30 December, 2006

Photo essay of LAOS (Chapter 1 of 3):
Luang Prabang, the charismatic former capital

Anna roars past a decayed old French house on her 2cc Harley Hogster.
Zey drife on ze right in zis countree, like back in Gay Paree.

When next you fly into Luangprabang, try to book a window seat because mountain scenery on the descent is spec-tac-u-lar. Luangprabang is a former French administrative centre from colonial days, so is characterized by derelict old French-Lao buildings crumbling gracefully into pirouettes of curling paint, pitted timbers, and ageing mold.

Having said that, UNESCO has an excellent (if a tad slow) restoration program under way. The nascent tourist boom is propelling construction of (mostly) tasteful “new old” French-style architecture, particularly around the tourist haunts along the banks of the Mekong River.

After the monsoon flood every year, the newly-fertile banks of the river are re-planted with vegetables and short term trees like papaya. In this early morning misty photo, a family heads upstrean in its motorised canoe, the main form of transport for many locals.

We could speak with locals as our Thai is ok and Laotian is really only a dialect of Thai, given the intertwined histories and love-hate relationship between the 2 countries. English will get you by in the tourist area... and French, bien sûr.

A very stylish French model – and an old Citroen sedan as well.

Very few younger locals still speak French, but you do hear a lot of nostalgic French tourists. I only found one older local chap with whom I could parle en français. I’m getting seriously out of practice, and unintentionally mixing up French with Thai words… mon dieu...

There’s very little traffic as most of the population is too poor to afford vehicles, even scooters, so hiring a bicycle at US$1 per day is an efficient and relaxed way to get an initial overview… make sure the tyres are pumped hard, though.

"Villa Santi" is in the main street of Luangprabang. (Sisavanvong St).

Villa Santi was once the Royal residence in pre-Communist times, it has now morphed into a top-end French-Lao restaurant. Food in Laos is available for all tastes right down to burgers (gag!), and recognizable coffee is hard to find. The Scandinavian Bakery had the best approximation of drinkable coffee, and French-style baguettes lurk everywhere. Lao food isn’t as spicy as Thai, but can sometimes have a characteristic bitter/sour flavour, as in “Or-lahm” curry spiced gently with chunks of juniper root. Nice. You should also try the chili jam with strips of dried buffalo skin. Once.

Marie and Anna walk down main street at dusk.
(Look out for the caged bird which speaks fluent Laotian.)

The same street an hour later. No traffic lights. I heard a cricket chirping here.

As you may observe, there are very few dedicated street lights apart from illumination by the private commercial sector (mainly restaurants). Laos produces huge amounts of electricity but sells most of it to Thailand (which squanders it big-time as if there's no tomorrow... like this electric-city scene near our Chiangmai apartment:

By sad contrast, most Laotians have to live by candlelight, therefore hit the sack early. So you won’t find serious night-life here, particularly as the Communist government doesn’t approve. This means that the tourist profile is slanted towards family and older people rather than cool Generation-X head-banging bongers. Suits us dusty old babyboomers ok.

Luangprabang Police Station is, ...well, unpretentious.

The old red & yellow Soviet Hammer & Sickle still appears next to the Lao flag on government buildings. But not (yet!) on Buddhist Wats:

A large Buddhist Wat provides a backdrop for preparations for market.

There’s a night market in Sisavanvong St, but it pays to get there before dark as the lighting is mostly by candles... picturesque, if not particularly effective. Some vendors have 20-watt globes, though... very hi-tech. Look out for bottles of Lao whisky (?) with pickled cobras and/or 3-inch black scorpions, and spiced with whole red chili: “Take small cup at night for lumbago, sweat of limbs”. Yep, sure.

The former royal palace is nearby – now converted to a state museum walled with grisly mosaic scenes of battles and beheaded enemy soldiers. Among the ornate and expensive displayed gifts to the former royal family, the one from Australia leapt out: a grubby old faded boomerang, roughly carved. The ‘Lao Culture’ show at 6pm is certainly worth a look – it's an excerpt from the legendary Ramakien legend in full costumes with live Laotian music, followed by a hill-tribe dance with a surprising twist at the end.

While in Luangprabang, do go to the Tat Kuang Si waterfalls, and also take the leisurely 1-hour boat ride to the Pak Ou caves with their hundreds of Buddhas, to the left of these boats:

Going by speedboat isn’t recommended… there have been some nasty accidents on the many submerged rocks in the murky river. That’s why they require victims to don a helmet and lifejacket... and they're noisy as a chainsaw up close.

