Monthly Archives: April 2007

The Not So Groovy State Of Thai Buddhism…..

(The following article/blog was published yesterday in The Nation. Below however, is the original un-edited submission)

Monks taking to the streets protesting for Buddhism to be declared The National Religion

All very interesting and even rather amusing to see masses of monks demanding that Buddhism be adopted as the national religion. Many must have been surprised to see these supposedly-enlightened ones getting their noses stuck in politics, taking to the streets like floods of Thaksin supporters. But who knows, perhaps some of them are taking generous donations from some former disgruntled politicians hoping to create even more national turmoil.

On the other hand however, it is no darned surprise – monks have been involved in politics for donkey’s years. Take the good-old days in the countryside, respected for their worldly advice, some revered ones would knowledgably inform their followers on the best choice for village headman in the local election. Maybe the wanna-be village headman wasn’t exactly ‘flashing the cash under the table’ but you could call it ‘flashing a handsome amount in the donation box’. Of course, many a villager, believes anything coming from the mouth of their favourite robed-one, and especially some old abbot who spends his days reading the daily newspapers and drinking green tea down at the local corner-shop. Rumours are rife that local wanna-be politicians used to and perhaps still are following in the fancy footsteps of the village headman, but that’s a story for another day.

I am a little sad to see former PM Thaksin in exile as I would, with coffee in hand, always look forward to reading up on his latest scenario, and he too enjoyed using the Buddhist institution for support. Take his ripping rally at Wat Dhammakaya in Pathumthani last year, when he invited tens of thousands to take part in a wonder performance at this very controversial temple. Wise move, especially when this gaff claims to have a few hundred thousand followers. What the heck the monk committee was thinking when they allowed this political fiasco to be held in their ‘flying-saucer’ arena beats me! Or perhaps, they had come across something in some ancient scripture which no-one else had found, which reads “It is a duty of the holy one to afford a political leader the opportunity to voice his ambitions in the shadow of the The Lord Buddha”.

And thinking about Thaksin and his multi-million bucks money-making schemes, the land’s temples have been involved in reeking in wads a cash for decades. Now, one of the most classical holy ways of managing to fill ones revered bank book is the production and sales of supposedly miracle amulets. Have the monk say a prayer, spray on a bit of holy water and abracadabra gobble-me-knockers you instantly find out that a deceased relative you had never met has left you ten million in his will! Then, for any police officer or even gunman, he can visit some miracle monk and ask for an amulet so amazing that even if he is shot at point blank range, the amulet with its groovy powers will be sending the bullet back in the opposite direction. For such heavenly protection however, a nice donation of a few thousand baht to the monkly fund is deeply appreciated.

(Known for its amazing ‘get-rich-quick’ powers. The latest craze, the Jatukram amulet)

The recent sensational story of the miracle ‘get-rich-quick’ Jatukram amulet is a fine example of a highly successful holy business venture. Evolving in Nakhorn Sri Thammarat after the death of an old respected police officer aged a whopping 106, this amulet (not even Buddhist!) is being produced by the hundreds of thousands all over the country. This business conducted by temples has become so lucrative that just last week the Tax department decided to make investigations into whether or not to tax the holy producers and their billion baht industry!

Besides the production of amulets to stimulate the Buddhist economy, another great technique a lot of monks use to rake in stacks of cash is by predicting the lucky government lottery number of the fortnight. Pay a donation to some business-minded monks and hocus-pocus style with the use of some tea leaves, holy water and a magical Buddha Image they’ll be able to conjure up the winning number. Should you be successful, they’ll be expecting you back to give them part of the prize money. Some of these monks just can’t go wrong, predict a 2 digit number for 2-3 years and it’s almost guaranteed that he’s gonna fluke it once. Should the lucky number monk fluke it twice in a row, then he’s in for the jackpot after the villagers inform some national Thai language newspaper and scores of wanna-be winners arrive by the truck load from all over the country. Of course, such heavenly forecasting doesn’t come free and a donation of 20 baht from each player is much appreciated.

