Bangkok Bulletin 2009: Working at the UN

In 2009, I worked for three months at the UN International Labour Organisation (Asia) based in Bangkok. It was a Volunteer Assignment, with a per diem allowance funded by Australian Business Volunteers, in collaboration with National Disability Services (my part-time employer in Oz). The aim of the project was to establish partnerships between skilled Australian volunteers and Australian disability service providers, with ILO disability programs in the Asia/Pacific region.

With its mantra of “decent work for everyone” the ILO’s mission is to work with governments in the region to foster employment and income-generation opportunities for people in developing countries. Due to stigma and discrimination, people with disabilities are the poorest of the poor in these countries and rarely gain assistance from governments or NGOs. A 3-month volunteer assignment was not likely to achieve much more than scratch the surface in awareness-raising – or possibly establish a couple of small community-based projects. But the ILO Disability Expert (based in Geneva) wanted to try to achieve something.

Bangkok 13 February 2009
(not long after the pro-democracy rallies began in Thailand)

Travelled comfortably and arrived safely.   Suvarnbhumi (the new airport) was all glitz and efficiency …. not a yellow T-shirt or protest banner anywhere, though it must have been quite a show here recently when the whole airport was shut down by political protesters.   Flight BA10’s load of passengers seemed to move through fairly quickly on Tuesday night, and my cab got me into downtown Bangkok somewhere around midnight. Stayed the first night at the Ambassador Hotel in Sukhumvit and met Andrew, the ABV rep in Bangkok, next morning for breakfast.   After the orientation chat, we set off to the apartment he’d found for me – very close to the UN Building where I’ve since started work. The apartment’s quite large and square – basically an L-shaped bedroom / sitting room and a kitchen and bathroom in the other bit.   There’s a lovely polished mahogany floor and masses of cupboards …my stuff fills about 1/10 of them.  I also have an array of 12 light switches which operate an amazing network of lights over the bed, the table, the TV, each and every cupboard and the little balcony – in addition to the separate kitchen and bathroom lights!   Of course I still don’t have the faintest idea which turns on what so there’s usually a mini son et lumiere display every time I want to light up a particular area ….  I’m on the 6th floor and look out onto other apartment buildings, clothes lines, mildewed walls and greenery and a patch of cement down below where the local lads play soccer and volley ball.    I can also see the huge golden dome of the Golden Mount temple nearby. 

Golden Mount Temple from my balcony

  I’ve had 3 days at work so far … most of which were taken up with getting a security pass, being logged on to the computer system, getting the phone set up etc …. all the usual bureaucratic stuff of working in a very large office complex.   The UN building is huge with about 4 separate wings and up to 15 floors in a couple of them.  My office is on 10th, a bit separate from the rest of my ‘team’ who reside on the 11th.

There’s enough furniture to be comfortable (bed, table, chairs, fridge, microwave and small sofa) but no kitchen utensils or other odds and ends provided.    However, Ray (from the office) has lent me an electric kettle, and I’ve made trips to the local 7-11 store on the corner, and the market down the road, so am now equipped with  plastic plates, a couple of mugs, knife, spoon and a small frying pan.   I’ve remembered that there’s really no need to cook when you live in this city … there are dozens of little food stalls out in the streets below, where I can eat well for about $1.50.   There’s also a Thai-style coffee shop across the road that makes a semi-reasonable cappuccino.   And the UN Building where I’m working has an excellent cafeteria that serves a vast array of very reasonably priced food at lunchtime, as well as other coffee lounges and shops.  There’s even a tea/coffee/snack room where the Thai tea-ladies look after the ILO staff. 

There are two libraries in the building with millions of UN journals and publications … and there seem to be annual reports, research documents, brochures, posters etc everywhere.  (A cynic could easily come to the conclusion that all the UN does is to churn out paper …)

Courtyard, UN Building

Other facilities in the building include a bank, ATMs, travel agent, medical centre, post office and souvenir shop.  I’ve already bought a UN mug for my morning coffee.  And of course there are fantastic conference halls, meeting rooms and lobbies where high-level speeches and international decisions get made.  It’s all very plush with lots of flags and flowers, and it still looks like state of the art architecture even though the building is more than 30 years old.   

I can’t say the ILO staff have been particularly friendly and chatty, but I did meet the Regional Director (Japanese) on my first morning and have caught up with Ray (Australian) a couple of times – he seems to be very vaguely my supervisor.   In reality, I think there’s a bit of a view that I’m the disability ‘expert’ and I should just get on with things ..   so we’ll see how things go over the next couple of weeks.   I have a 3-day Asia Pacific CBR Conference (Community Based Rehabilitation) to attend next week where I’ll catch up with lots of colleagues and friends from the disability and development sectors, Thai and others.   I’ve already seen Pik (my Thai friend who I’ve worked with over the past 6 years or so) and she’s spread the word that Mar-gar-et is back in town.   After the Conference we’re going down to a beach near Pattaya for a weekend camp with the families and kids with disabilities who I met on my first assignment in Thailand during 2002-2004.  From all I’ve heard there’ve been huge developments in the Parents Groups since our initial work here, so I can’t wait to see them all and hear what’s been happening – with Pik’s help as interpreter of course. 

Debra, my colleague from ILO HQ in Geneva, is coming to Bangkok in early March.  She was here for 8 years working for the right to decent work for people with disabilities in the Asia Pacific region.  The aim of my project over these 3 months is to take this forward by establishing stronger links with Australian disability service providers and Australian Business Volunteers.   With the needs in the region so huge, the surface has barely been scratched, but every step along the way is worthwhile and I’m feeling positive.    Debra and I are planning to go to Cambodia for a few days to set up at least one pilot partnership project there.  

On Golden Mount

Apart from the first days at work, I’ve managed to get out and explore a bit of the local neighbourhood.  Went for an early morning walk during the week and stumbled upon the really lovely Golden Mount wat, quite close to here.  It’s a highly revered temple and monastery because the remains of Buddha were apparently brought here in the late 1800’s, and they’re now protected somewhere high up by the monks.   It was especially peaceful and beautiful in the early hours of the morning with no tourists around – just a few gardeners quietly swishing the leaves on the paths and a chorus of birds in the tropical greenery.   I’d love to share these special sights with everyone.

Yesterday (Saturday) I ventured into the city. This trip involved taxis, mega traffic jams and the Sky Train.   I found my way to the Neilson Hayes Library, next door to the British Club, to borrow some books in English.  This lovely old Library was established by one of the British wives in the early days. All the books are stored in glass-fronted wooden cases. You open the glass doors to take out your selections and then take your books to the counter where they’re stamped in the way things used to be done in the days before computer systems. 

Then it was back on the Sky Train to Siam Square to have a look around this massive shopping complex and have a real caffe latte (yes, Starbucks) …  and then I went to the movies to get out of the heat and the crowds.  Saw “The Reader” –  true to the book and very good.  Couldn’t help wondering what the Thais thought of all the nudity and sex, but it was Valentines Day, I guess…   
V Day seems to be BIG in Bangkok ….  red roses everywhere, a kind of love-song “rock” concert happening in the Square and thousands of cute Thai dolly-birds in trendy gear strolling around hand-in-hand with their just as cute boyfriends.   The clothes here are amazing – both the quality and quantity – as long as you’re a size 8.   Other stuff in the shops is stunning too … really superb designer homewares, electronics, arts and crafts.  Luckily I’ve never been much of a shopaholic, but it was fun to look. 

Today (Sunday) I went for another early morning walk beyond the UN Building and past all the big government buildings and palaces in this part of the city.  Ratchadamnern Nok is a wide, tree-lined boulevard – something like the Champs Elysees without Parisian restaurants and coffee shops.   It does have the “Best in Town” Thai boxing stadium though …  

I’d heard from Pik that there was some kind of demonstration outside one of the government buildings here during the week, and today I spotted a discarded banner emblazoned  “WE REQUEST LIBERTY AND JUSTICE” …. No demands here, just requests!   A typically Thai way to seek some basic human rights, I thought.  

I was also amused to see the offerings to the gods on the platform of the fairly large Spirit House inside the gates of the military establishment.  It seems the army gods must enjoy a drop of Fanta now and then … there were about 4 bottles (with straws) sitting there amongst the rice cakes and fruit.  

BANGKOK 2: Sunday 22 February

Today turned into a slow, indulgent day after a busy, enjoyable and worthwhile week.   Housework, washing, letter-writing, reading and doing a report or two seemed to be the order of the day.   Breakfast consisted of little doughy cakes filled with some sort of taro and fruit, and a delicious sticky coconut treat wrapped in coconut palm fronds and baked over a little charcoal burner.  I bought these yesterday ….more about that later….

My work at the ILO is now starting to become more structured with lots of emails flowing between Debra in Geneva, various colleagues in Australia, the ILO sub-regions in Cambodia, Fiji and Mongolia – all focused on setting up meetings and/or planning the next steps towards getting some Australian disability service providers linked up in these regions.  

Community Based Rehabilitation Conference

Also 3 days of the past week were spent at the Community Based Rehabilitation (CBR) Conference here in Bangkok.   This was a huge event, with over 600 delegates from all parts of Asia and beyond, and a very full program of presentations on many topics related to CBR.   CBR is all about alleviating poverty through action at the local level, and involves a matrix of self-help groups and disabled people’s organisations, local and national government authorities, national and international service-providers and researchers.   Based on the needs of people with disabilities, it addresses health, education, livelihood and empowerment objectives. 

