians were migrant workers heading home to celebrate the holiday in their native country. Like Thailand, Cambodia (and also Myanmar and Laos) have similar water festivals in mid April. In fact, this is THE major holiday in every one of these countries.

I have a Cambodian friend who is working a construction job in Samut Prakarn, a province bordering Bangkok, so whenever I hear about accidents like this (not only vehicle crashes, but also when buildings collapse at construction sites, another sad but common occurrence), I worry about his safety. I always breathe a sigh of relief when he calls and checks in, his laughter assuring me that he’s fine. But with so much constant chaos and a lack of attention paid to safety over here, I’ll always remain worried. Hell, while I was in Myanmar last week, my Thai friend Thanayut was in a fairly major road accident. His car was pretty much totaled but thankfully all that he suffered were some bruises and cuts. It could have been much, much worse.

Like most foreigners who have lived in Thailand for many years, Songkran has lost most of its charm and appeal for me. And yet, I still enjoy the happy vibe that pervades during this time, not to mention the fact that traffic jams in Bangkok are almost non-existent for a full week. So, during this extended holiday, I’ll stay inside my bookshop and work as usual every day, open till close, thus avoiding most of the water craziness, taking taxis to and from work instead of walking or using motorcycle taxis.

Today’s update in the Bangkok Post: 102 Killed and 893 injured. How scary is that? And so, each day when I read the newspaper or check online, I’ll be horrified at the spiraling tally of road accidents and casualties. Have fun folks, but be very, very careful out there.


Thailand’s Darwin Award Candidates

If you haven’t heard of the Darwin Awards, it’s an annual honor given to common-sense-challenged individuals who have “improved our gene pool by killing themselves in really stupid ways.” The Darwin Awards have their website and publish books full of amazing tales of people who have offed themselves in incredibly idiotic ways.


Judging from the news I’ve been reading lately, I think it’s about time for a Thai version of the Darwin Awards. But instead of an annual announcement, I think there is such a plethora of insanely stupid deaths here in the kingdom that they could easily have a monthly roundup. Here are two examples from the past week that I read in local newspapers. In last Friday’s paper, the headline screamed:

Festival Firecracker Blast Kill Teen

According to the article, a man and his 16-year-old stepson were riding on a motorcycle with a bag full of look kong (round, lime-sized firecrackers), heading out to celebrate the annual Loy Krathong full moon festival. They lit the firecrackers and threw them on the road (and perhaps at other motorists?) as they were riding. Shortly afterwards, witnesses said they heard a loud bang and saw the motorcycle catch fire. Police theorized that the bag of fireworks had been placed on the lap of the pillion rider of the motorcycle. Seeing as how the teenager’s “thighs were mutilated,” that’s a pretty good guess.


Two days ago, I noticed this jewel in the Bangkok Post:

Truck Kills Teen ‘Stunt’ Biker Girl

According to this article, a 17-year-old girl was killed when she fell off a motorbike and was run over during a stunt performed by a motorcycle gang in Taling Chan district. The driver of the 10-wheel truck that ran over the girl told police that he saw about 100 motorcycles racing on Kanchanaphisek Road about 2 am. The driver decided to park his rig on the side of the road, fearing that the throng of unruly motorcyclists was making it too dangerous to drive. However, before he could park his truck, a female member of the biker gang fell off a motorcycle and into the path of his vehicle, uh, flattening her. Anyone for pancakes tonight? The article added that police “would bring in members of the motorcycle gang for questioning.” Yeah, a lot of good that will do: those morons will be back out racing again tomorrow night.


From reading these articles, you might assume that Thailand is not a very safety conscious country. And you’d be absolutely correct. These two incidents are only a tiny fraction of the tragic but absurd “accidents” that occur each month here in the kingdom. Yes indeed, I think Thailand is definitely ready for its own chapter in the next Darwin Awards book.

Idiot Bag

The Bangkok Post has a letters-to-the-editor section called “Postbag” every day. Like in other English language newspapers around the world, the letters that are published can be interesting, informative, infuriating, or just plain idiotic. One wonders what the criteria is for publication. The Bangkok Post appears to have their own stable of favorite contributors; letters from the same people appearing often — sometimes several times each week. And some of those regulars write on the same subject, rehashing the same points, every time. Other letters are so bizarre that they skirt the fringes of sanity.


In yesterday’s “Postbag” there was a letter from someone in Pattaya (that should have been a dead giveaway right there; anyone choosing to live in the creepy confines of Pattaya has no credibility to be dispensing advice) writing as “Charlie Brown” (it’s rare that letter writers in “Postbag” use their real name), praising the Bangkok police for their “professional handling” of bag searches. Old Charlie was responding to a previous letter that had also commended the local police for doing a good job searching bags. That particular letter had been prompted by an initial letter criticizing the police for their arbitrary and intrusive practice of stopping foreigners for random bag searches. All part of Thailand’s most recent “war on drugs.”


This Charlie Brown character went on to “add some advice to foreigners.” “Please consider the police are doing what they need to suppress the drug problems in Thailand. If you insist on running around the streets of Bangkok with a backpack, then cooperate. Don’t give the police a hard time when they stop you for a check. Best to leave your backpack in your hotel or home.”


What I can say, except: Idiot! What sort of moronic advice is that? “Insist” on running around with a backpack? The way he phrases that, it’s as if carrying a backpack is a reckless or rebellious act that is bound to get you into trouble sooner or later. But how does carrying a backpack, or a bag of any sort, make you suspicious enough to profile you as a drug dealer or user?  What about that Mercedes driver with the suspiciously large trunk? I either have a shoulder bag or backpack with me every day of the year. Inside I have an umbrella, my Burmese phrasebook, coins, a raincoat (I keep that bulky item in the backpack), an MP3 player, and a book or two. I’m not one of the privileged motorists who zoom around town in the comfort of a luxury vehicle or an oversized SUV, so I’m always on foot or taking motorcycle taxis. Rainy season gets longer every year, and I’m always prepared for it. Without my “suspicious” bags, I wouldn’t be able to carry my assortment of necessities.


I would definitely side with the first letter writer, the guy who took affront at being stopped by the police for no reason whatsoever. I think the Bangkok police are overstepping the bounds of law enforcement with these bag checks and what they are doing is nothing more than sheer harassment. It’s also sometimes an attempt at “scaring” the foreigner into paying a bribe (“You’ll have to come down to the station while we sort out the problem of you not having an ID … unless of course you want to make a financial contribution to our police fund. Sorry, we don’t give receipts.”).


I think the whole idea of searching bags as a way of cracking down on the “problem” of drugs is woefully ineffective. I’d much rather see the local police channel their efforts into more pressing problems, such as stopping speeding motorcycles that drive on the sidewalk (this is a very common, and dangerous, practice in Bangkok; I’ve lost count of the number of people who have told me they were knocked down or hit), preventing taxis from parking in the street (stroll up Silom Road — or try to — any night of the week and marvel at the packs of parked taxis, forcing other motorists to use the single lane that is remaining), or do something to stop the gangs of vocational school students who are shooting, knifing, terrorizing, and beating up one another every week (yet another disturbing and very common occurrence).


But instead the police focus on searching foreigners with backpacks, fining foreigners for throwing cigarettes on the ground (in fairness to the smokers, there isn’t any place to throw away a cigarette, not since all waste bins were removed for “security” reasons a few years ago), or stopping motorcycles (ironically, only the ones that drive in the street!) and shaking them down for some cash (another oddity: I never see them pull over a rich Mercedes driver and demand cash for some imagined traffic offense, only the ones driving cheaper vehicles).


I could paraphrase Charlie Brown’s ludicrous statement and say something far more logical: If you insist on driving your car around Bangkok, don’t complain about air pollution and traffic jams!


House of Pain

As strange and nasty as politics is nowadays in the USA, especially with another presidential election rearing its ugly head, it’s hard to top some of the utter foolishness and political shenanigans that occur on a regular basis here in Thailand. Take an incident that was reported in the Bangkok Post yesterday, the headline on Page 2 telling us:

                                       Senator kills aide with Uzi in eatery

Naturally, the reader is going to want to know more about such a fascinatingly bizarre incident, so I read the read of the rest of the rather short article.  Here are the highlights:

Mae Hong Son Senator Boonsong Kowawisarat accidentally shot and killed his personal secretary with a gun in a restaurant in Phrae province, police said. Sen Boonsong, 55, and his personal assistant Chanakarn Detkard, 46, were travelling to Bangkok in the senator’s car and stopped for dinner at a restaurant in tambon Mae Keng.

While waiting for their meal, Mr Boonsong took out the weapon. He told police the gun accidentally discharged and his secretary was shot in the stomach. Sen Boonsong said he was so shocked by what happened that he was unable to take Chanakarn to hospital himself. The owner of the restaurant had to take her, where she was pronounced dead from her injuries. Police have yet to arrest or charge the senator as he is protected by parliamentary privilege while the House is in session.

I can just picture the scene; the senator is impatiently waiting for his dish of grilled squid to arrive, when he decides to take out his trusty uzi (Question: Did he keep it in a case of some sort or tucked into his trousers?) and make sure it’s functioning properly. Oops … what was that noise?


I think it’s safe to say that this qualifies as a major news story. If something like this had happened back in the US, or any Western country, I dare say if would be front page news. For many days. But here in Thailand it’s relegated to the second page of the newspaper, and in today’s edition, not a single followup article at all. Suspicious by its absence, don’t you think? Instead, we are treated to a crime roundup with articles about six students being arrested for a shooting the previous week; two men charged with killing and robbing a taxi driver; and a Cambodia worker accused of slashing the throat of an infant child. America may be a cesspool of gun-toting thugs and religious lunatics, but we have our share of violent nut-jobs here too. Welcome to paradise!


Adventures in English

For those who native language is not English, learning the language can be a challenging, frustrating, and sometimes baffling process. And for anyone born in Asian countries, learning English can be even more of a challenge. In addition to trying to pronounce words correctly, most Asians face the added challenge of learning an entirely new alphabet. In Thailand for example, we don’t have ABCs, but instead write with characters such as:  ก   ข   ค


Despite such linguistic hurdles, you would expect the media, government agencies, and big businesses in Asia to be able to use English correctly, especially when they are trying to communicate with English-speaking residents or tourists. Alas, that’s rarely the case here in Thailand. Walk around Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport and have fun picking out the mistakes and/or puzzling wording on posted signs. Look at the website of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, or even those of daily newspapers such as the Bangkok Post or The Nation for more odd English usage. Mistakes run rampant.


There was a short article in Thursday’s edition of the Bangkok Post about a “Children Festival” that a local chain of bookshops, Asia Books, is holding this month. Thailand-based author Pongpol Adireksarn (a former politician who writes under the name of Paul Adirex) will, according to the article, “recount interesting stories from his experience of travelling the world, seeing and living with wild animals.” Living with wild animals? And here we thought the Red Shirts were difficult neighbors to have! Ole Paul needs to write more about his experiences “living with wild animals.” Or perhaps they were just Liverpool fans.


Asia Books, who specialize in selling English language books, is calling their promotion “Uncle Paul with Adventure Story.” Huh? Wouldn’t it have been better to call their event “Adventure Stories with Uncle Paul” or “Uncle Paul Reads Adventure Stories”? But no, some sixth grade graduate working for Asia Books, who still can’t grasp the concept of plurals, has decided to call it “Uncle Paul with Adventure Story.” Pathetic.


The article goes on to note that “as part of the festival children can enjoy wild animal coloring activities with equipment provided by Stabilo in every Asia Books branch from noon to 5pm daily until the end of the month.” I have no idea who or what Stabilo is, or what sort of “equipment” they are providing, but that sentence conjures up vivid images of kids running around with paint guns, delightfully spraying colorful stripes on tigers and monkeys as they leap around the room. The potential for total chaos is ripe. I think it might be wise to stay away from those Asia Books branches until this potentially insane promotion has run its course.


Literary Flavors

One of the most asked questions at my bookshop in Bangkok is: “Where do you get your books?” Except for a few titles from local authors that we take on consignment, along with new travel titles from Things Asian Press, all of our stock consists of secondhand books that we get locally. We don’t order or source anything from overseas or even domestically. The only exception would be my occasional forays to Kuala Lumpur, where I usually manage to find a variety of interesting books (more about my latest trip next week) to bring back.

In the early days/years of operating the bookshop, I used to buy books from secondhand dealers at Bangkok’s Chatuchak Market to supplement my stock. But in recent years I haven’t had to leave my shop at all due to the constant stream of people dropping by to sell or exchange books. We end up having to turn down many books because we are so overwhelmed with stuff. Not only are regular customers and tourists coming to do the selling and swapping, we also have many local Thais arriving with books to sell. Most of these “dealers” (for lack of a better term) get their books from local homes, apartment complexes, or hotels, and then sell them to us. The titles can be a mixed bag of languages (we see a lot of Swedish and Russian books, for example) and genres. Sometimes there are brand-new titles and sometimes I find books that are older than I am. Inside the books we uncover sundry items; old bookmarks, airline boarding passes, naughty photos, dead flowers, dead insects, and occasionally some money! Whether the book has collector’s value or not is of no concern to me. I’m certainly no antiquarian dealer (in fact, I think it’s fair to see that I despise the whole collector’s racket); I just think it’s a lot of fun to peruse the old titles.

