Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Thailand and Cambodia Teeter On War

When troubles erupt in Bangkok (protests, coups, etc.) I often jokingly complain that "nothing ever happens in Isaan," Thailand's laid-back Northeast.

Well, I lied.

After months of standoffs and skirmishes at a flashpoint on the Thai-Cambodian border (about three hours' drive from my town), Thai troops moved in closer to a position held by Cambodian soldiers. As a result, the Prime Minister of Cambodia yesterday rattled his saber, and declared there would be full-scale war if Thailand didn't withdraw its troops from the disputed territory. The deadline was noon yesterday. Apparently, the withdrawal didn't happen and fighting broke out today.

The territory involves a pitiful little patch of 1.8 square miles. The disputed area, near an ancient temple ruin, "Khao Phra Vihan" (or "Preah Vihear" in Cambodian) is comprised of what looks like burnt rock and dead scrub brush on a high, dry, exposed ridge. The BBC , calls it "scrub land." Quite fitting. See my photo below (taken about 2 years ago).

What really is at stake is national pride fueled by a super-heated nationalism on both sides.

Thailand is upset that Cambodia pushed for the temple ruin itself to become a UN World Heritage Site. Indeed, after you walk a mile or so through the miserable scrub land, you come to the edge of an escarpment on which sets a spectatular 1,000 year-old temple ruin. Thailand controled the temple itself until 1962 when the World Court awarded control to Cambodia. However, the exact demarcation lines were left somewhat vague--hence, the ongoing tensions.

Cambodia is hanging onto what they feel is their national pride as well. Until the tensions heated up this year, about 90% of the tourists at Preah Vihear were Thai. One of the first signs that greeted them on the temple grounds was this....

On the sign, "Khmer" is the word Cambodians use when referring to themselves. In fact, the ancient Cambodian empire which built Preah Vihear was called the "Khmer Empire."

So, as usual, seldom is a spat a one-sided affair. It takes two to tango (or tangle, however the proverb goes).

So, I take it back. Sometimes things do happen in Isaan. The last excitement we had in our area was in the 1970's when these jungles were the refuge of many a Communist rebel--some of them fathers and grandfathers of my students! Just a generation or so ago, they were fighting the central Thai government.

So, anyone looking for a laid-back utopian paradise where everyone and every thing is at peace? I thought maybe it was spelled "I-S-A-A-N." I guess it's time to revert back to the original spelling: "H-E-A-V-E-N."

Friday, October 10, 2008

Advice from a Watch Expert....

I bought a cheap "utility" watch in Pratunam (a low-end outdoor market in Bangkok) last month. I proudly put my cheap bargain on my wrist, took two steps and heard "clink." The glass crystal fell to the sidewalk.

My thoughts: "It's Thailand, and no one ever takes anything back, especially a cheap watch. I'm screwed (again)."

My Thai shopping friend and a couple vendors standing around encouraged me to take the two steps backward and return it to the sales lady. I handed her the watch and crystal separately and waited for her response, which was...(with a straight face)...

"This kind of watch doesn't need a crystal."

She wrapped the crystal in a tissue, put it in a bag, and handed it back to me with the now bare-faced watch. My Thai shopping companion gave me that typical look often given to red-faced foreigners that said "Please, don't create a scene."

So now, I change the time by moving the watch hands with my fingers, just like I did on the big grandfather clock at Grandma's house. I try to keep it out of the rain, and I also cover it with my hand when someone sneezes. A month later, it's still running, and I think I'm now making a fashion statement with it. When people ask about it, I tell them I bought a special watch that offers a "tactile experience," and then I feel the bare face and hands like a blind person trying to tell the time.

I give the Thai sales "expert" one point for quick thinking.
Score: One for her. Zero for me.

UPDATE: August 2009. Unbelievably, the watch is still running. I have stumbled onto a new secret to keep watches running in Thailand: fresh air!