For me, the Conference was a great opportunity to catch up with many Thai and Cambodian friends and colleagues in the government and non-government sectors, as well as the 10 or so other Australians who were here, plus many other new people and useful contacts.  It was held at the Prince Palace Hotel, a gigantic place of several towers with up to 25 floors in some of them.   It’s tucked away in a square in the middle of the local wholesale clothing market – and a big fruit market nearby – so it’s bedlam outside and, of course, 5 star luxury inside.  We had great lunches each day! 

 Apart from my actual work in the UN building, I’ve also managed to join a French class.   Courses in several languages are offered to staff, and I fossicked around until I found out how to get involved.  There are 2 lessons of 90 minutes each per week, plus homework – and the teacher speaks French throughout.  Great practice!  I’m in a small group of mixed nationalities, all much at the same level as me (quite low!).   But it’s good to have this extra interest – and with a bit of luck I’ll learn a new word or two, and a bit of grammar over the next few weeks.  (Too bad they don’t teach guitar).

Pik, Varunee and Ar

One evening earlier in the week (Tuesday I think?), a couple of other Australian women and I were invited out to dinner with Pik, my Thai colleague, and 3 of my friends from the government here (Varunee, Achara and Ar, whom I’ve met during previous work in Thailand.).  We went to a rather swish place right on the river near the Grand Palace – actually sat on a deck that jutted out over the river.  The Thai people are so incredibly kind and generous, and lots of fun as well. Always lovely to be with them.

And yesterday I re-met an absolutely amazing young Thai woman, Mae Nok.  She’s the mother of a severely disabled little boy, Look Hin, now aged 8.  Mae Nok is a tiny person with a huge vision and she’s achieved some truly inspiring outcomes for families of children with disabilities since we first met back in 2002.   She told me it was on 17th September 2002 when I first went to FCD (Foundation for Children with Disabilities)– and I spoke to the parents group about respite.   She also told me that this inspired her in her dream of creating respite and support services for all families of children with disabilities in Thailand …  (it’s things like this make my work here so worthwhile and so very humbling.).   And it’s clear that Nok is well on the way to achieving her goals.   

With Mae Nok at the camp at Pattaya
(Mae Nok is tiny)

Yesterday I visited one of her Parents’ Groups activities – a weekend camp at a beach somewhere south of Pattaya.  There were about 10 families there with kids with a range of disabilities and their siblings, plus cooks, workshop facilitators, driver and other supporters – and Pik and me.  I couldn’t understand much of the workshop stuff but the friendships, self-confidence, fun and learning was abundantly clear.  It’s hard to describe the extent of what’s been achieved in the past 6 years, but Nok now has a special learning centre set up at her own home, a “family-buddy” system of respite care established, government funding for the activity program, handbooks published for new parents and a small growing ‘web’ of parents’ self-help groups being formed.  She’s also been on TV, radio and in magazines to promote the special needs of families with children with disabilities.   This is quite an outstanding range of achievements in Thailand – and has all grown from the initial work that CARA did in our 2 year program with FCD with a small AusAID grant in 2002-03.   I haven’t had a chance to visit another separate Parents’ Group that’s been established by one of the other original FCD mothers – but it sounds as if it’s equally active, and the self-esteem and skill of parents of children with disabilities is growing in Bangkok.  

Nok has plans to develop a centre-based respite service one day, also get funds somehow to buy an accessible vehicle to take children in wheelchairs on mobile respite outings.  She remembers absolutely everything about CARA’s services and learning how the Spastic Centre in South Australia originally grew out of parent activism about 60 years ago.  I have total confidence that this will happen in a much shorter time in Thailand with the combined efforts of dedicated people like Nok, her family and the other families she’s making part of her world, plus the support of social workers like Pik and the commitment of the Thai government authorities.  

Apart from just being blown away by really seeing what’s happened over the past 6-7 years, I enjoyed the fun of the day with the group.  It was a 3-hour trip down there from Bangkok.  I was very kindly picked up at 6.30am by another young social worker, who I learnt later had made the trip specially to take me and could only stay for the morning herself…. I felt quite embarrassed, but this is so typical of Thai generosity.   

Kids and parents at camp

After breakfast on the beach, then watching the activity workshops, we all had lunch on mats on the floor and I just let the general noise and laughter, brothers and sisters running around playing etc wash over me …. it was a totally Thai experience, but “Ba Mar-gar-et” was obviously just part of the group, so I tried to do whatever everyone else was doing.  Pik was around to translate when absolutely necessary.   When the workshops were over, we all set off on the bus together back towards Pattaya making a stop along the way at Underwater World.   This turned out to be a first-class attraction with underwater walkways where you experience sharks, stingrays, turtles and millions of fish up close and personal.   I haven’t been to the Sydney Aquarium but I reckon Pattaya must be on par with it.   Was interesting going out with a group with about 10 kids in wheelchairs … not a common sight in Thailand.  

We then had another stop for dinner (yet more incredible Thai food) – this time at a lovely restaurant on covered wooden decking right on the beach overlooking a big bay.    The bus took us back to Nok’s home where everyone piled out with wheelchairs and all the paraphernalia of a weekend camp.  It’s incredible how they manage with kids and all their luggage, including some who need suction equipment, gastrostomy feeding gear etc. 

Pik and I continued on with the bus nearer into the city, then got taxis home – arrived about 10.30pm.   A big day! 

BANGKOK 3: Saturday 28 February

It’s now Week 3 and once again, so much to write.  Easiest to work backwards, so I’ll start with last night.  

The ILO Birthday Party
Peacock Dancers at the Annual Party

Friday 27th Feb was the ILO Annual Office Party.  Held at the Siam City Hotel, it turned out to be a really fun night with a sumptuous buffet dinner, entertainment and party games(!) – and most people came decked out in something green.   The ILO has a “Go Green” campaign happening – green jobs etc – so this was the theme for the night.   There are a couple of other Aussies working amongst the 200 or so staff of the ILO – Ray, who’s kind of my supervisor, and Rod, who’s new like me and very much on the same wave length about the cumbersome nature of the bureaucracy within the organisation … though we’re trying not to be too cynical yet.     Rod’s wife, Rose, also came so we had some good laughs together at the fun and games arranged by the ILO (Thai) Social Committee..  We “passed the watermelon”, played musical chairs & leaped on to gentlemen’s laps when the music stopped, clapped along with the Pom Pom Cheer Leaders and enjoyed the various magic shows, singing duos, Thai peacock dance etc  …all this to loud 70’s disco music!   The whole evening was over by about 9.30pm, as seems to be the custom here.  Start early, finish early.  Glad I went.

During the week I had to find something green in preparation for the party, so headed out to Pratunam after work on Tues night – a huge, bustling, crowded shopping complex and street market.  Browsed the street stalls and some of the thousands of little shops inside the 6-storey mall, but ended up wandering across the road to the up-market tailors at the Amari Hotel.   Pratunam market just doesn’t cater for size 16’s …    Anyway it was pretty easy to arrange to get a simple green silk top made – which cost about $40, an exorbitant price compared with the shops and stalls, but I was happy.   I had to go back the next night to pick it up so made the most of ‘window-shopping’ in the funkier levels of the shopping mall where they have fantastic shoes, bags, jewellery and other accessories.   It’s a shopping paradise, this city – and the Pratunam complex is just one of dozens similar. 

The Pratunam mall also has a huge – and exceptionally good – food hall with a great array of different Asian cuisines.  I had dinner there the second night and just enjoyed watching the crowd.

My apartment’s quite a distance from the sky-train or the metro, so I depend on taxis to get everywhere.  Most expensive trip to date has been about $5 so it’s no problem.  I can now say where I live (Nang Leung), but just to be on the safe side, always show  the driver a bit of paper with Nang Leung Police Station written on it in Thai – they all know this landmark, and it’s just around the corner from my place.   Going anywhere else is always fun … I usually try to get someone in the office to write the destination in Thai for me so I can show the driver.   My sense of direction has gone right down the tube in Bangkok – impossible to follow the map and I never have a clue which way I’m going, but somehow I always get exactly to the right place …   I think the drivers take different routes to avoid the worst of the traffic whenever possible, so I just sit back in air conditioned comfort, stay patient and trust to luck. It seems to work.   

One mega frustration this week  – but quite an experience all the same. I had to go to the Immigration Office miles away to get a re-entry visa for my trip to Cambodia next week.  The Thai embassy in Canberra only issues single entry visas, so if you want to leave the country and come back in you have to get a separate visa.  Apparently it’s quite a standard operation for interns and others not on the permanent staff of the ILO – you get a letter from HR saying what you need, then head on down to Immigration, fill in your application, pay your money and get your passport stamped.  Sounds easy – and it would be if there weren’t 5000 other people there at the same time.   There’s a numbered ticket system for each counter so at least you get served in turn, but there are massive delays between lodging your application, getting to the counter to pay your money, waiting for the application to be processed, and then actually picking up your passport again.  For me, apart from initially being given a number for the wrong counter, and consequently enduring an unnecessary 2-hour wait, I finally got almost  to the end of the process when the Immigration officers decided to go to lunch!!!  I could actually see my passport sitting on a desk, but had to wait while they ate their little lunch packs and wandered aimlessly around behind the glass screens ……   Eeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!