A lot of monks especially in rural areas really take advantage of some folks’ beliefs. While some families are poor enough as it, barely getting by, some temples are advising them to ‘give donations’ ‘make merit’ and so secure a better next-life. In fact, some folk believe monks so much that if they were told that meditating standing on their head made their skin whiter, they would do it. Let’s have a look at the folks’ belief in giving lots of alms to the monks. The people are taught that if they wish to have plenty to eat in their next life, then it is mandatory to give plenty of food to the monks in this. So, while the folk are busy dishing up steamed fish and roasted lobster for the monks, they themselves make do with a boiled egg on rice.

In fact, in the countryside many of the saffron ones don’t just eat better than the local villagers but they also earn more money. While a poor farmer has to slave away on his farm all day long for a measly one hundred baht, the local monk is getting paid two hundred for every wedding, funeral and new-house party he attends, chants and sleeps through. Actually not a bad job! After work in the morning, he is then free to sit around all day, play computer games, go window-shopping in town or read comic books, then in evening after a bout of chanting he can lay back and watch a couple of counterfeit DVD movies. Besides the absence of women, much of the monks’ daily routines aren’t really that much different from our weekend ones upcountry.

In the Thai press, it is guaranteed that there is at least one juicy story of some scandalous goings-on in one the nation’s temples each week, and last week was no exception. With evidence in the form of a handful of gory pics, it was found that a temple fair in Samut Sakhorn was the setting for some saucy striptease where the dancers whipped of their undergarments and exposed their privates. In fact, temple fairs have for ages, been putting on naughty shows of girls bopping away in three-inch skirts and see-through spaghetti tops. Made even morally worse when some of the girls are still in Junior High. The Culture Ministry throws a frenzy and the girls and event organizers get themselves in trouble. As for the head monks behind the scene however, they are let off scot-free and left to happily count the profits made.

The current state of organized religion in Thailand is pretty much in shambles and these protesting holy ones are just making it worse. What is needed, is a complete revamp from top to bottom. The education authorities have to take the first step and introduce the young to the essence of Pristine Buddhism and not say… boring tales of Buddhist legends which sends the kids to sleep. Next, monks found to be corrupt, ought to be immediately dismissed from the monkhood and brought to justice. As for temples which have been caught scamming their followers, they need to be closed down just like any old dodgy back-alley company.

“There are different kinds of monks here. Some are serious about being a monk. Others are here because they cannot do anything else. If you stay in the right temple, it can be quite a comfortable life. Good food and good money. I think most monks make about 10,000 baht a month. There are of course some bad monks. I know that the ones in the kuti next door to mine take drugs. They order the drugs by mobile phone and it is delivered to their door by motorcycle taxi in the evening. Talking about delivery. Guess what I had for lunch today? My aunt ordered pizza for me!” “Gor” Panrit

Songkran in SipSongPanNa – Day 02 Afternoon

From the official website, we are able to find this resource that give an introduction to the Asian Highway.

Asian Highway (AH) 3 will have the following route:
Ulan-Ude – Kyahta – Altanbulag – Darkhan – Ulaanbaatar – Nalayh – Choir – Saynshand – Zamin-Uud –Erenhot – Beijing – Tanggu
Shanghai – Hangzhou – Nanchang – Xiangtan – Guiyang – Kunming – Jinghong (– Daluo – Mongla – Kyaing Tong) – Mohan – Boten – Nateuy – Houayxay – Chiang Khong – Chiang Rai.

AH3 will connect to AH2 to Kuala Lumpur /Singapore via Thailand. AH3 will enable the flow of goods, people, and capitals. But it will bring along the hastening of destruction of environments, the flow dieseases (Aids, SARS, etc), and the disruption of traditional ways of life, the polution of culture, and of course vices.

9 April 2007 Afternoon Luang Namtha > Boten

Ride to border town of Boten is a breeze, with fresh air and good tarred road. The moment we reach Boten, we know we are virtually in China. Beside the Laos scripts along with Chinese scripts on the sign board and the Loatian Song Thiaw drivers, there are not much to tell that this is still Laos. Everthing things seem to be imported from China, even the construction workers. Chinese can virtually walk in and out with border pass. I guess with money, a lot of things are possible.