Finally, climb the steps up Phousi Hill at dusk (about 10 minutes or so) to get a panorama of the town and its famous sunset.

REPORT: Australia May Have Been Abused During its Formative Years

The Eureka Stockade, an example of early abuse by the motherland.
This newly-discovered historical painting proves that FunkyPix2 founders were at the forefront of Australian grassroots resistance. Later, a more stodgy and conservative splinter group adopted the more familiar blue-and-white Southern Cross as their emblem, re-naming themselves as the ‘Labor’ Party.

SYDNEY—A team of leading historians and psychiatrists has issued a report claiming that Australia was likely the victim of abuse by its founding fathers and motherland when it was a young colony.

"In its adulthood, Australia displays all the classic tendencies of a nation that was repeatedly mistreated in its infancy - difficulty forming lasting foreign relationships, viewing everyone as a potential enemy, and employing a pattern of assault and intimidation to assert its power," said Dr. Gorsymenski, the report's lead author. "It has even chosen a substitute parent, its distant relative Uncle Sam, to fill the emotional vacuum".

"Because of trust issues stemming from the abuse, Australia has yet again become withdrawn from its neighbours with its fortress mentality of ‘White Australia 2’, has not made a trusted ally in years, and often resents the few nations that are willing to lend support—most countries outgrow this kind of behavior after 200 years."

According to Deakin University psychology professor Marieta Burrowsofski, while some rebellious behaviour in a nation's adolescence is common, and sometimes healthy, Australia’s historically stormy relationship with mother country Britain points to a deep need for acceptance.

"Australia is characteristic of an abused nation in that, even decades after tentatively pushing away from Britain in 1901, still maintained close contact with the motherland — all the while fearing disapproval even though the parent country is now old, decrepit, and powerless," said Professor Burrowsofski. "On the other hand, Canada, which was raised by the same mother country, only exercised small-scale resistance, remaining loyal well into its maturity. Though some see Canada as cold and remote, it has, unlike Australia, managed to lead a peaceful, reasonably healthy existence."

Professor Burrowsofski pointed to another telltale sign of abuse in Australia's tendency to bully, torture, and persecute less powerful, vulnerable creatures, such as koalas, kangaroos, forests, mangroves, welfare recipients, refugees, women, small Pacific nations, and Aborigines.

Although the Australian nation appeared to be on the road to recovery by the early 1990s, the watershed event of the Republic Debate was in effect a protracted custody battle which triggered two centuries of repressed memories, setting off a recurring pattern of violent outbursts and emotional volatility.

"Australia also compensated for early mistreatment by taking out this pent-up aggression on other nations—getting involved in aggressive conflicts seemingly just for the thrill of it, starting arguments and wars that can't be won, suspecting that everyone is out to get them," Burrowsofski said. "This nation needs help, but by its very nature, refuses to accept it."

Australian Coastguard Security even published a picture of what a suicide surfer-bomber might look like. “You can never be too careful’, they warned. “Terrrrists have found ways to solve the problem of the wet wick”.

"Granted, part of Australia’s problems may stem from the fact that it was burdened with a false sense of responsibility at a young age because of the unrealistic expectations of the country's founders,” she said. “Even though Australia is over 200 years old, emotionally it's younger than Lithuania. But we must remember that the country also idealized the perpetrator in a classic victim–abuser relationship."

The report recommended that the United Nations Security Council once again renew its efforts to organize an international intervention to help Australia get the counseling it needs to improve its self-concept.

[Acknowledgement to ‘theonion.com’ for the idea of this post]

29 December, 2006

You are 15% older than you thought.
So is the Universe

The spiral-form M33 Galaxy, one of our closer neighbours, is known as the ‘Triangulum’. The red in the photo indicates hydrogen, the blue indicates oxygen. FunkyPix2's intergalactic Real Estate office is in the oxygen-rich purple patch (top right), next to a convenience store.

FunkyPix2’s resident Astro-physicist has demonstrated that you are 15% older than you thought – which might help to account for those crow’s feet, paunch and love-handles appearing well before you expected.

Using his new prescription spectacles, Peter discovered that M33 spiral Galaxy was 15% further away than previously believed…that’s an extra 3 million light-years, ie, the universe is bigger than we thought.

This is because the age and size of the universe are intimately linked - when you look into space, you’re always looking back into time. Because of my discovery of this extra 3 million light-years, FunkyPix2 now estimates the universe to be at least 13.7 billion years old (= 13.7 thousand million) since its birth at the Big Bang.