Anyway, I now have a re-entry visa, so I can get back to Thailand.  Next step is getting a Cambodian visa to get into Phnom Penh!  I’ll tackle that next week.  Debra and I fly to Cambodia on Thursday 5th and I’m staying over until Monday 8th.   We each have a fairly full schedule of meetings but I’m really looking forward to it.

Things are starting to come together with my work. There’s still plenty on the drawing board and just over 2 months to go, but I’m still optimistic about getting some results.   I seem to discover useful bits of information each day so am gradually putting what seems like pieces of a jigsaw together.  As mentioned earlier, the ILO (and all the UN) is a huge bureaucracy and it seems that all management and administration systems could do with a bit of quality re-engineering – some challenge!   Really all you can do is go with the very complex flow and try to find the bits you need and ask lots of questions. 

French classes continue too.  Tres difficile pour moi, mais j’essaie … 

So, now I’ve just returned from Saturday night dinner at the Royal Princess Hotel.  It’s a 15 minute walk from my place, down some pretty ordinary back streets, but I’ve wandered along there a couple of times when I’ve felt like a change from Thai food.  It’s actually a very interesting stroll because people spill out of their houses and little shops onto the footpath with their plastic stools, dinner tables and even TV sets in the evening, and you can get a really good look at everyday (or night) life in the small streets of suburban Bangkok.  This isn’t a part where tourists go, but I always feel perfectly safe.  There are kids and grandmas, old men and young spunks, all kinds of vendors, motor bikes, cats & dogs, rubbish in the street … and it all feels good. 

BANGKOK 4: Working in Cambodia March 9

Le Royal hotel, Phnom Penh

I’m writing this at a lovely wooden desk in my elegant room at the gracious, luxurious French colonial-style Le Royal hotel in Phnom Penh.  My room has a little balcony that overlooks the superb swimming pool – surrounded by frangipanis, palms and other lush tropical greenery.  The pool is actually divided by a wide covered tiled walkway that joins the wing that Debra and I are staying in to the main lobby, lounge, bars and exclusive shops.   It is a really lovely old hotel – probably the best I’ve ever stayed in – and dates from the 1920’s when the French reigned supreme in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.  It was extensively refurbished in the 1990’s … I remember having a drink here when I was in Cambodia 10 years ago but never imagined I’d have the opportunity to stay here.  It’s more expensive than the travelling allowance I’m being paid by the ILO but well worth it for the experience.   Debra’s a few years younger than I am but travels extensively in the course of her work, so she decided a while ago that comfort and efficiency were essential when you were on the road doing this kind of work.  Needless to say I didn’t need much persuading!   Maybe my days of budget travel and backpacker hostels are over??  Anyone could get very used to this kind of luxury and pleasure …

Wat Phnom, Phnom Penh
Street scene, Phnom Penh

We flew to Phnom Penh on Thursday morning and started back-to-back meetings almost immediately.  This continued all day Friday – quite exhausting but very productive.  Fortunately the local ILO office had arranged a car and a driver, so we were driven to each meeting place without having to cope with taxis, address locations etc.  I haven’t had a chance to see much of the city except what I can snatch out of the car window as we weave through the chaotic traffic ….  but I am utterly amazed at the development that’s happened since I was last here in 2001.  From what was almost a wild west town back in 1999 on my first trip, it’s been transformed into a charming city of wide, tree-lined boulevards, bitumen roads (no more pot holes and dirt streets!), tall buildings, modern shops and restaurants and a lovely river frontage of parks and gardens.  There are street lights and traffic lights and thousands of cars!  Back in 1999 it was mostly motor-bikes and international aid agency vehicles, barbed wire on fences, soldiers with machine guns on street corners, guards outside locked gates, rubbish in the streets and general chaos.   From what I’ve been able to see so far, it’s a place that I could be very comfortable working in … lovely people, lots to do, a vibrant lifestyle and of course, still much work to be done to eradicate poverty and disadvantage.  There’s plenty of money being invested in the country with huge construction sites everywhere, new factories, palatial houses and so on … but much of the wealth still probably flows back to China, Japan, Korea and the other big Asian investors … as well as into the pockets of the high officials in the Cambodian government.  Everyone’s predicting that the financial crisis will have a major impact here … but the rich will survive regardless.

As far as our work goes, I have at least 4 potential disability employment projects lined up for Australian Business Volunteers and will be meeting with the ABV rep on Tuesday to discuss these.   Debra’s following up other ILO activities too.  It’s a complex environment to work in, having to liaise with government Ministries, international and local NGOs, aid agencies, private developers and disability organisations.  Development has been extremely slow in the disability sector – and the Ministry of Social Affairs doesn’t seem to have changed much since I worked there 10 years ago!   Things get started, funding runs out, people leave, and the capacity of the local people is still quite low.   I’ve found that all my background experience in Cambodia has been invaluable for the current assignment. It’s also been great meeting some of the people
I worked with way back then.

Debra and I are having a slightly more relaxed time over the weekend, though we’ve both also done bits of work via meetings and email.  I went out yesterday morning with a Cambodian colleague I first met in 1999. I’ve run into him since at conferences in Canberra and Bangkok, so asked if I could see the work he’s doing here in an agency working with children with intellectual disability and their families.  He took me to a Parents group meeting to talk with 5 Cambodian mothers of disabled children.  I learnt a little about their activities and their hopes for the future.  They have extremely limited resources and are very shy people so communication was slow (Chetra had to interpret of course), but I’m going to try to coordinate some links for them with the Thai Parents Groups and/or a couple of agencies back in Australia.  They’re trying to provide some limited day care activities for children aged between 5 and 15, with some simple workshop training for the older ones – printing T-shirts and making handicrafts.  It’s all very basic at this stage, and a bit hard for me to assess how far it’s all developed, but I do know the Australian woman who’s worked long and hard with them over the past 10 years or more (I lived under her house in Phnom Penh when I was working with the Ministry in 1999).  

Last night Debra took her Cambodian friends, and me, out to dinner at a Khmer restaurant of their choice.  One of the guests was a charming old man who I also worked with when I did a consultancy job for Debra in 2001.  Mr Khola is now 70 years old and it was a thrill to catch up with him.   There just happened to be an article about him in the local English newspaper here yesterday because when he’d returned to Phnom Penh after the Khmer Rouge time, he’d found some old photos of Pol Pot and Chinese officials.  He’d kept them for over 30 years thinking they would be important one day – and now that the trial of the Khmer Rouge leaders is happening here, he has just presented the photos to the Cambodian Documentation Centre.  They are going to be used as evidence in the trial. 

It would be such a privilege to have the opportunity to talk with Mr Khola about his experiences during the Pol Pot era, but obviously this wouldn’t be easy.  However Debra has learnt a little of his personal story during the time she’s known him.  He was highly qualified teacher and interpreter back in the 70’s, and still speaks about 6 languages.  When the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh, Mr Khola along with the entire population of the city was marched out to the countryside to be “reorientated” – or killed.   Somehow he must have avoided detection as an intellectual, or he would have been killed along with millions of others.  Instead, he was put to work as a grave digger to bury the dead, and eventually when Cambodia was liberated by the Vietnamese he somehow found his way back to Phnom Penh and started his life again. It was at this time that he found the photos in a deserted house.   I don’t think there are many people from his generation left to tell their stories – and probably very few with Mr Khola’s intellectual background.  He is planning to write his story for his family, but not for publication.  

The restaurant we went to last night is a popular place for Cambodian families.  It’s a fairly flash “soup kitchen”.  There’s a big pot of boiling water in the middle of the table, and dozens of bright little orange-capped waiters and waitresses keep bringing masses of little dishes of noodles, vegetables, fish, meat balls and other things which all get loaded into the big pot to cook, then everybody fishes out a bowl of soup to eat.  This continues until everyone is full!   Cambodian cuisine is pretty bland compared with Thai and Vietnamese, but this was a fun way to eat and share.

The seafood spread that Debra and I enjoyed here at Le Royal on Friday night was quite at the other end of the scale from the Khmer soup place.   From sushi to salmon, to every kind of shellfish, to beautiful baked, grilled, or poached sea and river fish, along with a vast array of salads, vegetables, cheeses, fruit and totally decadent French pastries and desserts – you could eat as much of anything as you wanted.  Waiters hover here with just the right kind of attention and everything looks quite beautiful.  Le Royal is a Raffles hotel, so service and surroundings are first class. 

Because of the work we’ve been able to do here, Debra’s asked me to stay on an extra day for a few more meetings to finalise things.   So I’ll be flying back to Bangkok on Tuesday night.  We’ve discovered that Monday is a “semi”-public holiday … some people are taking the day off for International Women’s Day celebrations.  But we’ll still be working.  Debra had a field trip planned to a village outside of Phnom Penh, so I’m now going along too.  This village has apparently been filled with demobilised and disabled soldiers who were probably originally farmers or simple rural folk when they were conscripted into the army during the many conflicts in the 80s and 90s.  They’re now working in factories and workshops set up for them in this village – with a lot of social problems.  Hard to know what to expect we’ll see …

Bangkok seems a long time ago already, but thinking back to last week I had a busy time then too.  Last Sunday I gave myself a ‘tourist’ day, which started with a climb up the Golden Mount temple, near my apartment.  I’d found it a week or so earlier but it wasn’t open then, so I went back to climb up the many steps and into the sanctum and altars where the Buddha statues are.  There’s a good view from the top.