Road from Luang Namtha to boten

There are so much developments here for the vice industries. What is illegal in China becomes legal across the border. The same modus operandi are found in Golden Triangle (Myanmar), Poipet (Cambodia), Victoria Point (kwathong, Myanmar) for the Thais. And for the Malaysian, some cross over to Sadao in South Thailand for illegal gambling. More Casino is coming up besides the one currently in operations now. Someone pointed out to us that one area is ear-marked for red-light district.

View of Boten

The first thing to do is to get a place to stay overnight and the option we have is only one hotel that house the casino as well. The cost is 2000 bahts. The staff insist on twice the room rate as deposit payable in RMB, not USD or Credit cards. This shows how much the Chinese trust the Chinese. To save cost, we got one delux room for 5 big men. The staffs seem do not mind as long as you can live with it. I guess many people don’t need a bed as most will be on the table gambling away.

The Hotel and Casino

We have the same food for lunch and breakfast on the next day! South East Asian Chinese are more used to Southern Chinese food which are less oily and salty. We had Chinese noodle with herbal soup at 5 RMB that is the closest food that we are used to eat back home. The shop is owned by Southern Chinese from FuJian (Hokkien).

The shop operates from the morning to wee hours. The couple who own and operate the shope told us that they slept at 2:00AM and woke up again at 6:00AM. The Chinse will become an economic giant at the rate these people are going.

Eating shops selling noodle with herbal soup

For dinner, it is steam boat porridge and some fried vegetables. Dinners are noisy, smoke and toast and spit a lot without regards for others dinners who are doing the same anyway. Most customers are construction and Casino workers from 4 corners of China. This is China at it worst. So much money are wasted on drinks and in smokes. Chinese also have the bad habit of wasting food, a sign of financial capabilities?

There are 8-10 casinos (hall) within one physical building rented out to different companies who are responsible for their own Profit and Loss. We managed to change our USD for 7.5RMB to a USD which is a bit low compared with 7.6 we could get in the street in SopSongPanNa (XiShuangBanNa). Most casinos only play one type of game which is Baccarat. One player ante 120,000 RMB in one game (a 10-year salary for the Casino worker!)

Well, we chipped in 200 RMB each and get one of us to play roulette and lost all in the end. There is only one American Roulette table in the main hall.

Couldn’t cope with the smoke (and the losses), we call it a day.

Fun at the RTCG

Royal Thai Consulate General Los Angeles, much fun we had today running back and forth between the Consulate and the full-service Thai legal office across the street!

I had the full story over in my own corner which I am not going into here. But since I’ve gone through a mini hell today to get legal paperworks done at the Consulate, I think I should share my experience so any Thai wife who got married in the U.S. would know what to expect if she needs to get a new passport. Hopefully, my experience today would save you ladies some time.

Oh yeah, hubbies. This would be the time to get your wife to read Thai-Blogs. 😉

I haven’t changed my name and status in Thailand since I got married years ago. My household registry (Sammanoh kruah) and Thai ID still had me as a Miss MaidenName.

I did however had the temporary name change made on my passport which enabled me to travel with my green card.

Now, Thai government required that everyone upgrades to the ePassport. I can no longer extend the life of my beloved passport. I just pray that they’d let me keep it. For crying out lout, it’s my first ever passport with my picture as a 7-year-old on there bound to a newer current one! But I digress.

Thai ID card or actual household registry is required to issue the ePassport. My passport will have whatever name it is on that document. If I want my passport to reflect my current name, I will have to change the paperwork back home.

That leads to the legalization paperworks. I went through a lot of hassle today so you don’t have to when it’s your turn. So, if you are a Thai woman who got married in the US and needs someone to update your information for you back home, here’s a list of what you will need.

Continue reading

Finally Bangkok

My first visit to Thailand was in April of 2006. For that visit were missed most of Songkran due to other commitments, and also missed Bangkok. This time we were going to take in both.

The Gulf Air flight arrived from Hong Kong early evening. The service was poor and some of the (non-Thai) passengers were grumpy, but the flight was cheap. The new airport is huge compared to Don Muang, but it didn’t take long to get oriented, buy a Thai SIM for one of our phones, and find our way to the bottom level for the meter taxis. But wait! Travelling with a Thai means having a meal every five minutes, so before taking a taxi a trip to the food hall was required. The food hall was fine, but you have to leave your luggage outside, which made me a nervous for about ten seconds, but I figured that if someone really wanted to make off with my clothes they were welcome to them!

Eventually we caught a taxi to the Royal Hotel, which had been recommended by a friend. It was conveniently located for my purposes near the Grand Palace at the end of Rachdamnern Klang Road. Lonely Planet claims it’s the third-oldest hotel in Bangkok, which I realised was not necessarily a positive thing, but it was pleasant enough, in a slightly run down sort of way…

After a rather late night with friends I found myself setting out for a day of sightseeing by myself. My first stop was Wat Nak Prok, southwest of the river, to see some of the monks that I knew from my Wat back in Christchurch. I arranged to come back to stay for a few days at the end of my trip, so I will say a little more about the Wat in a later Blog.

After lunch at the Wat I headed off to see some of the more famous Bangkok sights.

First stop was, of course, Wat Pra Kaew and the Grand Palace. Though I’ve visited a number of Wats in Thailand and elsewhere this place is stunning. The room containing the Emerald Buddha literally took my breath away. I could have sat in the room for hours and just soaked up the peacefulness which is only mildly disturbed by the attendants attempting to educate the westerners to not sit with their feel pointing at the Buddha images.

After that it was on to Wat Pho. Again, spectacular, but a disappointing number of buildings were closed for renovation. Wandering back to the hotel I came across a cultural show in Sanam Luang park and had a pleasant stroll back to the hotel past the old canals.

That night we decided to venture out to Kao San Road, a short walk north. High concentrations of Farang don’t usually appeal to me, but I must admit that there is a certain energy there and we found some acceptable food down one of the alleys.

The next day we checked out some more sights. First up one of our friends led us to Wat Chanasonkran Ratchoworamahawiharn, which doesn’t seem to be on any of my maps, but was somewhere near Kao San Road. There are so many Wats in Bangkok that in a sense it doesn’t matter what you visit. They all have some particular appeal and there is some advantage to visiting a few less famous places where it is easier to do the more “normal” things like making an offering to the monks.

The final sight was the boat-trip across the river to Wat Arun. Like Wat Pho, a disappointing number of buildings were closed, but it certainly is spectacular. As we arrived I was approached by a group of female students who seemed to have a requirement to talk to a few foreigners to practice their English. Typical Thai questions: “What is your name? Where are you from? How old are you?”

I experienced my first case of attempted ludicrous overcharging at Wat Arun when I attempted to buy a book of postcards. Across the river these had been about 40 Baht, but the price here was initially quoted at something like 400, which quickly came down by a factor of 10 when I pointed out how much I had been charged elsewhere.

That night we headed off to Ang Thong where I’ll take up the continuation of the trip later.

Bangkok was an enjoyable and reasonably straight-forward place to visit. After reading Richard’s excellent blogs about the airport and the highlights I had no particular difficulty figuring out what to do.

Obviously there is much more to see. I spent all my time in the old, western, part of the city, and saw nothing of the modern high-rise areas in the east, except from the windows of taxis. And finally, I regret that I never ended up in one of the taxis with an “I Love Farang” sticker…

Songkran in SipSongPanNa – Day 02 Morning

The idea of traveling to China by land is an appealing adventure that I normally dreamt of embarking after seeing programs on Discovery, National Geographic or Chinese Phoenix TV channels. Although much has been written or shown or shown on TV, the information is rather limited, even on my Lonely Planet “SEA on a shoe string 2006e”. Information on Internet is quite out-dated. Now it is time to take the plunge, and my only regret is that we don’t have enough time.