Now, since one’s body is three-quarters water, it means about half your atoms are hydrogen. These hydrogen atoms originate from the Big Bang, so half of YOU is 15% older than you thought. Time to sign up for the nursing home or write a furious letter of objection to your local fundamentalist church.

This story isn't entirely crap. Get the genuine goss here on a transcript of an ABC-Australia radio interview.

26 December, 2006

PROOF: Humans have shopped for at least 160,000 Christmases.

"I Shop, Therefore I Am."

In an area near Chiangmai in the remote north of Thailand, renowned archaeologist Professor Marieta Burrowenski has discovered rock art from the walls of what appears to be the remains of a pre-historic supermarket.

The remarkably well-preserved etching appears to depict a female person pursuing her prey in the Un-prepacked Meat Department. She does not approach the buffalosaurus directly but cleverly adopts a slow and meandering route, probably in an effort to avoid making the beast nervous.

This discovery reveals uncanny parallels with shopping styles in a modern day Thai shopping mall. Bangkok’s Mahboonkrong University has analysed shoppers’ skilful hunting behaviours which appear to tap into these same primal instincts. Present-day shoppers often appear to wander at random before finally bagging their prey.

McDonalds R-Gym is a monumental lie worthy of George W.

Ronald McDonald now informs you that you can burn off the calories you eat by using his new in-store gymnasium.

Customers can pedal while eating ‘French Fries’ and watching video-game screens. It’s even healthier than before, he claims:

However, the Director of Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University inconveniently points out that “…the number of calories a child is likely to burn in one of those gyms is quite small compared to what they can eat, even in a small meal”. It would take a child, for example, more than 3 hours of exercise to burn off a 200-calorie milkshake.

The morning after: This Ohio teenager (see bicycle photo above) believed he could buy another burger after 5 minutes on the bike.

These gyms will have an adverse effect on obesity as they could lull people into believing they could eat more since they’re exercising. The amazing thing is that McDonalds’ profitability keeps improving,… Capitalism’s healthy even if its True Believers ain’t. We radical PC left-wingers, on the other hand, doggedly keep eating wheatgrass-on-rye at Marx & Spencers Café (no GMO salt thanks).
Er, I lied - here in Thailand it's literally Food Heaven. But it's largely fresh and healthy if you steer clear of the deep-fried stuff or excess coconut-milk.

Comfort-food arrives in Iraq in order to make the boys feel at home ...and to make a little extra money in kickbacks.

More victims.....

...and the perpetrator:

25 December, 2006

Thailand’s “Black Tuesday” baht meltdown – Is it safe to invest here?

A street beautification program in Huaygeaw Road,Chiangmai, Thailand: a perfect metaphor for Thai-style planning, estimation and evaluation skills

The recent Bank of Thailand’s disastrous attempt to discourage offshore baht speculators by suddenly imposing a 30% non-interest bearing ‘reserve’ (effectively a tax) on capital inflows was, unfortunately, rather typical of Thai “knee-jerk” planning methods. As an apt metaphor, check out these haphazard plantings of trees and flowers along Chiangmai’s Huaygeaw Road near our condo in Chiangmai, Northern Thailand. They reveal something of the workings of the Thai mind:

In the council’s procrastination and haste to dress the city up for the Ratchaphreuk Flower Festival, decisions suddenly came thick and fast from what HAD to have been a number of distinct committees. These committees could surely not have communicated with each other, given the messy outcome.

First, jack-hammers smashed roughly metre-square planting-holes in the tiled footpaths; workers then laid a young tree, with root-ball tightly tied, next to each hole. The saplings stayed that way for about 10 days, during which time the large majority wilted and died under the cruel October sun. Many more pavement tiles cracked and broke loose, even though pedestrians did their best to steer around the carnage. All the trees were then hurriedly planted (dead or otherwise) 2 days before the Festival opened. Any lingering leaves soon browned and dropped, requiring a panicky street-sweep before the celebs arrived. Next, dozens of large pots, located ad hoc wherever there happened to be a convenient gap between tree-craters, were filled with potting-mix, planted with flowers and hastily watered.

Result? Dead trees (most of which have since fallen over or been removed). Anyway, that species of tree would have soon grown into the overhead power-lines. Then there was the oozing brown sludge from the bottom of the pots, making walking slippery and unsightly. Broken tile shards have been littering the street. Two months on, little more has been done, and the pavement resembles an obstacle-course worthy of a secret al-Quaeda training camp. This 'cock-up' process is so common that the persons responsible would not only have got off without a reprimand, but could have been promoted for inventing a successful job-creation scheme!

