Thursday, August 7, 2014

"long last the nation's pride and victory..."

A few years ago, a French expat living in Chiang Rai, Thailand got upset because he was unable to purchase alcohol that evening. Elections were the next day, precipitating the ban on drinking, and he hadn't stocked up. Angry, he went home, grabbed a paint can and proceeded to black out the king's face on five different nearby pictures. Images of the king are seen all over the country on billboards, giant pictures that drape off large buildings, easels placed in front of shops, and the list goes on.

The expat was caught on tape. The license plate on his motorbike was traced and police showed up at his door a few days later. For defacing property containing the king's image is punishable by 3-15 years imprisonment. He was sentenced to the maximum charge, times five for each picture he destroyed.

Each prisoner is allowed one chance for amnesty during their sentence. The French expat sought it on his first day in jail.  It was his only chance in survival. The other prisoners would have surely killed him, as his actions are viewed as badly as a child molesters. The king, in turn, granted his freedom. He was sent to an immigration prison and shortly thereafter back to France.

The king, unlike what I had previously thought before hearing this story by another long-term expat in Chiang Rai, wasn't pompous or arrogant at all. Whether or not he promotes the splashing of his face around the country, he respects those who don't like him as much as he does those who do.

It poses the question, who initiates the public display of affection?  Who encourages the national anthems played in movie theaters just before the show starts, with images of the king's life splashed across the screen? What about the requirement to stand in silence every time the anthem is played, whether in the train station, at night markets, or any other random occurrence? Have ancient kings created the requirement, which have consequently trickled down generations and created a patriotism wherein citizens themselves insure its continuation? Or is it for tradition's sake?

Wherever the root behind Thailand's patriotism lies, being a witness of it, and a participant in its celebrations - including the highly anticipated King's birthday involving a festival of lights, will remain the most memorable aspect of the country.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

it's easy as...

"You can't go to northern Thailand without going to Pai!"

"You totally have to go to Pai."

"You're going to Pai, right?"

The amount of times I heard similar statements in my preparations to head north got so excessive that I feared Pai was being over-hyped. That is, until I arrived in the tiny, three stop light boasting, hipster town and began contributing my voice to the chorus of Pai-lovers.

What once was a tiny market town tucked away in the hills of the Mae Hong Song provence has turned into a tourist's mecca filled with free live music (which plays nightly), a wide range of unbeatable eats from cafe's and restaurants to evening markets, accommodations to fit any budget (read: $2 a night dorm bed), mountains to trek through or ride around on a rented motorbike, waterfalls to cool off in and a "chill vibe" long-term travelers come in search of. Many such-a-traveler ends up staying for indefinite periods of time.

It's as easy to get lost exploring the seemingly endless surrounding landscape as it is being sucked in to do nothing more than sit in a little cafe for hours chatting with the people seated at the table next to you.

My three-day planned trip turned into a six day stay, before I held an intervention with myself. It would have been all too likely I'd become a Pai statistic otherwise, unable to find my way out.