Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Communist Christmas: Adventures in Visa Travel

There are only five countries left in the world that subscribe to Karl Marx’s views about life, where the national religion is by definition atheism. You know about China, Cuba and North Korea. You may know that Vietnam is still Communist. The one you don’t know is the fifth and last Communist country in the world, this other country that you may have never even heard of and certainly have never thought about: Laos.

Little Laos.

That’s where I spent Christmas.

Not by choice.

One word:


Those in the travel community love to tell stories about the escapades and bureaucratic back-flips needed to acquire tourist visas in certain parts of the world. Up until I arrived in Thailand, the only story I had about visa "fun" was having to pay double as an American what Swedes pay for a Russian visa – I assumed it was just leftover bitterness from the Cold War.

Now I understand.

At least it’s good blog material...

Here’s how I ended up in Laos for Christmas:

1) If you fly into Thailand, you can stay for 30 days until you have to start playing the visa game.
2) I didn’t know beforehand that I would be here for longer than 30 days.

3) You can’t get a Thai visa IN Thailand. Yeah, I’m glad you think that’s funny.

4) To Cambodia for the day, but the border extensions are only for 15 days, a law two weeks old and still not posted on appropriate websites. No help whatsoever, and a day wasted.

5) The Thai Embassy in Laos gives 60-day visas. Where? Laos. What’s that? It’s a country between Thailand and Vietnam. Really? I had no idea.

6) I had to get there before December 23rd or start paying day-by-day to be in Thailand.

7) Despite two blank pages in my passport, and after a two hour wait in line at the Thai Embassy in Laos, and after an overnight train ride and hotel booking just to get there, I was told I needed more pages in my passport. Visa denied.

8) US Embassy to the rescue – 20 minutes in and out. God Bless America.

9) But, I had to stay an extra day in Laos due to my visa page problem. That day was Christmas Day. Laos is a Communist country. It’s all such an adventure full of irony and, hopefully, entertainment if all you have to do is read about it.

10)Since you have to turn over your passport for the one-day processing, I was officially without a passport in a Communist country…on Christmas.

Paige and I made the most of our unexpected first Christmas together – and we’re already able to look back and laugh at our (mis) adventures, and the stories we can tell, about forced visa travel.

I can hardly wait to see what New Year’s holds.

Happy New Year to you from the Tuk-Tuk Talker.

See you back here in Thailand in 2009!

Pictures above:
1. The Lao and Communist flags fly in unison throughout most of the country.
2. The visa game line at the Thai Embassy in Ventiane, the capital city of Laos. Don't miss the Laos version of the Tuk-Tuk!
3. In between twice-daily embassy runs, Paige and I squeezed in some sightseeing at this famous landmark in Ventiane, the Patouxay, or Laos' Arc d' Triomphe, since Laos is a former French colony.
4. An impressively festive Christmas display in front of the main hotel in Ventiane.
5. The beautiful fountain in Old European Square, the center of town.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Christmas in Thailand

Part of the deal in making a spontaneous move to Thailand in November is sacrificing being home for the holidays. For me this is the second year in-a-row away from the west coast of the U.S. for Christmas and, for the second year in-a-row, I give a big blog shout out to my mother and family for their support of my travels and commitments. Skype is the most favorite present this time of year.

Culturally, Thailand is a Buddhist nation. 99% of people are Buddhist, whether they are a monk or non-practicing. What kind of place does Christmas have in a country such as this? Well…

Thailand is also the most free, least corrupted, non-communist, commercial and globalized country of the Burma-Thailand-Cambodia-Laos-Vietnam region of SE Asia. Most Thai people have a curiosity and fascination for the West, and particularly America, that welcomes culturally American lifestyles and preferences. Commercially, Thailand is the most capitalist of this immediate region and, I think you can see where this is going…

Aside from the beautifully devout churches of Thailand that are celebrating the meaning of the season, Christmas in Thailand means everything that Christmas in America means: Buy, buy, buy, spend, spend, spend! It’s the most wonderful time of the year for commercialization.

In the West, the meaning of Christmas and modern Christmas commercialization morph into one. A Christmas tree is found next to a nativity scene and we celebrate the divine birth in a manger by running up credit cards. Even this irony is lost in the busyness of the season. Culture and religion intermingle, uncomfortably for many.

In Thailand, however, it’s just unapologetic commercialization. That big and beautifully decorated tree in front of the department store? No real or deeper meaning at all – it means “This is the time of year where we must shop a little more.” All those beautiful Christmas lights? They’re all connected to commerce. Traditional Christmas songs are only overheard when you’re in the mall.

The considerations and commentaries surrounding culture, religion, globalization, travel, spirituality and economics are far too expansive to wrestle with here, but experiencing Christmas through the eyes of a non-culturally Christian, but still-capitalist, worldview has been fascinating.

Give a creative gift, cherish the time with your family, celebrate the meaning of the season.

Merry Christmas from Thailand.
Pictures above:
1. The biggest Christmas tree I have ever seen, in a Bangkok mall.
2. The celebration of Christmas among the Christian believers in a Buddhist nation is inspiring to watch.
3. High schoolers caroling at a street market in Lampang about an hour outside of Chiang Mai in Thailand's north. Paige's work brings her all over Thailand.
4. Anna, one of Paige's students, gets a bit lost in the Christmas decorations.
5. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you and yours from Paige and Sean (as close to a Christmas card as you'll see from me this year).

Monday, December 15, 2008

Kingly Love

If anyone coming to Thailand does even the most basic cultural research prior to arrival, the first thing all the books say is “don’t say anything bad about the King!”

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who took the throne in 1946, is accorded an almost divine reverence, with titles such as Phra Chao Yu Hua (Lord Upon our Heads) or Chao Chiwit (Lord of Life). Holding very little actual political power by the Thai Constitution, the Thai people look upon their king as a spiritual father figure and, particularly as the King grows older, celebrate him in every possible way.

The punishment for speaking badly about the king is up to seven years in prison, foreigners included!

All images of the King, of which there are many of the King, Queen and Royal Family throughout the country (notice all my capital letters, just in case!) are to be respected and honored by everyone.

The anthem to the King is played over loudspeakers throughout the cities of Thailand and precisely 8:00am and 6:00pm every day, effectively bringing all bustling streets and busy markets to a halt. If you hear it, you must stand and be respectful, similar to hearing the National Anthem in the United States (and other countries). If you go to a movie in Thailand, there is a tribute to the King before the movie starts, for which all are expected to stand.

Politically, the King does have some power stemming from sheer respect and a shrewd discretionary use of his revered authority. This King has been on the throne through 17 (!) military coups and 26 different prime ministers, but the love of the King among the Thai people comes from his affectionate relationship with the people.

One of his first acts as King was a visit to the rural lands of Thailand and help them turn from growing opium to growing rice. His pursuits of sailing and accomplishments as a jazz musician and composer are admired and December 5th is the King’s birthday, officially Father’s Day throughout Thailand. Yellow is the Kingly color, worn and celebrated often, though the recent political demonstrations usurped the King’s color for their cause, leaving yellow-loving Thais a bit perplexed as to whether or not to wear yellow during this current political season.

Through the eyes of a foreigner, Thai love for their King is refreshing, despite the offense to freedom of speech, which is so valuable in any democracy. After 17 coups in 60 years, is it any wonder that the Thai people’s lack of trust in their government creates a much-needed bond between King and people? Given the continual political unrest and lack of stability with all Thai governmental authority, having a King and Royal Family in which they can trust has no doubt provided a much needed foundation in the Thai quest to create a trustworthy system of government.

As the King ages – he had to cancel his annual speech to the nation on his birthday last week –, Thais know their King won’t always be with them, so their affection soars for this King who has shown such care for his people for over 60 years. Given the history of Kingly abuse of power and authority worldwide, King Bhumibol Adulyadej is one who we can all agree should be celebrated by stopping and standing up at 8:00am and 6:00pm every day.
Pictures above:
1. - 4. Pictures and images throughout the country of the King of Thailand.
5. Sean eats a creepy-crawly at a Thai market....

Monday, December 8, 2008

Got a Gripe? Seize Your Local Airport: Thai Politics 101

I’d rather not use the second ride on the Tuk-Tuk Talker to share impromptu soundings about the state of Thailand’s political scene, but when something happens that headlines worldwide news for over a week, my credibility with my readers would be rightly questioned if acknowledgment was overlooked. So here we go.