This young elephant near our apartment found the going a bit tough. They are brought to town to entertain tourists because bulldozers have taken over their traditional logging work. Note the stylish tail-light.

The recent Black Tuesday stock market crash was merely an extension of this same myopic mindset but magnified at the national level. It could have been avoided simply by slowly increasing interest rates to pre-figure its fiscal intent. The market would have listened and accommodated appropriately over time, as in any country.

This cultural difference has its roots in the straight-jacketed Thai education system which prefers rigid rote-learning of ‘facts’ in preference to the teaching of critical thinking, logic, analysis or debate. Why bother thinking? – just go in with jack-hammers and see what happens.
So. . .

Should you invest here? The economy is ok, the basics are in place, but do make provision for possible legislative wildcards by spreading your eggs into other baskets as well. As much as I love Thailand, it does have a track-record of doing un-signalled policy u-turns without much thought to probable consequences. Having said that, the Bank of Thailand (and the fledgeling Surayud government) have just learned a BIG and embarrassing lesson - and cottoned on fast.

Update: Jan 12 2007: Here's an honest article in the Opinion section of Thailand’s ‘The Nation’ newspaper.

PS: Thailand Immigration’s long-stay or business visa rules are also a 'whatever-goes' zone. I refer you to the ex-pat forum at Thaivisa.com.

3 + 1 = 2 ...Adding MORE creates LESS. Bush’s arithmetic on the Iraq withdrawal simply doesn’t add up

George W is stuck between Iraq and a hard place. George’s ingenious solution to reducing the number of troops in Iraq is to send in more troops. Smart lad, this George jerk of yours. Surely in the wake of his November 2006 election massacre, deciding to send more troops must constitute an impeachable act?? If not, both your Law and the Constitution look like asses, not to mention Democracy itself. That’s how the rest of the world will interpret it... yes/no?

I mean, jeepers Marvin, how can the majority of americans vote against him yet be unable to prevent him sending more troops??? USA -style democracy is beginning to look like a p.c. way of electing a dictator.

I thought leaders of democratic countries were expected to bow to the will of the electorate. George is doing the exact opposite – therefore by definition he’s being un-democratic. He’s being a republican – of course! …oh how silly of me ho ho hum. A classic” neo-con man”.

I think most people, even americans, would surely consider the deliberate lies about WMD to be a LOT worse than lying about how you abused a cigar.

George W. Bush has a fireside chat with a potential Coalition ally, Jesus W. Christ

But we are also all aware that Bush is sheltered by enormous global corporate interests. That doesn’t make stupidity, bias, greed, or war crimes excusable, though. It's time to declare victory and pull out, but it's clear that he won't. He'll leave that to the next administration.

My earlier post on the issue of quitting Iraq is still valid. And after that, if you can bring yourself to look at even more of the real Iraq in the weeks after the 2003 invasion, have a look at the ghastly Shock and Awe Gallery of photos and accompanying ridiculous quotations of american politicians’ spin, gloss and sheer b*llsh*t.

But wait, there's more... Don't click here if you are at all squeamish about shocking casualty photos. Although this is clearly a website biased against Israel, it does graphically show the awful atrocities which Iraquis and Palestinians face every day of their lives. This is UN-censored reality, unlike the bloodless 'cleansed' version we get to see on CNN.

Another more recent coalition lie is the refrain that Iraq must be prevented from slipping into civil war. Folks, it’s been in civil war for the best part of 2 years already. The continued american presence is now largely an irrelevance, at best a minor irritation to the real combatants. If anything, it assists the 'insurgency' by continuing to destabalise the society. Really, it's the Coalition who are the 'insurgents'... intruders in someone else's country. (Likewise, FunkyPix2 hereby re-names the Vietnam War as the American War.)

So - here’s a summary of all Bush has ever said about Iraq:

If you’re Australian, you can help by voting Green as a symbolic protest… neither of the 2 big parties will seriously oppose Bush.

...and/or link FunkyPix2 to your own website. But WHATEVER you do, don’t be like this apathetic (and therefore selfish) citizen â

This slob couldn’t give a tinker’s toss whether more than 100,000 people in Iraq were murdered. He just cares about dozing as much as possible till next pension day. Just tell me it’s not you, because otherwise you'd be supporting this: