10 April, 2012

Dear Diary: HELP! Chiang Mai is too polluted to breathe. Gotta escape!

The dots indicate where Mount Doi Suthep used to be.
After getting back from India, it was immediately obvious we wouldn't be able to stay in Chiangmai. The smoke pollution came even earlier this year. We lasted 2 days before evacuating.

A popular place for many Chiangmai smog refugees is the fishing-village-cum-tourist town Hua Hin, the beach south-west of Bangkok. The beach is pretty good, the sky blue, the air clear. It's not a den of crime like Pattaya or Phuket, although you could probably find some if you went looking, no doubt.
Like everywhere, there are scams for the unsuspecting - for instance, don't have anything to do with the tour/taxi agent Mr Ed at his tacky little desk on the corner of Naret Damri Road, near World News Coffee. It's usually next to the motorcycles in this photo at left.
Hua Hin's Scandinavian/Danish-controled real estate scene is a bit more expensive than Chiangmai, but for the 2 months you need to flee the smoke, it works out cheaper to take a contract on an apartment or town-house than to stay in a hotel. How can you afford it, I hear you ask. Simple answer: we simply can't afford not to - health is paramount, so we budget for time away each year in March-April. Gee, if Chiangmai can't control its pollution, it deserves to lose people and their cash. And we don't mind some time at the beach during the hot season anyway... a holiday from retirement :-)
 Some of the condos along Hua Hin beach flaunt themselves grandly as 'resorts', but really they're just condos with attached pool. Several are built in the profile of the prow of a ship. To their credit, they generally look after their little patch of beach quite well, some even raking it smooth each morning:
 Sometimes the 'Condo Rules' signs are fun, eg
"Skateboards are not allowed to play in the building".
After Chiangmai's smoke, it's cleansing to walk on the beach and trail the toes in the clear and comfortably-cool ocean, despite the occasional sea creature venturing out of its comfort zone:

 ...and we note that this year's unusual storms wreaked quite a bit of damage:

 And while we're on the subject of Climate Change, my predictions from 2007 that Bangkok is sinking and must be moved elsewhere soon are all coming true. Hey, Yingluck, if Bangkok is going to be re-located, can Chiangmai please inherit its Skytrain?

There's a slow collision happening, a struggle for co-existence between Huahin's traditional Fishing industry and the inexorable advance of Tourism. Here on the sandy front line, battalions of beach umbrellas and an army of aggressively-marketed sun-beds confront a stranded and defenceless fishing boat...
 ...and Tourism's proving to be the victor, hands down.
Kite-surfing's big these days (yep, we over-optimistic starry-eyed geriatrics tried it out back in 2010... oops):

 ...and, of course, when Santa Crore visits Thailand, he should paint his beard gold, put loads of whitening cream on, and come prepared for Thai Boxing. As he does every year. In April:

 There are still signs of the old Hua Hin, though, like this charismatic little bay cosying up to the town's tourist waterfront. However, the ricketty old fishing jetties have now evolved into restaurants and 'hole-in-the-wall" backpacker hostels which gently sway and creak whenever a high tide coincides with a heavy swell:
 FYI, here's an old photo showing the very same jetty in the days when it served as a massive squid-drying rack. These days, we haven't seen any boats as large as this one:
  Today the town's esplanade, just behind these jetties, looks like any other tourist-oriented street in Thailand, complete with its looming Hilton Hotel in the distance...

 ...except that instead of lanes ['sois'] running off to the side, you have a thicket of higgledy-piggledy jetties. This is free-enterprise architecture gone mad. Sadly, one day I can forsee the whole lot being demolished and subsumed under one large co-ordinated modern re-development. Some of the wooden stumps look as if they're already approaching their use-by date. See it while you can:
A few fishing boats, relatively small, were still moored along the beach along from our condo...
 ...but no longer in the same numbers as in 'Songkrans Past':
  These days, to the north of Huahin at Cha-Am, the shoreline is dotted with huge condo buildings. Not so in the past, with its sandy foreshore of she-oaks, villages and palms:
...and oh yeah, I forgot... there are some bits of the beach like the following 'khlong' [drain] outlet which are not quite (shall we say) 'pristine', but tourist operators bravely persist in the hope that some people won't notice the dodgy smell. Dogs do enjoy snoozing there, though, as you can see... and hey, it's a cool spot to park your boat where people are less than likely to interfere with it:
(No, it's not a big surfing beach like those along the Andaman Sea)
 In spite of this, I have to say that Hua Hin has the best quality seafood I've tasted anywhere, even prime Australian seafood at many times the price. And Thai chefs sure know how to prepare it. Before you drop off your proverbial twig, may we suggest you sample the exquisite French seafood buffet at the Centara Hua Hin, or (for a far more budget-friendly price) the KO Seafood Restaurant in the Huahin Night Market. Seafood to dine for. QED.
This was the view of the beach and ocean from our table at the Centara seafood BBQ, with the green neon lights of fishing boats dotting the distance:

 One old favourite restaurant is still the one we nickname the 'Brown Restaurant' near the night market area, although it has become a little jaded over the years. On the ground floor of an old teak building on a street corner, it developed many years ago as an amalgamation of street cart food vendors who collectively needed a space for customers to sit down to eat. The food is still largely prepared by the street vendors who trundle their carts into position at about 6pm when the place opens its doors. Foreigners hardly ever eat there unless they venture in with a Thai spouse, preferring to patronize the posh jetty restaurants and pay three times the price for inferior food. Good quality, genuine Thai food, mâi paeng, but this time we went, the Songkran crowd overwhelmed the staff and things weren't so good:
 The KO Seafood Restaurant in the Night Market is even better these days.
  The notice in the loo at the Brown Restaurant... in case you missed the point.
 While we were waiting for our meal, a Thai football team (pron: 'Fooseborn Tim') pranced in a stylized way down the main road chanting slogans while wearing pink and holding hands in a human chain. Supporters trotted alongside waving flaming torches. Can't quite see the Brisbane Broncos doing that along Queen Street, somehow...
While we were in Hua Hin, there were several small earth tremors further south near Phuket. Looking at the photo in the above tweet, I'm beginning to feel less safe. Since then, scare-mongers and other seismological experts have tried to claim there's going to be a giant quake which will cause the entire island of Phuket to disappear beneath the briny... the Atlantis of Asia. Yep, I'm off to buy some Water-Wings.
 Yep, it's on this year, I'd say. He's coming ba-a-a-a-ck! None other than Mr Thaksin 'Squareface' Shinawatra, Thailand's self-exiled criminal fugitive ex-prime monster, popped in to the Hua Hin night-market for a surprise visit. At least he wasn't wearing a red shirt. He wouldn't dare - Hua Hin is a mostly monarchist town because it is the location of the King's summer palace on the beach, just to the north of here. Our condo security man quipped: Thaksin mâi dii for Thailan.  Mâi chawp.  Thaksin's T-shirt (yes, Made in China) mockingly reads something to the effect that he needs the help of Thai people, the unspoken bitter joke being the worn-out trousers:
This year, Thaksin didn't appear on the Forbes list of the world's 1226 billionaires, probably because he had embezzled most of his money from the Thai people. He became "unusually wealthy" while in office, the usual Thai jargon for "corrupt". Yet the Redneck poor, his rural victims who suffered most, now want him back as their leader... duh.
 This from Wikipedia, which glosses over Thaksin's human rights record of more than 2500 extrajudicial street murders during his "War on Drugs" (which, incidentally, his Redshirt supporters want to revive):
The Thaksin government faced allegations of corruption, authoritarianism, treason, conflicts of interest, acting non-diplomatically, and muzzling of the press. Thaksin was accused of tax evasion, lèse majesté (insulting King Bhumibol), and selling assets of Thai companies to international investors. Independent bodies, including Amnesty International, criticized Thaksin's human rights record. Thaksin was also charged for concealing his wealth during his premiership ... The Assets Examination Committee froze Thaksin and his family's assets in Thailand, totaling 76 billion baht ($2.2 billion), claiming he had become unusually wealthy while in office. Thaksin and his wife had declared assets totaling 15.1 billion baht when he took office in 2001, although he had transferred many of his assets to his children and associates before taking office ... Thaksin was accused of concealing shares by transferring Shin Corp shares to his drivers and maids. Thaksin tearfully told the Constitutional Court that it was an honest mistake before the Court acquitted him from the charges.
Thaksin's disorganized step-niece Yingluck Shinawatra, propelled into power as the proxy prime minister, is having a tough time, and probably can't wait to get him back into Thailand to take over the reins again. Here's an extract from a tweet indicating she was having yet another bad day in office...
Enough! Politics, get thee gone!
We briefly had to go to Australia on a mission of sad family business. While there, we visited Anna and Stuart, and (as is our intractable habit) went walking along various Adelaide beaches.
I saw two derros begging at Glenelg:
  They sample exotic local Australian (ie, Italian/Greek/Lebanese) food, prepared by the Refugees and Boat-people who comprise earlier generations of Australians:
Two Boat-people sampling tucker prepared by other Boat-people.
Other times they pick really Ozzie dishes - like Pizza, Yiros, Kebabs, or Fried Rice.
 ...and - finally! - evidence in Adelaide Central Market that some Strayans are beginning to realize that their stereotypical diet is severely inhibited and terminally boring:
  Then (with relief and a quick Gaeng Khiaw Waan curry) it was back home to our lovely Thailand...
This was a handbag shop in Bangkok - there was a small illuminated Buddhist shrine inside the tuk-tuk's windscreen. The auspicious numberplate alludes to the Buddha's Eightfold Path of Enlightenment - and, presumably, might (with any luck) invoke a decent day's takings in the shop till. Thailand just wouldn't be the same without glaring philosophical contradictions:
   For me, "shopping" is usually more about looking at the shops, not what's in them.
A furniture shop in Central World, the mall burnt down by Redshirts last year.
Looking at this stuff, I'm beginning to understand...
 Bangkok, apparently, is planning to remove its phone booths because mobiles have become the medium of choice. So I thought I'd photograph these booths in Chinatown in case they disappear forever. So you see, my dear grandchildren, this was what technology looked like in my day (and those funny little three-wheelers used to run on something called 'petrol'... remember petrol ?):
So - now that Chiangmai's air is blessedly beginning to clear at last (due to 'rain'... remember rain ?), we're planning on going back - but only after the Songkran festival. Here in Hua Hin, the water-throwing madness only goes on for one day, as opposed to four or five in Chiangmai (AKA "Songkran Central"). Most of the people of our age who we know, Thai and foreigner alike, bunker down indoors for the day.
That's ironic - Songkran actually began life as an alcohol-free festival to honour us, the elderly of society. In sober and respectful ceremonies, the young would gently pour symbolic water over the hands of their elders followed by the customary wai gesture (putting palms together). These days Songkran has morphed into Godzilla - uncontrollable street warfare with an avaerage of 35+ road deaths per day ...caused mostly by alcohol-affected young men on motorcycles:
Catharsis by any other name.
  Foam Party  (the foam machine is in the far right corner)
 We stocked up the apartment with food supplies and spent a quiet (foam-free and dry) Songkran day at home. Yep, it's possible to have way too much fun... *curmudgeonly grimace*  bah humbug etc.
Instead, Marie spent the day designing her new Summer Collection. Here's one of the predicted top-sellers, with its subtle hint of Songkran:
Sign this petition by the Breathe Campaign to put pressure on Chiangmai to improve its air quality (This link will open in a new window).

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