By most counts, Thailand is still a developing nation and the political instability reflects this. Hovering somewhere between first and second in the socio-economic-political world, the democratic landscape throughout SE Asia is often volatile, occasionally violent and always interesting. Thailand, a constitutional monarchy (essentially “there is a King who answers to a constitution, so no official power”), has a governmental system which is seemingly much more trustworthy than its neighbors, but 40 years of democratically-elected officials has been marked by periods of military rule, numerous declarations of martial law and some violent episodes indicates that there is still a long way to go in the actual application of democratic principles and practice.

This latest incident actually started back in 2006 when the military seized the Parliament while the then-Prime Minister was away at a summit in Peru. Elections were held and a political party closely tied with the ousted party won in a corruption-filled election. Opposition parties gained strength and four months ago seized Parliament and staged a sit-in that last four months until they upped the anti and took over the airport for one week until the courts ruled that the current coalition party had won the election by fraud and disbanded the party.

The good news is that, for the most part, these protests were non-violent, but the violence was increasing and there was one fatality last week and injuries were multiplying, as well. The bad news is that Thailand has no leadership. This hasn’t changed and won’t be changing any time soon. As usual with these circumstances, it’s the less well-off, poor people who get hurt when the economy takes a beating from the seized airport and more privileged individuals and parties are dueling for power.

Who’s in charge now? Who will lead Thailand politically and economically into the Asian-centered global future? Will the hard-working Thai middle and lower classes (most people work six days-per-week just to make ends meet) ever have a chance to help themselves in any significant way? Just some of the questions in the wake of yet another season of political turmoil in Thailand.

That wasn’t much fun. Come back for a ride in a tuk-tuk next week for more about this enjoyable, and politically “exciting” country.
Pictures above:
1. The People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) seizes their local airport for one week.
2. The Pro-Government protestors rally in response to the PAD airport hyjinx.
3. Thailand's flag: "Thailand" means "free lands."
4. A picture from a downtown scene with the king, the flag and a temple.
5. Sean and Paige with our plastic bags of Thai Iced Tea.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Talkin' Tuk-Tuks

New York has the taxi.

London has the black “cab.”

The Venetians have their gondolas.

In Amsterdam, find yourself a bicycle.

Need to get around India? Take a rickshaw.

And when you come to Thailand, you have many options, but none are as fun as the tuk-tuk.

What the Tuk?

Welcome to Thailand, and the first entry of the Tuk-Tuk Talker.

I’m an American who was living a fairly normal American life then accidentally ended up in Sweden for a couple years, then even more accidentally ended up in Thailand for at least a few months – maybe longer. Stick around and find out.

When you’re following your heart and attempting to live life by watching for signs in the road that say “This way, please,” trusting that “this way” is indeed a good direction is the only obstacle between you and great adventures that are better than anything you could have imagined for yourself. And the people you meet along the way make for an extra special part of the journey.

This blog seeks to chronicle this “sign-trusting” adventure, share about those people along the way and otherwise provide some helpful commentary to travel, culture and other elements that make life more meaningful. And if the Tuk-Tuk Talker is simply a good procrastination tool for you once-per-week, then it’s all worth it for me. Thanks for browsing to the Tuk-Tuk Talker.

I love the U.S.A.

I will always remember fondly my Swedish sojourn and my Swedish friends.

But now I’m in Thailand. And looking forward to sharing the experience.

For an appropriate beginning there are two introductions that need to be made:

Located in the heart of South East Asia with neighbors Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Malaysia in the south, Thailand is usually the first stop on any South East Asian excursion. With Bangkok as its capital and Chiang Mai as a beloved northern city, Thailand’s 60 million people are as warm as the climate and make for a country that draws millions of tourists every year. Hospitality of people, natural beauty from coastline to jungles to mountains, rich and colorful culture and food that is world renowned make Thailand a great place to visit and a greater place to live.

However, these are not the reasons I am in Thailand.

I met Paige this summer and just a few short months later, I am living in Thailand. This quintessential Southern California girl followed the signs in the road which surprisingly pointed to Thailand and now she has lived and worked in Bangkok and the surrounding region for over two years giving of herself in admirable ways to a community of people that have embraced her. It’s a privilege to be here and complement her in any way I can. You will undoubtedly get to know Paige if you continue talkin’ tuk-tuks with me.

Thanks for checking out the Tuk-Tuk Talker.

See you next week from Thailand.