Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Thai Culture & Festivals: Songkran

Thailand's famous Songkran festival is widely celebrated and marks the start of the Buddhist New Year. The date of the festival was originally set by astrological calculation to coincice with the vernal equinox, but it is now fixed and runs from the 13th to 15th April.

Songkran used to be celebrated only in the north of Thailand and it is believed that it was brought there by the Burmese, who adapted it from the Indian festival of Holi. It spread across Thailand in the mid 20th century and is now observed even in the far south. The festival is also celebrated throughout South East Asia. In Laos it is known as Pee Mai Lao, in Cambodia the locals refer to it as Chaul Chnam Thmey and in Myanmar it is called Thingyan.

Songkran was traditionally a time to pay your respects to village elders, including family members, friends and neighbours. People celebrating Songkran would also visit the the local temple to pray and give food to monks.

Ritual cleansing of Buddha images from household shrines and at temples, using fraganced water, was also an important part of the celebrations. Buddhists believed that doing this will bring good luck and prosperity for the New Year.

Particularly for younger people, the emphasis these days is on fun and water-throwing, rather than on the festival's spiritual and religious aspects. They walk the streets with water pistols and buckets or drive around in pick up trucks drenching each other and passersby. The most famous Songkran celebrations are in the northern city of Chiang Mai, where it often continues for six days or longer!!!

Unfortunately, there is also a darker side to the festivities. It is over the Songkran holiday period, that Thailand experiences its highest number of fatal road trafiic accidents, caused mainly by drunk drivers.

In recent years there have been calls to moderate the festival to reduce the number of alcohol-related incidents and to focus on the religious and spiritual meaning.

Between the 12th and 15th of April this year, over 300 people were killed in road accidents.

Details of this very sobering statistic and further commentary can be found on the website of the Nation newspaper......

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Red Shirts in Bangkok - Penfold's update

Unless you have been living on the moon for the last few weeks, you will no doubt be aware of the protests being held, by the Red shirted demonstrators in Bangkok and the worrying escalation in the level of tension and violence.

Last week the British government advised against all but essential travel to Bangkok and the US and Australian administrations, have issued warnings against travelling to Thailand.

This has caused widespread fear among travellers. But, are visitors right to stay away from Thailand? Or is this just scaremongering?

If you are planning a trip to Bangkok then I would say yes and urge anyone considering a visit to exercise extreme caution.

The protestors are occupying alot of the main roads and thoroughfares together with large parts of the Silom district. This has caused widespread disruption and many hotels and businesses in the area have closed.

On April 10th 25 people were killed and hundreds injured in clashes between demonstrators and security forces and on April 22nd, a series of grenade attacks near the Sala Daeng skytrain station killed 1 person and injured 85.

However, I think the US and Australian governments have over-reacted and I believe that if you are travelling to other destinations within Thailand then it will be relatively safe. Although there have been past protests in some of the key tourist destinations, such as Pattaya, the current unrest is confined to central Bangkok.

But, it always pays to be vigilant and also bear in mind that during previous demonstrations Suvarnabhumi airport was closed and there is an outside chance that this may happen again.

What has caused this situation?

The popoulation in Thailand is bitterly divided between the Red shirts of the UDD and the yellow shirts of the PAD.

The UDD is made up of mainly the rural poor, working-classes and those opposed to electoral reforms which would strip them of the right to vote. They are portrayed as pro-Thaksin but this can be misleading. Although the movement is largely funded by Thaksin and his cohorts, many within the UDD are opposed to Thaksin and are not keen to see him return. They support the movement because it defends their rights and it is perceived as the lesser of two evils.

On the opposite side is the PAD, who are a loose coalition of Bangkok based middle-classes, the business and military elite and monarchists. They want to introduce radical reforms that would give voting rights to a chosen few and end universal suffrage. They are deeply opposed to Thaksin who they fear will challenge the status quo and end their grip on power. They also view him as a threat to the monarchy and national stability.

What will happen in the future?

I am of the opinion, that because of the deep-rooted mistrust and anger between the opposing factions, this situation will not be resolved quickly or easily. These tensions have been simmering just below the surface for many years and are now reaching boiling point and unless there is further dialogue, which at this stage seems unlikely, the violence will continue. It may take a geenration to overcome the profound social divisions.

What will this mean for people visiting Thailand?

The violence and turmoil has portrayed the country in an extremely negative light and has had a terrible effect on the tourist industry which represents about 6% of the Thailand's total GDP. There has been a sharp decline in the number of holiday-makers visiting the Kingdom. Tourist related businesses and employees at all socio-economic levels are feeling the pinch and whilst there are scenes of death and violence on our television screens people will continue to stay away.

However, with airlines and hotels desperate to attract business, those of you willing to risk travelling to Thailand will find plenty of good value deals.

I will of course be publishing further updates, as and when the situation changes, so don't forget to regularly check my site.

There are plenty of other news agencies and commentators offering their views on the protests and you can find a selection of them below.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Staying Safe in Thailand

The aim of this post is to help travellers stay safe and healthy by providing them with a useful list of hints and tips.

Thailand is generally a very safe destination, but it's always wise to be aware of any potential problems before you travel.

"Forewarned is forearmed", as the old saying goes.

1) Motorcycles - The number one cause of death and injury among foreign tourists in Thailand is motorbike accidents. Thai drivers are notoriously bad and the country has one of the world's highest accident rates, with more than 13,000 people dying each year!!!

My advice would be NEVER ride a motorbike in Thailand, it's not worth the risk!!!

2) Political unrest - Long-simmering tension between pro- and anti-government groups has come to a head in the last couple of years and a number of protesters have been killed or seriously injured. Although no foreign tourists have been killed yet it pays to be a bit cautious.

My advice would be to keep an eye on the news to help you avoid demonstrations and other political gatherings and keep your travel plans as flexible as possible. I would also suggest you avoid talking about Thai politics, as it is a very sore subject for many people!!!

The only Thai person I would ever discuss politics with is my girlfriend!!!!

3) Crime - Thankfully, violent crime against foreign tourists is relatively low, although there have been a number of high profile rapes and murders over the last few years.

However, if you're involved in any shady activities, dodgy dealings or are linked to the criminal underworld then the risk of something unpleasant happening to you increases dramatically!!!

For most tourists, it's the lower level crimes that you have to watch out for like bag snatching, pickpocketing, deception, robbery and opportunistic thefts.

My advice, to avoid falling victim to petty crime, is as follows:

- Don't wear expensive jewellery. A Thai friend of mine recently had a gold necklace stolen, from around her neck, by 2 hoodlums who pulled up next to her on a motorbike!!!!
- Never leave your belongings unattended.
- Don't leave anything on hotel balconies or terraces.
- Be extremely vigilant when using your mobile phone or laptop computer.
- If you are on public transport such as a train or overnight bus, be aware of who is around you and try not to fall asleep or you may wake up and find all your stuff missing!!!
- Never accept food or drink from someone you don't know, as it may be drugged.
- Make sure you keep your wallet/purse/handbag/rucksack with you at all times and don't put your rucksack or handbag on the back of a chair if you're in a restaurant or bar.
- Don't keep all your travel money and cash cards in one place. I generally have a one wallet which I keep in my pocket, containing a small amount of money, normally about 500 baht. So, if that wallet gets stolen it's not the end of the world. The rest of my money and ATM/credit cards are kept in a small wallet kept somewhere else about my person!!!

4) Scams - Please read the post I wrote 21/10/09 for a comprehensive breakdown of the scams you are likely to encounter.

5) Prostitution - Strictly speaking prostitution is illegal. However, it's not illegal to pay for sex or to pay a "bar fine" in a beer bar or go-go bar. Police enforcement is extremely liberal and establishments offering all manner of adult "services" are commonplace.

The age of consent in Thailand is 15, however, for prostitutes the age limit is raised to 18.

Be warned that it's illegal for a foreigner to have sex with anyone under the age of 18 without parental consent!!!

My advice is to find out the age of your prospective partner by checking her ID card, which all adult Thais must carry. The date of birth will expressed using the Buddhist calendar which is the Western, Gregorian calendar, plus 543.

For example, the year 2010 will be written as 2553 (2010 + 543 = 2553). To work out her date of birth simply subtract 543 from the date that you see on her ID card.

E.g If her ID card says she was born 2535, subtract 543 from 2535 and you get 1992 which means that she is 18 and you will be OK.

But, if her ID card says she was born 2537 then subtract 543 from 2537 and you get 1994 which means she is 16 and should you sleep with her then you will be in severe trouble and looking at some jail time!!!!

Please also be advised that if you are going to use the services of a prostitute make sure you wear condoms as you don't want a dose of drippy dick or risk contracting HIV/Aids!!!

6) Drugs - Possession and trafficking can result in life imprisonment or even death in Thailand, so please, please, please stay away from drugs in Thailand.

For more detailed information read the post I wrote 03/02/10.

7) Civil unrest - About 5 or 6 years ago, the long-held resentment of the Muslim-majority in Thailand's Southern provinces simmered over into violence. The provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala have all experienced bombings and murders. The unrest is largely confined to the South and hasn't really affected the main tourist hotspots but 3 foreign tourists were killed in the city of Hat Yai, in 2006.

For more detailed information please read the post I wrote 12/11/09.

8) Wildlife - If you plan on sticking to the main tourist areas, aside from a few mosquitos and cockroaches you're not likely to encounter anything that presents much of a danger. Please be careful with stray dogs though, as they can be aggressive and many of them have rabies!!!

If you're an eco-traveller and are planning to enjoy Thailand's wilderness, please be aware there are many species of poisonous snakes, scorpions, spiders and other beasties that it would be wise to avoid!!!

My advice is check your shoes every morning to ensure you don't get a nasty surprise when you put them on!!! It is also advisable not to put your hand into any cracks or crevices as you don't know what might be lurking there!!!

9) Inappropriate behaviour - Badly behaved tourists are the bain of my life and I see examples nearly everytime I go Thailand and the list of misdemeanours includes, bad manners, drunkeness, fighting, swearing, not observing social customs and being disrespectful either by word or deed. Even those who think they are being polite and respectful can often be unaware they are being rude or causing offence.

Yes, I enjoy a drink and on occasions I have been so drunk that my good lady has had to help me home!!! But, even when I'm drunk I refrain from acting in way that might be perceived as crass or boorish. The Thais also like a drink but you will never see groups of Thais staggering bare-chested up the street singing football songs, vomiting and pissing in the gutter.

My advice is about how to behave is as follows:

- Always be polite and courteous.

- Learn a few words of Thai. Even simple things like "hello" and "thank you" will be greatly appreciated.

- Smile at everyone. You will immediately see the positive effect this can have and people will be more inclined to help you.

- Never raise your voice or swear even if the situation is causing you great consternation.

- Never get into a fight or physical altercation with a Thai, as you will come off worse. If the other person is a soldier or police officer then you will probably end up dead!!! Just walk away and don't get involved!!!

- Be respectful of local customs and traditions. Dress appropriately at places of worship and other significant cultural sites (the amount of people going into temples wearing beach clothes or other inappropriate attire astounds me), never insult the Royal family, monks or the Buddhist religion, if you do, there is a good chance you will be attacked and seriously hurt, take of your shoes when going into someones house.

A general rule of thumb to avoid any social faux-pas is to watch what the local people are doing and follow suit......

Remember you are a guest in the country and your actions will have consequences for everybody else!!!

10) Health - Thailand has it fair share of nasty tropical diseases including malaria, dengue and yellow fever!!! Although these are only really a risk if you plan to spend time in the more rural areas.

Thailand also experiences high rates of HIV, hepatitis and STD's. So beware!!!

Other common problems you may encounter include insect bites, heat rashes, food poisoning and diarrhoea.

Food hygiene levels in Thailand are generally fairly high, and it's safe to eat at street markets and to drink any water offered to you in restaurants and that goes for the ice cubes too!!!

But, I would caution against drinking tap water, even in the top hotels and stick to bottled water!!! When I'm in Thailand I will brush my teeth using the tap water but I don't drink it!!!

For minor ailments, there is a pharmacy on nearly every street corner and in the event you suffer from something more serious, the facilities and standard of care you receive in clinics and hospitals is very high.

Taking care of your health when travelling in Thailand comes down to be being careful and using your common sense.

I always ask my readers to seek medical advice before travelling and always ensure you have had the appropriate injections and taken any necessary medication.

The only other advice I can offer is to make sure you have a decent level of travel insurance.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Thailand's Toilet Terror

There has been a distinct lack of posts on Penfold's South East Asian Odyssey in the last couple of weeks....this hiatus was caused by my girlfriend and I being in Fiji. I am now stuck in Los Angeles due to volcanic activity in Iceland.....and I don't mean the crappy supermarket chain in the UK!!!!

I would like to give my readers something to chuckle about with this post on Thailand's toilet facilities

Most hotels, restaurants and other establishments in Thailand, that cater for foreign guests, will have a good old-fashioned, Western-style, "sit-down" toilet. What makes the experience of taking a dump, even more pleasurable, is that most of their toilet facilties will have a toilet hose, more commonly known as the "bum gun" or "jacksie jet", which in my humble opinion is the greatest Thai invention of all-time!!! It serves the same purpose, as a bidet in a European bathroom, and an example can be seen in the photo below!!!

But, if you're ever caught short in the Land of Smiles and you're staying outside the main tourist areas, or with a rural Thai family, then you may be faced with the dreaded "squat pan".......not quite so salubrious, eh!!!

At first glance it seems simple enough to use 1) pull your pants down 2) squat and do the business 3) clean up .

Well, if you've never used one of these traditional toilets then parts 2 and 3 might be a little bit difficult to grasp.

For me, because I'm not quite as agile as most Thais and have the balancing skills of a one-legged drunk, the squatting part can prove a little tricky!!! I must also warn you that it's imperative to pull your pants down and in a foward motion or you may end up with an unwanted deposit in your undies!!!!

The cleaning up process can also prove somewhat problematic, because, as you can see from the photo, there is no toilet paper or flush mechanism!!!!

The bucket of water next to the pan has a small bowl floating in it and this serves two purposes. Firstly, to clean your backside, which can be achieved by filling the bowl and gently splashing. Secondly, to flush away any incriminating evidence, to do this you fill the bowl and pour it in to the toilet pan, nature and gravity will do the rest!!!!

Thais are adept at using these facilties and you never see them with wet patches on their trousers or water trickling down their legs after a visit to the "hong nam". Unlike most Westerners, who come out looking like they have just entered a wet t-shirt contest!!!

The facilities themselves are not the only thing that will make your blood run cold. You will soon find out that Thai toilets are home to more wildlife than the Amazon rainforest. It is not unusual to find mosquitos, flies, lizards, frogs, snakes and did I mention the arachnids!!!!

There's nothing quite like having flies buzzing around your spinchter or a venomus spider within inches of your meat and two veg, while taking your morning constitutional!!!

The Thai toilet is obviously a source of great amusment and there are plenty of websites and blogs on the topic.......