Then, nearby, I found the river boat/bus which runs along one of the many backwaters in Bangkok.  Wasn’t quite sure where it went but hopped on regardless because the map looked interesting.  Turns out that it goes to National Stadium where there’s a sky-train station … so now I can get to the sky-train in about 20 minutes for 8 Baht, instead of paying 60 Baht in a taxi and enduring endless traffic jams!  The boat is pretty basic, very fast and you have to be a bit agile to climb in and out (which I’m not) – there’s also the potential to get wet when other boats whiz past in the opposite direction, but so far I’ve managed it, and it’s an interesting trip down the backwater klong past little Thai houses which overhang the water. 

Last Sunday continued with another trip to the British Library to change books, then another movie … saw ‘Milk’ and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Should stir myself to step outside and see a bit more of Phnom Penh …. or maybe just go and sit by the pool ….  Decisions, decisions …

Later – Sunday night

Tuk tuk, Madame?

Well I did stir myself and went for a walk through to the riverside for an hour or so – past Wat Phnom, a big temple on top of a hill where there’s a well-known temple elephant.  He (she?) walks from the temple every evening along the riverside road collecting money from anyone who wants to put some in his/her trunk.  I really enjoyed seeing all the shops, restaurants and little bars along this main strip by the river … it’s popular with tourists and local alike.  Apart from the continual cries of “Tuk Tuk, Madame?” it’s a very pleasant way to wander. 

Then later in the afternoon, Debra’s friends picked us up again to take us to the Russian Market.  I’ve spent many happy hours (and dollars) there on previous trips – and it hasn’t changed a bit!   It’s extremely difficult to walk through this maze of little stalls without being persuaded to buy something!  Beautiful silks, jewellery, carvings, pirated CDs and DVDs, fake watches, bags, T-shirts … lovely stuff.

We were dropped off back at the riverside and enjoyed a much-needed Tiger beer and early dinner in one of the many attractive little places there.  Walked back to Le Royal via the night market, did a bit of work, had a swim and now it’s 10pm.  

BANGKOK 5: 15 March

I left off last time while still living in luxury at Le Royal.  Sad to say, I’m now back on earth in my little apartment in Bangkok with all the street noises outside and the washing flapping on clothes lines on the balconies surrounding this apartment block.  No more stunning swimming pools or hovering waiters.

I flew back from Phnom Penh on Tuesday night after another couple of very full days.  Debra and I went to Veal Thom on Monday, the village that’s been set up by disabled, demobilised soldiers and other poor families.  It was a 3 hour drive from PP, mostly on a good highway, but when we turned off to get to the village, we were back to the dirt and potholes I remember from years ago. 

Small farm at Veal Thom

Veal Thom was extremely interesting though. It’s basically a self-established and self-managed village, set up on land that’s been cleared of landmines.  The people are mostly ex-soldiers and their families, from various factions and parties, now all living cooperatively.   Among many other questions, we asked them how this works… when once they were fighting against each other and now they live and work as neighbours??   They just laughed and said that no-one really won the war … they all ended up poor and disabled so they might as well all be friends!   Too bad the rest of the world can’t learn this lesson.

The barber at Veal Thom

The village seems well-established with a meeting hall, primary school, health centre and little farms and road-side businesses run by the people who live there.  They’ve had assistance from a couple of NGO’s over the years and received training in farm skills like keeping chickens, pig-raising, fruit-growing and small business management.  We visited a couple of productive little farms and saw how they weave thatch for their roofs, make rice wine, run their little black and white TVs on battery power … all the simple stuff of rural life in Cambodia.    We also met the local barber who cuts hair in a little lean-to shelter while his customers sit in a worn-out old chair.  He hobbles around on his artificial leg, as do most of the others. 

Weaving thatch, Veal thom

The one thing they really want in the village is a secondary school.  Debra and I were so impressed by what they’ve achieved that we’re going to try to work on this – maybe through our contacts in Rotary Clubs in Australia and the US.  Anything’s possible!

Flying between Cambodia and Thailand is like flying from Adelaide to Melbourne – takes about 50 minutes – but getting through Immigration, then a taxi back to town takes twice as long.  I arrived home at 11pm and didn’t realise how tired I was until a few days later.  We’d had a very busy few days in Phnom Penh, and then there was plenty to do in follow-up back at the office.  I was glad I only had 3 days left in the working week before having a lazy sleep-in today (Saturday).   I now know why I like being retired.   I’ve also had to cope with a lot of bureaucratic rubbish this week which has been rather frustrating.   After coming back from Cambodia with at least 3 definite assignments for Australian Business Volunteers (one quite urgent), I was then informed that the “quota” for Cambodia has been filled for this financial year and no further placements could be made until after July …. Too bad this fairly important bit of information hadn’t been relayed when they knew I was going there partly for this purpose.  Anyway there have been emails and phone calls going between Cambodia, Canberra, the ABV rep here in Bangkok and my office ‘supervisor’ over the past 3 days trying to resolve it.     Fortunately, Andrew, the rep here in Bangkok is (like me) pissed off with the administrivia that you have to wade through to make things happen and he’s found a very logical solution, but my supervisor (a stereotypic public servant) is a bit twitchy about doing anything outside the system … so it remains to be seen whether we’ll be able to get this work in Cambodia happening quickly, the outcome of which will be a large number of jobs for people with disabilities in a new factory that’s opening in April.   It will be tragic if bureaucratic bullshit gets in the way, but I’ve done all the paperwork, ABV in Canberra has now given the go-ahead and Andrew’s coming in to the office on Monday to sort things out with Ray …. so we’ll see what happens.  This is the sort of stuff that gives the UN a bad name – also the reason I prefer to work in jobs where I can do my own thing. 

I haven’t let the frustration get to me too much … what’s the point?  I had a lazy morning today with my book and was only driven out of the house by hunger – had nothing in the house except bananas and I’ve lived on those for days.  So around lunch time I set out to walk to Khao San – about 30 minutes away.  It was a lovely day here in Bangkok … not at all hot and humid, so perfect for strolling.

Khao San Rd, Bangkok

Khao San Rd is the legendary backpacker, hippy hang-out area of Bangkok.  Full of guesthouses, bars, restaurants, street stalls full of travellers’ clothes, 60’s music and people of all ages and nationalities wandering around soaking up the laid-back atmosphere.  Have to confess I still enjoy it – brings back lots of memories of my own happy days backpacking through Europe, Middle East, India, Nepal, Indonesia etc over many years … different faces, but the same reggae music, Beatles, tie-dye shirts etc.    Had lunch in a street-side café and watched the world go by. 

On the way home, I came across a Thai Boxing gym where anyone can have lessons – but, no, I wasn’t tempted.  All the same, it was good fun watching the boys going through their kicks and punches.  There’s a lot of thumping and shouting along with the high kicking – it’s really an incredibly skilful sport.     

BANGKOK 6: Saturday 21 March

  Where’s the past week gone?   It’s Saturday again, time to catch up on sleep, do the washing, visit the library and other routine stuff.   What I’d really love to be doing today is having coffee with friends at home … guess that will have to wait another 7 weeks.    I’m not complaining … just a teeny bit homesick with the whole weekend stretching ahead and no-one to share it with. 

Work is keeping me busy, and there’s a long list of things to organise, write and plan over the remaining weeks.   At least the time passes fairly quickly with these tasks plus meetings and daily office life – and it’s never boring.  One thing you can be sure of in the world of international aid and development is that you can never be sure of anything … things are constantly changing.   In my last diary entry I expressed some frustration with the bureaucracy … but it’s all worked out for the best in the end.  We’ve now decided not to rush into sending an Australian volunteer to Cambodia (as originally planned) but will arrange for assistance from July onwards.  There were simply too many complexities in the situation, plus other information came to light after the visit to Phnom Penh that required a change of tack.  So Ray, ABV and I now are all much happier with the outcome we’ve agreed on.  Debra isn’t – but she’s in Bangladesh – so I’ll deal with that when she gets back to Bangkok again next week.   

And talking about things changing, I’ve also learned more about Veal Thom, the Cambodian village of disabled soldiers that we visited.  It now appears that things may not be quite as peaceful and harmonious there as they presented to us.  However, it’s hard to know exactly which stories to believe.  Cambodia is still a very divided and fragile country with all sorts of undercurrents, so finding the “truth” is like putting a jigsaw puzzle together.  Little bits of information filter through the network and you have to make of it what you can.    We’d heard tales of land-grabbing going on at Veal Thom, but had been led to believe that it was the government trying to take back the land from the villagers.   Latest information, though, suggests that it might be the village association itself that is feuding, and that some of the people don’t have any claims to the land they’re living on and farming.  Words such as ‘bonded labour’ and ‘slavery’ came through in one email I received.    It was obvious when we there were that the village association leader had a very big house, 4-wheel drive etc – so he obviously has good political connections – but it’s impossible to really know what kind of corruption is going on, or who’s doing what to whom.   The source of some of my information (an Australian) is not deemed by other good contacts to be totally reliable himself … so who knows???   Needless to say Debra and I won’t be getting any further involved with plans for the school unless even more information comes to light.

Last Sunday afternoon I walked down the road to the Queen’s Gallery and enjoyed a very impressive exhibition of works by final year art students from the leading art university in Bangkok (I think).   Paintings, sculptures, photos, collages – all were of a very high standard.  There’s also a great gallery shop and little coffee lounge there – and only a 10 minute walk from where I live. 

Across the road from the Gallery is Wat Rajnadda, a large temple complex not far from the Golden Mount temple.  The monastery inside this complex is called the Loh Prasat, an amazing building with beautiful carving and tall spires.  It’s pictured on the 500 Baht note.  And almost hidden in a corner of the temple complex is the amulet market which comprises dozens of little stalls selling little Buddha images and miniature charms, or amulets.  These are supposed to provide some form of spiritual protection, so I bought a couple just to be on the safe side … also because I liked the little market.   After this I met up with Debra at her hotel and we had dinner together before she flew off to Bangladesh the next day. 

On Wednesday night I went to dinner at Pik’s parents’ home.  Pik’s mother is a dressmaker, and I’d asked her to make me a dress.  I’d asked for red, in the same style as a dress I gave to Pik to take to her mother to copy … but of course it didn’t end up exactly the same … and I feel like a walking pillar box in it.  However, I did wear it to work yesterday and had a couple of compliments, so I guess it’s OK.   It was lovely to see the whole family again and share a real Thai meal in a Thai family home.  During the course of the evening, I was shown a photo of twin babies born recently to some cousin or other.  Very cute little Thai babies … but I learned that they’ve been saddled with the names ASIA and PACIFIC!!   No kidding!!  I thought Pik was joking at first, but she just explained that their father “travels a lot”….   (well so do I, but I bet Ben & Bron are pleased they didn’t get place names.)    

Pik and me

Pik and her husband had called for me at 6.30pm at my place and it took us two hours to get across Bangkok in peak hour traffic.   It was raining a bit and it seemed that the whole population of the city was out on the road.  Getting home later in the evening only took about ¾ hour … they insisted on driving me again, of course.   Pik continues to work as a high level social worker / consultant / trainer and seems to know absolutely everyone in the whole disability movement in Thailand.  She’s incredibly dynamic and strong, but also relaxed and kind and always has time to do things for me.  Our friendship spans more than 8 years now and we’ve achieved quite a lot together.  

Disability loomed large this week … hardly surprising since that’s what I’m here for.  On Friday morning I attended a workshop in the UN training centre conducted by two Thai presenters from Asia Pacific Disabled People’s International.   It was about disability awareness and the rights-based approach to disability issues – as opposed to the welfare or charity model that still prevails across much of the world.   Participants were a diverse lot, and it was actually a positive learning experience for everyone.  It was conducted in English, with a variety of interpreters for the blind, deaf and non-English speakers.  Interesting to observe English being translated into Thai – and then into Thai sign language.       

Later – Saturday evening:   I finally roused myself to action this afternoon and went to the library, then browsed the shops in Siam Square yet again, before going to the movies to see “Doubt”.   Not a particularly adventurous way to spend the day but it passed the time. And I now have a batch of new books to read.  

BANGKOK 7: Sunday 29 March

An elephant blessing!

I’ve now been blessed by the spirits … yes indeed …. because I circled a big elephant and walked under him three times.  Admittedly I had to pay 20 Baht (less than $1) for the privilege – and it was at an elephant show – but it was at a temple and that’s what the legend says … so who am I to argue?   I enjoyed every minute of watching the elephants dance, twirl hoops, stand on their back legs and do other tricks … so when the opportunity came to join a little group circling the biggest elephant and walking underneath him, I jumped at it!  

Ayuttha – the ancient capital of Siam

This all happened yesterday (Saturday 28) when I went to Ayutthaya with Pik and her family.   Ayutthaya is the ancient capital of Thailand (a bit like Angkor Wat in Cambodia).   It’s about 2 hours north of Bangkok and is rather a lovely city at the confluence of 3 rivers.  The old city is on a large island surrounded by the rivers – and there are lots of quite spectacular ruins of temples and palaces, as well as modern-day temples and museums.   We went to the excellent historical museum first to get an overview of Ayutthaya and what it would have looked like in its heyday.  I can never remember all the various dynasties over the centuries in these ancient countries, but I was quite impressed with all the historical displays and explanations.

The elephants we saw were at one of the temples.  Traditionally, these beautiful, gentle beasts were kept by the kings for use in wars with Cambodia and Burma and other neighbouring kingdoms.  Now, of course, they have wonderful red and gold head-dresses, umbrellas and seats on tops and they take tourists for rides.  They’ve also been very highly trained to perform in a free elephant show.  There were dozens of them around the place and it was fantastic being up so close to them. 

As well as driving around to look at the temples, we had lunch at a typical Thai open air restaurant and nibbled on Thai snacks bought from street vendors during the day. 

Then on the way back to Bangkok we stopped at a big shopping mall. The Thais absolutely love shopping and Pik is no exception.  These malls are exactly like ours in Australia, and they’re mostly open 24 hours a day, so they have no great appeal for me.  But I guess with a population of 12 million, there’s always someone who wants to shop in Bangkok.   I much preferred the open space, trees, flowers and rivers of Ayutthaya … but I wandered through the mall with the family.

Pik was keen for me to buy more material for her mother to sew something else for me … but there was nothing that interested me at the mall (everything was exactly the same as what we can buy at home) so we then stopped at Chatuchak, the HUGE weekend market in Bangkok.   I’ve been here a couple of times before and it is quite an experience.  Fantastic stuff at unbelievable prices … but you could spend all day wandering through the maze of little shops and still not see it all.   Anyway, Pik knew the location of the fabric shops so we ended up buying some Thai silk and cotton for 3 more tops for me!  I don’t really need them, but it gave her so much pleasure and will make her mother happy too, so even if they don’t fit, I was happy to buy the material,

I had been consciously planning to resist Chatuchak on this trip – partly because it’s so overwhelming and hot and crowded, but mainly because I was determined not to buy too much.  But it really is the best market I’ve ever been to so I’ll probably get drawn back for another shopping expedition before returning to Australia.    There are things at Chatuchack that you’d never find anywhere else.

When we were both hot and exhausted, Pik installed me on the No 44 air-con bus which took me all the way from the market to the street corner near where I live – a ¾ hour trip for about 10 cents. 

On the work front, it’s been another very busy week. For a couple of days I even got to wondering what in the name of Buddha I was doing here.  Having given up 9-5 work in Australia over a year ago, I got to thinking I must have been a mug to have signed up to do it again – as a Volunteer!!    Especially with Debra breathing fire down my neck when she was back in Bangkok this week.   We had a very hectic day together on Thursday, and crossed swords a few times, but ended up clearing the air over drinks and dinner and re-settling both our friendship and professional relationship.   I think she’s having trouble ‘letting go’ of her hands-on responsibilities in the Asia Pacific region, plus she was totally exhausted after two weeks of complex work in this region, and long plane flights between Bangkok – Cambodia – Bangladesh – Bangkok.  But I’m glad she’s not here all the time so I can continue (quite competently, I think) to do exactly what my contract specifies and continue reporting to Ray here in Bangkok … not to Debra in Geneva. 

The other thing about Thursday was that because Debra and I had so much to get through during the day – and then needed to de-brief afterwards – I didn’t get to a work party that I’d been looking forward to.  Everyone on the 10th Floor had been invited for drinks at the Sub-regional Director’s home … and I ended up missing it.   Oh well, as the Thais say … mai pen rai  (which translates roughly as “no worries”.)    I’ll make up for it next Tuesday because I’ve been invited out to dinner with all the senior people in the Thai Dept of Social Development and Welfare. It seems that old Ba Mar-gar-et still has a bit of status with DSDW.        

Apart from the trip to Ayutthuya yesterday, social life has been quiet during the week, though I did have a very pleasant lunch and coffee meeting on Monday with two of the nicest guys in Bangkok – Andrew, the ABV rep, and David who looks after the Australian Youth Ambassador program here in Thailand.   We were looking at ways the two volunteer programs could work effectively together, and came up with some ideas for strengthening the partnership.

The Red Shirt political demonstrators have been active in Rajdamnern Nok again this week.  Lots of people marching, police vans, soldiers, TV cameras etc all below my office window.   While there never seems to be any trouble when they’re around, I guess the police are there just in case.  The Red Shirts oppose the current Prime Minister, but as the last PM was ousted on charges of corruption and is now living in exile, I’m not sure who they want in power.   It seems that all the political parties gather people in from the rural areas by the busload when they want extra numbers, and give them a little bit of money to survive on while they’re here, so naturally they’ll put a red T-shirt on and come along for the ride.   Only trouble is that the Yellow mob apparently does the same thing, and I’ve heard that often it’s very same people who cash in again and come to town for the ride!   And why wouldn’t you if you’re a poor farmer somewhere out in the sticks?   It probably makes not a scrap of difference to them who gets to be Prime Minister – they’ll stay poor anyway.

BANGKOK 8: Tigers

Highlights of this week have been …. TIGERS, the Bridge on the River Kwai, two dinner dates, and a French exam. 

Well, the French exam wasn’t exactly a highlight … more like a dose of sheer embarrassment.  We had a written test on Tuesday (difficile pour moi) and oral on Thursday … uncomfortable and awkward!   Results come back this week. 

Dinner with the lovely women from the Department of Social Development and Welfare

Much more fun was going out to dinner on Tuesday night with seven senior government officers.   They all (but one) looked like lovely, middle-aged butterflies in pretty Thai silk colours, and as always, they were so incredibly kind and generous to me.  I’d met most of them in Thailand and/or Australia previously, so it was like being with old friends.   They laughed and fluttered and spoke to one another in Thai, and to me in English, and at the end of the evening I was presented with several beautifully wrapped gifts … including a superb black jacket decorated with Thai hill-tribe embroidery.   This kind of thing makes for a different kind of embarrassment from trying to speak French … but I do feel very spoilt whenever I have any contact with Thai friends and colleagues.  

My other evening out was on Friday night when I met up with one of the young Australian volunteers who’s recently started working here with Disabled People’s International.   Their office is a fair way out of central Bangkok, so I’d contacted Maria during the week to see how she was coping.  Turns out she’s absolutely fine and leading quite an active life – but she still suggested that we meet for dinner and a chat.  She didn’t seem to mind a bit that I’m probably older than her mother!   At Maria’s suggestion, we went to the Arab quarter.  I hadn’t realised there was such an area, but discovered it’s actually in the centre of Sukhimvit, which is full of restaurants, bars, shops and market stalls … a very lively part of the city.  As everywhere in Bangkok, there were people of all nationalities in the crowded little streets, but in this part, there were certainly a lot more Middle Eastern men in long white caftans, and women covered from head to toe in black abayahs – many with their faces covered as well.   (I don’t know if it was something in the Middle Eastern lamb stew I ate, but I had to put up with a mild dose of Bangkok Belly for about 24 hours afterwards!)

Today (Monday) is a public holiday which I think is in honour of some ancient king. 

River Kwai, Kanchanburi (near the war cemetry)

Being a long weekend, I decided to do something I rarely do overseas, and I booked myself on a one-day organised tour to Kanchanaburi on the River Kwai.  It’s about a two-hour drive from Bangkok, towards the Burmese border, and is the site of the famous Bridge on the River Kwai, the start of the Death Railway and the WWII war cemetery.   Over 30,000 Australian troops were held as prisoners-of-war by the Japanese in this area, along with thousands of British, Dutch and others.  Thousands died in the death camps and during the building of the railway.    The cemetery is quite a moving place … a sea of little plaques set in peaceful gardens with the names of so many young men who died in 1943 and 1944 – some who were only 19.  

I’d last been to Kanchanaburi in the early 90’s and don’t remember it being such a big place then.   It’s always been a popular holiday spot for the Thais (being so close to Bangkok) but it’s now become very commercialised with a rather tatty war museum and hundreds of souvenir shops.   The Bridge is a big drawcard, and lots of people seem to like to walk across and back.   The Kwai is rather a lovely big river and if time permitted it would be good to hire long-tail boat and explore some of the upstream areas.   Last time I was here, I went on the Death Railway up through the pass which the prisoners of war hacked out of the cliffs … but this time our little tourist group had a different agenda. 

Sai Yok Noi Falls

After a brief stop at a lovely waterfall and swimming hole (packed with Thai holiday-makers) we had lunch on a floating bamboo raft restaurant – then drove on to the real highlight of the day … the Tiger Temple.

This place is a wildlife sanctuary run by the monks.  It started about 15 years ago when some local villagers brought a tiger cub to the monks to be cared for.  The cub’s mother had been shot by poachers … a major problem that still exists today, and is the reason that tigers need protection.  Over the years, other animals followed and today the “temple” is home to many tigers, water buffalo, deer, a leopard and other animals. 

Asleep? Or drugged?

The main attraction is the tigers.   Having been hand-reared from babyhood, they are used to being handled by people, and for a few hours every day, tourists come in by the busload and walk around with the handlers having their photos taken patting and cuddling these huge beasts.   It’s quite exciting to hold a big tiger’s head in your lap – or sit up close and personal with a tiger cub.

However, there is also a lot of controversy surrounding this place.  Some argue that the tigers must be drugged in order to be so docile and accommodating.  The staff and many international young volunteers who work there strenuously deny this, of course.  I simply don’t know.  It does seem hard to imagine that so many tigers would sleep peacefully and allow hundreds of tourists to pat them – or that the authorities would allow this to happen – unless they were sedated somehow.    When you go in you have to sign an indemnity form saying that you’re aware that they are wild animals etc .. and that you take the risk.   But I can’t help wondering just a little bit.   They looked well-fed and well cared for, and the young British, Australian and Swedish volunteers I spoke to were obviously enjoying the experience of working here.

So, I held and patted tigers along with the rest of the crowd and enjoyed the experience for what it was.  I doubt if I’ll ever have another opportunity to get so close to these animals.   

Monday evening:   Very overcast all day and heavy rain during the early afternoon.  However, when it stopped I decided to go out for a bit of air and exercise – caught the boat further than I have before to try to find the Art House cinema at Petchaburi.  Turned out to be even further than I thought, so had to get a taxi for the last bit….  Saw “The Class” … in French, with English and Thai subtitles.     

BANGKOK 9: 12 April STREET DEMONSTRATIONS

  Later:  Sunday 12th:  

All the news below was written about 24 hour ago … but things change quickly.  The political demonstrations have taken a turn for the worse with some violent incidents occurring today.  I was in a taxi on the way home from lunch in the city when the latest UN security text came through on my mobile.  All staff have been advised not to go anywhere near the protests.  Too bad I live only a few streets away.   A lot of the streets around here have now been blocked off by the Red Shirts, and some of the traffic is actually being diverted down my little street.  I’ve also just had a phone call from Pik to check on my safety (and I’m perfectly safe!)  …. she told me that the situation has got worse because the military has now been called in to disperse the mobs.  She assures me that she’ll keep calling to make sure I’m OK.  

Friday 10th April

It’s been a quiet week in some ways – and a very noisy one in others.  The Red Shirt political activists have had a full-on week of demonstrations out in the streets around the government buildings very close to the UN building.  I can see a lot of the action from my window – but more annoyingly, I can hear a lot of it.   The political ranting and raving thorough loud hailers or microphones goes on and on and on, very loudly and passionately, but totally boring when you can’t understand a word of it (and possibly even if you can.)  

Wednesday and Thursday were the biggest days by far. Once again it was an absolute sea of red, plus armed police and soldiers everywhere.  On Thursday they actually brought parts of the city to a halt. The roads around here were completely blocked, and news reports showed that hundreds of taxi drivers who support the UDD (the Red Shirt group) just stopped their cabs at Victory Monument, one of the busiest junctions in the city.  Bangkok traffic is bad enough at the best of times .. it would have been literally impossible to move if you were anywhere in the vicinity of government buildings.  Apparently they gave the Prime Minister an ultimatum to resign.  He, of course, told them to get stuffed.  

At the UN we’ve all been getting security messages (by SMS or email) to advise on each day’s situation.  The office has never been closed down, but we were all advised to go home early on Wednesday because of the traffic jams.   I’m OK because I walk home, but anyone who relies on taxis would have had a very long, slow trip home.   On Thursday, the Prime Minister closed all the government offices and gave the public servants at holiday. 

For me, the situation has never felt in the least unsafe. It’s more like a carnival atmosphere, and certainly much easier to cross the road when there’s no traffic moving.   People in the streets seem happy – and there are people everywhere … sleeping on the footpaths, piled in the back of utes etc. 

The newspapers have been full of it all, but even the articles I’ve read by respected analysts and academics haven’t made it totally clear to me.  I understand that the Red Shirts are mainly the poorer people (the Yellow Shirts are the Establishment), but the Red Shirts support the ousted Prime Minister Thaksin who was found guilty of fraud and corruption and now lives in exile.  They claim that the current PM was not democratically elected, and they want Thaksin back.  It seems that there’s ‘right’ on both sides …. so it’s hard to know what colour I’d wear if I had to.

Of course the disruption of the ASEAN summit in Pattaya is probably the last straw for the government.   Hard to tell where it will all end. 

But enough of Thai politics – and onto other things. 

I saw two French films during the week.   Last weekend, found my way to an art house cinema and saw ‘The Class’ ( or‘Entre Les Murs’  in French.)   While having a coffee before the movie, I read in a magazine that the Alliance Francaise shows free films most Wednesday nights in Bangkok … so guess where I went on Wednesday?  Saw “Reines pour un Jour” … or ‘A Hell of a Day’ as the subtitles labeled it.

My only planned social event of the week had to be cancelled because of the political demonstrations.  I’d been going to go out to dinner with Thai friends (Pik and Varunee) and a couple of people from the ILO … a kind of work/ meeting / dinner … but we couldn’t get there because of the traffic logjam around Victory Monument. 

We’ve been having heavy rainfalls every day lately – usually for about an hour, though today (Saturday) it’s been raining all morning.  Afterwards, everything’s usually a bit cooler but very steamy.  It’s bucketing down as I write.  No thunder and lightning today, but sometimes the thunder is deafening and the lightning spectacular. 

This weekend is Songkran, the Thai New Year festival.  I think it falls at the same time as Easter because it also follows the full moon cycle.   Easter’s not celebrated here at all (Thailand is about 95% Buddhist) so Friday was a normal working day at the UN in Bangkok.    Songkran is traditionally celebrated by sprinkling water over one’s family and friends, but apparently this has evolved into big water splashing in the streets.  Young people love it, but wet T-shirts aren’t a good look for oldies so I might stay indoors most of the weekend, just in case …  

Sunday …

Over the weekend I’ve had a good insight into the way most Western expats live in this huge city.  I visited Ray’s place on Saturday to pick up a DVD player he’s lent me, then today had lunch with Manu, another work colleague who also lives in the Sukhumvit area, so I saw her apartment as well.  Of course they’re both paying about 4 times as much as I am … but on big, fat UN salaries they can afford it.  Both apartments are certainly very attractive, with gyms, swimming pools, great balconies and views.  And Sukhumvit is where all the big hotels and quality shopping malls are – as well as lots of fascinating restaurants, bars and every kind of service you could need in the little streets all around.   There are lots of westerners wandering around as well.  Manu and I had lunch at Crepes and Co, a well-known restaurant here … very enjoyable.   

BANGKOK 10: 20 April

Back to last weekend ….

The streets of Bangkok were a battle-zone last weekend.  Very ugly street riots, soldiers, police, tear gas, burning buses and many people injured.  There were two people killed very near where I live.  I heard the gunshots at the end of the street.  
For me, it was a safe (but fairly boring) weekend.  UN Security messages kept coming through advising everyone to stay indoors, so that’s what I did – and watched it all happening on TV like everyone else around the world.  The UN office was closed on Monday and Tuesday until things quietened down. And quieten down they did.  It was almost like a ghost town as I walked to work on Wednesday …very little traffic, but signs of battles still evident on the roads … broken glass, burnt timber and all the detritus of a street riot in the gutters.   At least it was easy to cross the busy roads with hardly any traffic.  

There’s been no sign of any Red Shirts since some kind of truce was called, but a couple of days ago there was an assassination attempt on the leader of the Yellow Shirts, so obviously things are still simmering under the relative peace and calm today.  We’ll have to wait and see what will happen next.

And now to this weekend …

Krabi river at sunset

It’s hard to imagine how two weekends could be so completely different. But the one that’s just ended was so blissful it was almost hard to believe I was in the same country.   I flew down to Krabi on Friday afternoon, and experienced the idyllic paradise of the islands off the coast of southern Thailand in the fabulous Andaman Sea.  This is the world that sun-seeking tourists from all over the world flock to.  And it’s just as perfect as all the postcards and travel brochures show it to be.   Emerald seas, limestone cliffs and islands, coral and tropical fish, white sandy beaches and little boats dotted around the bays.  It wasn’t overcrowded at this time of the year either …I think this has a lot to do with the economic crisis.  While this obviously makes things difficult for the tour operators and the local economy, it was lovely for selfish old me. 

I stayed at a very nice hotel in Krabi right on the river front and had the sort of view you could pay millions for in some parts of the world. But Krabi is basically a pleasant fishing town and a stop-off point for the islands and resorts.  I felt completely at home there.  By staying in a more up-market hotel I thought I might actually be growing up at last, but it didn’t take long to succumb to the lure of the little backpackers’ cafes, the night market and travellers’ shops that dot the town. Just my sort of place!    It was so easy and pleasant to sit with a cold beer in the tropical twilight and just watch the boats on the river.  Sleepy, warm, and beautiful. 

Karst (rock formation) in the Andaman Sea

On Saturday, I went for a day trip on one of the many big speedboats that take groups out to the Phi Phi islands and the beaches and lagoons along the way. We anchored twice for snorkelling over the coral reefs and swam through schools of electric blue and yellow fish, red, pink and striped fish, sea urchins and banks of cabbage coral.  We also enjoyed several stops on magical white beaches with plenty of time to laze around in the almost warm, milky-green water.   The scenery everywhere is stunning – massive, great limestone rock formations that jut up out of the sea … exactly like the postcards.    One of the most beautiful little bays was where the movie “The Beach” was made. I’ll have to see it on DVD some time.  Despite getting sunburnt, I loved the whole day. 

West Railay Beach

And there was still more perfection to come on Sunday.  I took one of the long-tail boats from Krabi pier down the river and across the sea to the Laem Phra Nang peninsula, which is only accessible by boat.  Here are the beautiful beaches of East and West Railay and Phra Nang  … more white sand, stunning cliffs and rock formations, and a few bars, cafes, resorts and shops nestled in the tropical greenery along the shore.   It was all so laid back and blissful.  I wandered from one beach to another, swam, read and generally just soaked up the atmosphere.   Glenelg’s OK, but it’s hard to compete with a beach that has trees for shade, and friendly strolling Thai vendors who wander along with cold drinks, fresh fruit and beach clothes for sale. You can even have a massage or pedicure right there on the sand.   Again I succumbed to the lure of it all and enjoyed a foot scrub and massage, and had my toenails painted a pretty pink … all for about $15. 

Anyone who wants a perfect – and inexpensive – tropical overseas holiday could find a cheap fare to Bangkok, then take a domestic flight down to Krabi (about $200 return), catch the airport shuttle bus into Krabi town, or go further on to the more touristy Ao Nang … and then simply chill out at a little guest house, or fancy resort, and take the little boats that ply the coast and the islands.   No need for expensive package tours .. it’s all so easy and friendly and lovely.   There’s so much more on offer too – elephant trekking, sea kayaking, rafting, rock climbing – too bad I only had two days in paradise.

BANGKOK 11: Monday 27 April

Last week was the ILO’s 90th Birthday.  Special events were held in high-class venues around the world to mark the occasion, and government officials and other dignitaries no doubt carried on about the work of this illustrious organisation.  In the Bangkok office, we had an afternoon tea with a gigantic cake decorated with the ILO logo, 90 years’ greetings etc.  It’s hard to know how this helps the poor and starving out there in their millions … but maybe eating cake and writing policies helps to relieve world poverty somehow??   (Yes … it does get harder each day to hide my cynicism about the UN)

This past weekend turned out to be something of a challenge too.  Pik sort of rail-roaded me into going away with her and a special group of her friends …
8 in all (plus a few kids) – all classmates from high school days who’ve kept in touch and holidayed together over the past 30-something years.   There are two married couples amongst the group, including Pik and her husband, and of course they all know one another like a family.  And they all speak Thai and not much English.  So guess who felt like a bit of a shag on a rock for most of the weekend???    

My very Thai-type holiday at the beach

It was a very typically Thai kind of holiday … at a beach ‘resort’ that belonged to a friend of theirs.  We stayed in little 1-star kind of cabins at the end of a sandy track full of similar Thai holiday ‘resorts’.  It was somewhere near Hua Hin, south of Bangkok, but I never really discovered quite where we were.  We also did a fair bit of driving to other beaches over the weekend, and dropped into a couple of royal palaces to do a bit of sight-seeing.  Absolutely everything about the weekend was Thai, Thai, Thai …. wandering around with groups of local tourists at the palaces (with commentary in Thai of course), eating in standard open-air Thai ‘restaurants’ on plastic chairs at wobbly tables, using squat loos at beaches and service stations   … there wasn’t another farang (foreigner) in this neck of the woods all weekend.  

It was a bit surprising because this particular group are all educated, middle-class professional people. But they are also Thai and therefore very accustomed to local standards.  They had a great weekend – but I found it all quite hard work, despite the kindness they showed to me.   I tried to compare what it would be like if I went away with a group of friends in Australia and took along an elderly Thai woman who didn’t speak a word of English. Same sort of culture gap would exist, I’m sure.   

With Pik and Sangplern

One of Pik’s aims in taking me along was to drop into another Parents Group camp for kids with disabilities.  It was good to see Sangplern again, one of the parents I first met back in 2002-03 in Thailand, and who we brought over to observe services in Australia.  Like Nok, she’s another absolutely amazing woman who’s doing some great work with families and other organisations.  There were about 30 kids at this beach camp, plus families, plus volunteer students from one of the Universities.  It all looked incredibly exhausting to me … staying in fairly basic wooden dormitories with children of varying ages and varying degrees of disability. 

One thing I learned over and over again during the weekend is how incredibly patient the Thai people are. Everything takes absolutely ages (including traffic jams) but they just drift through it all with a peaceful kind of acceptance.  We travelled in a mini-van driven by Pik’s husband, and sometimes waited hours for one of the group to get back from whatever they were doing.  It didn’t seem to matter how long anyone took to wander through a palace, or go to a shop, or pay a bill or pay their respects to Buddha.  The rest of the crowd just chatted on in Thai while we sat around and waited in the heat … and I quietly went stir-crazy. 

The children were quite cute, but another thing I’ve discovered is the strange names the Thais saddle their kids with.  I remember feeling sorry for poor little Asia and Pacific a few weeks ago, but 2 of the little boys with us this weekend were called Captain and Japan.   It was obviously perfectly normal to everyone else, so I dutifully smiled along at Japan’s antics, and watched him play with big brother Captain. 

I know I’m incredibly lucky to have had all these experiences over the past 3 months, and to have real Thai friends – but I have to be honest and say I’m now looking forward to getting back to home comforts.  Perhaps I’m simply getting too old for mildewed bathrooms, squat loos, litter everywhere, little plastic bags of food – and interminable waiting.  

Only two weeks to go now – a report to write, a presentation to give and a few more meetings to get through – and this assignment will be over.  But the results have been worthwhile and I’ve got projects pretty much lined up for other ABV Volunteers in Cambodia, Lao, Fiji, Timor, Indonesia and possibly Sri Lanka and Vanuatu.  I’ve also prepared a Disability Strategic Plan for the Regional office that some other punter will have to attend to when I’m gone.   I guess it all helps a tiny bit. 

BANGKOK 12: Wednesday 6 May

Well this is it … the last day of work tomorrow … and the last of the Bangkok Bulletins. 

Looking back I reckon it’s all been worthwhile.  There’ve been lots of fantastic experiences, lots of learning and a bit of a contribution to disability and development thrown in for good measure.   I think I’m going to have mostly very affectionate memories of the time spent here.  

Maybe I was a bit too negative about the weekend away with Pik and her friends (judging from emails from friends)… really the weekend wasn’t all bad!   One thing I’d forgotten to mention was the seafood feast we had when we first arrived.   They’d ordered ahead, so we climbed straight out of the van to sit at a long table in a garden of frangipani and other tropical flowers to get stuck into about 8 dozen crabs, squid salad, seafood soup, seafood fried rice and other delicious Thai dishes.  Very finger-lickin’ good, it was too.  (Just for the record, the Classmates website is www.prasri22.net78.net  and photos of the weekend have been loaded onto it – including the food.  It’s all in Thai, but the dates are in English, so click on the entry for 28th April then scroll down for a few images of the feast.) 

In fact, all the food over the weekend was great.  The Thais know how to eat well, and being with a bunch of them made it very easy for me.  They ordered – I ate.  We also stopped at roadside stalls to stock up on palm sugar, palm juice and the sweet fruit from the middle of the palm nuts – a local speciality of the area we were in.  They loaded the van with all sorts of fruit, big bags of salt and other odds and ends from local stalls along the way. And while this made the journey take longer, it was quite an interesting experience to learn where all this stuff comes from and how cheap it is if you buy it locally.  

But that all seems ages ago already.  Last weekend was very much a non-event by comparison, because I came down with a sneezy, watery, streaming head cold (right at the time that swine flu news was at its peak).   But both sides of the weekend there have been several dinners with friends … one night out with Pik, Varunee and Ar from the government office, last night with Andrew (ABV rep) – and tonight I’ve just come home from the beautiful Lemongrass restaurant where I ate like a queen with Ray, Manu & Rod (and his wife Rose) from work.      

Dinner with Andrew (and his son) last night was at Cabbages and Condoms – an absolute delight and quite a unique place!   It’s actually a well-known Bangkok institution, and one that I’d always wanted to try.   It’s decorated like a tropical fairyland with thousands of little sparkling lights and lanterns in the garden, and “bushes” and “flowers” made entirely of coloured condoms.  There are also statues dressed in condom finery – plus one of the best gift shops I’ve seen in Bangkok.  It sells lovely Thai handcrafts and postcards etc, along with all sorts of safe sex placemats, mouse pads, pens and other items … not to mention safe sex aids and condoms of every description.    The story behind Cabbages and Condoms is inspiring too ….  the founder (a Thai) believed that condoms should be as readily available as vegetables so that people could stay healthy and prevent HIV-AIDS.   He started a family planning organisation that now does a range of development work in rural areas.  The restaurant is a way of raising money while also promoting the message in an open and fun way. 

Andrew and his son, with Condom Man

It was good to catch up with Andrew after his holiday in the US.   We had lots of travel stories to share and then business to discuss …. poor 12 year-old Junior fell asleep while we worked out strategies for taking the ILO-ABV-NDS relationship to the next stage.  The ILO has asked for another Volunteer to follow up what I’ve got started, which is a very good outcome.  There’s also now a lot of interest in volunteer assistance in a number of countries in the region.  I’ve lined up at least 5 projects, with potential for lots more.   The presentation I gave on Monday went quite well, and the Final Report and Plan have now been delivered.  There are still a few loose ends to tie up tomorrow – and then it will be up to someone else to keep things going.  I guess I’ll keep in touch.

So … that’s it.  Packing, sorting and cleaning up the apartment will keep me occupied on Friday.   Then it’s homeward bound on Saturday evening and arrival home on Mothers Day!  

And one last letter …. a summary to my friends at Mahjong in Adelaide

Dear Martina and the Divine Dragonflies,

I do miss my Monday Mah-jong mornings and all that pung-ing and kong-ing ….  but in five more weeks I’ll be back amidst the twittering.     

Unfortunately I haven’t been able to join a group here in Bangkok.  I did discover that the Australian Women’s Group plays on Monday and Wednesday mornings, and the British Women play on Tuesdays and Thursdays – with a few very keen players  known to sneak into both … but being a full-time Monday to Friday worker again, I can’t get there during the mornings, and no-one seems to know of any evening groups.   So, as the Thais would say “mai pen rai” – which roughly translates as “no worries”!     

Apart from missing Mah-jong (and blue skies, clean air and autumn in Adelaide), I’m enjoying life in Bangkok.  I’m living in a small studio apartment about 10 minutes walk from the UN building where I work.   The UN complex is quite big – my office is on the 10th floor of just one of the towers – and we have the very best of facilities.   Flags of all nations flutter outside, and attractive courtyards, tropical flowers and lots of glass grace the centre.  In contrast, the little street where I live is filled with street vendors, little open-fronted shops, washing hanging from verandas, skinny dogs and motor bikes – all the sights and sounds of typical Thai life.

Anyone who knows Bangkok will know how enormous it is.  Despite having been here 5 times previously, I still haven’t seen half of it.  However, I do try to get out and about at weekends and am learning my way around.   A very handy recent discovery was the klong (backwater canal) that runs quite close to my street, and the boat “bus” that speeds along it.  Now I can avoid the interminable traffic jams and whiz along the canal to where I want to be for less than 10 cents!  One does need to be slightly intrepid to travel this way … the boat barely pauses when it pulls into a stop, and you have to hop in and out quite quickly while the rather toxic-looking water lurks below – but so far I’ve managed it safely and given up on any pretence of poise and elegance while scrambling in and out …..

I’m also pleased to report that I’ve now been blessed by the spirits here in Thailand. 

At Ayutthaya yesterday I circled an elephant and walked under him three times. Well … admittedly I did have to pay 20 Baht (about 80 cents) for the privilege, and it was at an elephant show …  but it was in the grounds of a temple, and it’s what the legend says, so who am I to argue??    I was taken up to the old city of Ayutthaya by some Thai friends and very much enjoyed the excellent historical museum and all the old temples, as well as the free elephant show.  Ayutthaya was once the capital of Thailand – a bit like Angkor Wat in Cambodia.   It’s about 2 hours north of Bangkok at the confluence of 3 rivers and is rather a lovely city.  The elephants used to be kept by the kings for warfare against the Burmese, Cambodians and other unfriendly neighbouring kingdoms, but now, of course, they wear beautiful red and gold head-dresses and umbrellas and take tourists for rides around the vast temple complex. 

Life at work is busy and never boring.  My task is to assist the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in disability-inclusive employment and vocational training activities in the Asia Pacific region.   With the financial crisis affecting employment quite drastically in some of these countries, it’s been more challenging than usual to encourage people to consider the rights and needs of people with disabilities.   However, UN Conventions, ILO regulations – and just plain common justice – require that the countries in the region include some component of disability activity in their Decent Work Country Plans.  I’m trying to assess the current situation, and identify needs and priorities for possible assistance by Australian volunteers. 

A couple of weeks ago, I had a few days in Cambodia for work.  It was great to catch up with a number of people I’d met there 8-9 years ago when working on other assignments, and I couldn’t believe the changes in Phnom Penh since that time – at least on the surface.  When I first went there it was like a Wild West town still emerging from many years of conflict … high fences around all the houses and buildings, barbed wire and soldiers on street corners with machine guns.  Now there’s development going on everywhere, and thousands of cars on the well-sealed roads.  There are charming little restaurants and bars, very elegant big hotels and lovely parks and gardens near the river front.  I suspect there’s still just as much corruption and political tension underneath the pleasant, peaceful appearance – but it’s a great little city to spend a few days.

In Cambodia, at the popular Russian market, I spotted the one and only Mah-jong set that I’ve seen since leaving home.  It wasn’t particularly attractive, with a touristy-looking engraving of Angkor Wat on the box.  I’m sure there must be plenty of other more interesting sets here in Bangkok around Chinatown … but Mah-jong doesn’t seem to be a game that’s widely played by the Thais.

Anyway, my dear dragonflies …. this is enough humming and buzzing from Bangkok.   I do hope you’re enjoying the beautiful March weather and the Gardens will still look beautiful when I get back.  

I’ll see you in 5 weeks.
Very best wishes – and good luck to all for the hand of the day,
Margaret

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