Last week’s cache of books unearthed a particularly cool find: Flavours: Thailand’s 200 Most Interesting Restaurants by Harry Rolnick. That might not sound like a very interesting title, until you look inside and notice the publication date: 1972. Hoo, ha, this is going to good, I thought. And yes indeed it was, akin to a stroll down memory lane, and made even more fun by the irreverent writing style of Harry Rolnick.


Obviously, some of the restaurants listed in this book are long gone, but more than a few ARE still in operation. One of my friends and customers, Ing, came by the shop and perused the book, saying how it brought back so many memories of growing up in Bangkok during the 60s and 70s. She bought the book, but left it with me to look at for a few days. I thumbed through it and found some real gems. For example, the listing for Chokechai Restaurant in Thonburi says:
Snake? Bat’s Blood? Bear Salad? Elephant Knuckle? If such be your taste, Chokechai supplies the dishes. The English menu once was a discarded hunting license (they’ve since gone sophisticated and mimeographed one of the most hilarious and rare menus I’ve ever seen) and the game is fresh, much of it prepared at your table from just-killed animals. Mainly patronized by country people, the Chokechai is a bit difficult to find, but the dining is al fresco, the dishes quite splendid, prices ridiculously low, and even if your taste doesn’t run to crocodile tail, you’ll be entranced by the atmosphere. P.S. Elephant knuckle must be ordered 48 hours ahead of time … defrosting, you know.

For another place, dubbed “Khao Ka Moo,” Rolnick writes:

The reason for the obscure address is that there is no real name for this restaurant, it only serves one dish, and they’re all sold out by noon. The dish is roast pork leg with rice, it is reputed by pork-lovers to be THE restaurant for the stuff, and between 6:30 a.m. and noon, you’ll see crowds literally queuing up to taste it. Not being one of the Mystic Order of the Roast Pork Leg people, I find myself unable to understand the fascination, but swineologists swear by it, so who am I to be the sceptic?

And the listing for Thaweesak Bakery on Sukhumvit Road:
If you can walk by without buying a box or two to take home, you have the culinary emotions of a Cyclops. The atmosphere is decidedly youthful, with long-haired Thai and American teenagers torn between the éclairs and the sounds of Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Remember; this was written in 1972! The book has chapters for Thai, Western, Other Asian, and Outside Bangkok. It also includes a glossary of Thai foods, and “a selected list of rarer dishes.” Even though this guide is 40 years old — or maybe that fact actually enhances the appeal — this is fun reading for anyone who enjoys Bangkok history or Thai food.

After thumbing through the restaurant guide, I was intrigued: Who was this Harry Rolnick fellow? Looking at the author photo in the back of the guide, he appeared young at the time of publication, so I deemed it quite possible that he was still alive and kicking … and eating. I did an online search and found this Wikipedia entry:

Harry Rolnick is an American author, editor and music critic. His writing often examines Asian lifestyles and culinary traditions. Eating Out In China (1979) was the first book to explore People’s Republic restaurants. His other restaurant guides, to Hong Kong, Bangkok and Macau, prompted Alan Levy to write in The Foodie’s Guide to the World, “Nobody eats in Asia without consulting Harry Rolnick first”.

Rolnick has written a history of coffee, a guide to feng shui, and a social history of Macau. He also co-authored The Chinese Gourmet with William Mark. A native of New York, Rolnick was a Merchant Marine before taking residence in Thailand, where he was one of the first editors of the Bangkok Post and later Hong Kong, from where he traveled throughout Asia and East Africa for two decades. He has written articles for Lonely Planet, Newsweek, International Herald Tribune, Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, GEO and many other publications. In 1998, he edited the first English-language lifestyle magazine in Budapest, before returning to Manhattan.

Rolnick’s most recent book is Spice Chronicles: Exotic Tales of a Hungry Traveler (2008, Seven Locks Press)


It sounds like Rolnick has kept VERY busy since his young days in Bangkok. And his latest book, Spice Chronicles, sounds like a must-read for fans of food and travel.

The Name Game: Burma or Myanmar?

At first I thought it was a mistake; another example of the editors at the Bangkok Post asleep on the job again. The article in the World News section of the paper on Monday was titled “EU to reward Myanmar for reform efforts.” In the past the Bangkok Post has always referred to Myanmar as Burma, using the old Colonial name of the country. I read the article and each time the country was mentioned they called it Myanmar instead of Burma. In addition to that name switch, they were also using Yangon instead of the golden oldie Rangoon. Was this just a single article that snuck by the editors, I wondered, or a permanent change? But in that day’s Business and Travel sections I also found the new usage: Myanmar, not Burma; Yangon, not Rangoon. I checked the editorial page, but no explanation for the change whatsoever.

There has long been a debate about the “correct” name of the country. The country became independent in 1962, which would have been a handy time for a name switch, but it wasn’t until 1989 when the military junta officially changed the official English language name from Burma to Myanmar. Because that ruling junta was not a democratically elected government, many countries refused to acknowledge the new name and kept calling it Burma. The media continue to be divided on which name to use. Major newspapers such as the New York Times and networks like CNN and Al Jazeera opt for Myanmar, while many other press agencies and newspapers still use Burma. The Bangkok Post was included in that latter group … until this week. Ironically, just last month the newspaper received a letter from a reader urging them to stop using the Colonial term “Burma” and switch to the official name of Myanmar. Not surprisingly, the paper received numerous angry letters from readers, urging them to keep calling the country Burma. I wonder what they are going to say now. Or will anyone notice the change?

Obviously, the name switch is confusing, if not maddening for many people. But it’s not like Myanmar was some sort of new name invented by the military. Actually, Myanmar is a very old word and was used by the natives of the country long before the British Colonialist occupiers came along and decided that “Burma” was an easier name to pronounce. It’s a shame that pro-democracy and “Free Burma” activists have demonized “Myanmar,” because it really is a legitimate name. Another problem with the name thing is the difference between the “official” name in English and what the country is called in the native language. Most people don’t call Germany “Deutschland” for example, or refer to Spain as “Espana”? So what’s really wrong with calling it Burma instead of Myanmar?


In addition to being politically incorrect in the minds of so many people, the word “Myanmar” is also a more confusing one to pronounce and to use. People see “Myanmar” and immediately their mind freezes. How do you pronounce this odd word? The correction pronunciation is MEE-in-mar. And no, there is no such thing as Myanmarese. The people are Myanmar, the language is Myanmar, the food is Myanmar, and so on. That extra syllable also makes it more of chore than uttering the easier “Burma.” It’s all more than a trifle bewildering, so it’s no wonder people cling to more familiar names like Burma and Burmese.


In recent years I’ve used Myanmar for the simple reason that during my travels around the country, the vast majority of locals I’ve talked to refer to their country as Myanmar. Rarely have I heard anyone there call it “Burma”, except for a few older citizens or those with a political axe to grind. And that, I believe, is the biggest reason people still use the name Burma: politics casts an ugly shadow over the name issue.


I understand the reluctance to call the country Myanmar, but I always thought it odd that a name like Burma, conjured up the tongue-tied Colonialist Brits during the time they ruled the country, would be preferred instead of a native word. Maybe in the minds of many, it’s a matter of choosing between the lesser of two evils. But isn’t it time to just accept the change and get over it? Names change all the time, especially here in Asia. Siam is now Thailand; Ceylon is now Sri Lanka; Formosa became Taiwan; Kampuchea is back to being Cambodia; Bombay is now called Mumbai. Even in Communist countries, people seem to have accepted the fact that Peking was changed to Beijing and Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City, and those were not “Democratic” decisions either.

The official name of the country is now the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, and it is indeed a union, comprised of 14 states and divisions. Within those various states are dozens of different ethnic groups. One estimate I read stated that there are 135 different ethnic groups in the country. So, it’s definitely not correct to call all people living there “Burmese.” But is Myanmar any better? And which name is more representative of such a diverse mix of people? Some people maintain that Burma is a more inclusive name than Myanmar, but that’s yet another argument that I find extremely peculiar. How could Burma, which is derivative of Bamar, the country’s largest ethnic group, be a more inclusive name than Myanmar? Neither name is better if you use that line of logic. Perhaps a third name is the best solution, something like: Suvarnabhumi (“The Golden Land”). Unfortunately, that’s also a real tongue twister, plus the dysfunctional international airport in Bangkok has already laid claim to that name.


You can go round and round on the name thing, but ultimately it’s an unnecessary distraction from more important issues the country is still facing. Whether you use Burma or Myanmar, it’s the people that count.


For an interesting look at the name debate, here is an article I saw online this past week:


Tag Cloud