Day 02 – Chiang Khong (TH) > Huay Xay (LAos) > Luang Namtha (LA) > Boten (LA)

Waking up early before breakfast buffet is read, we took a morning walk and head for the market. Markets and Temples are really the 2 common places you find Thai people congregate. We brought and ate some deliciously looking cakes or Kanom and head back to hotel for breakfast. A van picked us from the Hotel and head for Chiang Khong Immigration after we had our breakfast.

Immigration clearance is quite a breeze except that we were asked to pay 5 bahts by Thai Immigration for departure. A long tail boat took us across the Mekong for bahts each. Big luggage carried by porter will attract another x bahts per piece. Unlike my previous trip to Vientiane in Laos, Malaysian does not need Visa to visit Laos.

Chiang Khong Immigration Long Tailed Boat for River Crossing
Long tailed board arrived at Laos Laos Immigration

By the time we cleared the immigration, the van driver is already there waiting for us. We have on previous night, arranged for 5-seater van to send us to Luang Namtha. My perceived tough 9-hour trip turned out to be bearable compared to road trip in China which is more challenging.

Barely 30 minutes into Laos, I felt as though we have been transported to another world all together. Time has moved without Laos. We are “trapped in a time warp” and travel backward in time. Take for example this gas station, the meter is used in the 60-70’s, and I am seeing it operational right in front of my eyes.

Gas Pump of 70’s Made in China Fire Extinguisher

Thainess in Laos
I could converse easily with the driver and people in the gas station with Thai. The Laos could understand Thai and the driver even listen to Thai song along the whole journey.

Asia highway #3 connecting Kunming in China to Thailand expected to complete in 2006 is still under construction, with many sections still un-surfaced. Although known as Highway, it has only a single carriageway on each side and winds according to the shape of the mountain. I have not found a section that is straightened. Perhaps it all boils down to cost as building bridges to straighten the road is really costly.

Asian Highway 3

Laos being land-lock is a poor country and so are the people. You can see straw huts and other bear basic dwellings along the highway. Padi, vegetable and fruits farming can be seen throughout the journey. Water melon seems to be in season now.

It took us 5 hours to reach Luang Namtha (LNT) by car, the capital town of Namtha province, instead of 9 hours by van as posted in one Internet site. Roughly the size of Chiang Khong, LNT is very dusty, just like Vientiane. I guess if the country cannot afford good tarred road, dust will always be a problem. The bus station is just next to the market. There you can find many depilated buses, vans and cars – the newer one are mostly made in China. Economically, Laos is heavily dependent on China. Many shop owners hailed that many far-away provinces in China. Chinese are traditionally risk takers and as long as there are economic opportunities, they will go wherever the place may be.

Bus Station Made in China Vehicle

I guess Laos government is taking a “laissez faire, laissez aller, laissez passer” (let do, let go, let pass) approach to Chinese citizen. A sort of hate-love relationship – you hate them running around your house but at the same time you need their investment.

Money changer Shops run by Chinese Chinese

LNT economic is bad according to one of the shop keepers. There is no purchasing power as most people are dependant on agriculture that is not doing well. Some shoppers are comtemplating going home.

Walking around LNT is like going back to my childhood days in Penang in Malaysia, a sort of déjà vu. The Market is very dirty and muddy. Chicken kept in rattan cage waiting to be bought and slaughtered.
House flies are everywhere.

Chicken and Seller Goldsmith

What amazed me most is that I found a silver belt similar to the one that my mother used to wear in LNT – that treasure piece has been misplaced and my wife has been trying hard to locate it.

Silver belts Silver belts

Our original plan was to stay a night in LNT but since we have arrived early and there is not much to see and do, the team decided to stay a night in the border town of Boten (磨丁) after hearing that there is a better hotel and casino facilities there. Some Internet stated some fearful warning like “*DON’T* stay at the hotel/guesthouse directly diagonal from the bus station on the corner.. really convenient place for catching early morning buses yes, but they had bed bugs)”.