A Burj too far?

Time Out asked what shall we call the new tower?

Well Burj Dubai is still available after the 2010 renaming of what became the Burj Khalifa.

Failing that – the Burj Unnecessary might do!

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Yesterday a new tower that will become the centrepiece of Emaar’s Dubai Creek Harbour project was approved by Dubai Ruler Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

The tower’s height and name has not yet been revealed, but the developer said it would “comparable in greatness and in height” to the Burj Khalifa and the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Of course!

The building has been designed by Santiago Calatrava Valls, a Spanish/Swiss architect, who has worked on the World Trade Centre Transportation Hub in New York, the Spire Tower in Chicago and the Olympic Sports Complex in Athens.

The tower will be “directly linked to the central island district of Dubai Creek Harbour with a vibrant 4.5km creek boardwalk offering an array of retail, dining, leisure and entertainment choices”, Emaar said in a statement released on Saturday.

Does that sounds a bit too much like the pr work for the new canal being built through decimated Safa Park?

It looks pretty – but in other news 50% of Dubai developments due to complete in 2015 failed to do so and have been delayed. The DWC airfield is way behind schedule. Maybe it is time to get some things finished before building the next destination/vanity tower?

Confessions of a bridge criminal

If you have been following the laughable detention, in Pattaya, of thirty-two not-so-sprightly bridge playing foreigners than this disarmingly honest article gives you all the details – written by one of the Pattaya 32.

It would be comical if it was not so trying for the good people involved.

The fact that it all happened in Pattaya – a city more noted for sex, drugs and corruption than it is for cerebral pursuits like bridge, makes it even more preposterous.

Background

Right now I am in Sattahip, a small town 40km south of Pattaya, 175km south of Bangkok. I stay with a friend who is an expert in shrimp production and shrimp hatchery management.

On Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings I take a mini-bus up the highway to Pattaya. This costs 40 baht one-way (US$1 = 37b, EUR1 = 40b). I then have lunch, generally an excellent pork noodle soup (damn, another 40b out the window!) or chicken-rice soup, equally good.

I then head to the Pattaya/Jomtien Bridge Club, arriving about 12:30 for coffee and await the 13:00 duplicate.

On Wednesday, 3rd Feb 2016, my partner was Norwegian Trond Rogne. He is a retired Professor (Civ Eng), a world authority on the corrosion of oil pipelines and winner of the 1988 IBPA Hand of the Year. He lives in Jomtien (next beach district south) with his Thai wife and children.

http://www.jannersten.org:1500/~server/IBPA/archive/Handbook/IBPA%20Handbook.pdf#page=48&zoom=auto,321,720

The club’s standard is “mixed”… Erik Sælensminde (BB 2007) is a frequent player, as is a 92yo English communist, whose love of the Dialectic is equaled only by his affection for six-card majors and Worser Minor.

At the Club

All was normal in our 8 table 3/4 Howell until 15:30, when a large collection of police, military and press came clomping up the stairs. They milled about looking silly while players paid not much attention to them – it was, after all, the middle of a round. The game proceeded without interruption until the normal 16:30 end, with the exception of a few people trying to explain to the authorities, in between hands, that there was no gambling taking place. I told some military officers that they should come and learn bridge but they didn’t seem too interested. I showed the large press contingent this link:

http://thailandbridgeleague.com/

Upon recognising a familiar face there, they twigged that this was going to be one mighty big SNAFU.

http://www.pattayamail.com/news/foreign-bridge-players-busted-in-south-pattaya-55600

http://pattayaone.net/pattaya-news/221251/british-led-card-room-raided-officials-south-pattaya/

We sat around the club while the police and military examined such wickedness as BridgeMates and puzzled over bidding boxes. Of course, once they found the scores on the computer, we were done for! There were [match]points and points means scoring and scoring means gambling. No, I don’t quite follow that, either.

They impounded the secret register of cash wins (actually a log of electricity meter readings; club helper Dave likes to argue the toss with the owner), the boards, computer and other equipment. At 18:00 we were told to go downstairs and hop in the buses; it was off to the police station on the corner of Beach Rd and Soi (side-road) 9. We were going to be fined 1,000b each for gambling.

At the Police Station

We were put into a large room with air conditioning, a big table and plenty of chairs. We sat around chatting; the boards were on a side-table but my offer to play low-stake rubber bridge was rejected. Some people have no sense of adventure.

Soon we found out that the charge was not gambling, but playing on unregistered premises. The club was set up in 1994 by Honorary British Consul Barry Kenyon (a player on that day and detained with us at the police station) and had some certificate or other, but it did not meet with the authorities’ approval. It did three months earlier during a routine inspection; go figure, as the Americans say.

And then there was the matter of the playing cards – some were not stamped! No, I’m not from Monty Python. See section 8 here:

http://www.thailawforum.com/laws/Playing%20cards.pdf

Later, the gambling charge was reinstated. We had fooled them for only a short time with the absence of cash, but that was easily explained: With typical Western craftiness, we were obviously settling up later by bank transfer. These evildoers must be stopped!

The price had gone up for attempting to fool the loyal and honest Thai officials – now 5,000 baht, payable toot sweet or stay there indefinitely.

The deal was:

– each person is charged with gambling, bail set at 5,000b

– each person signs document agreeing that they had been gambling

– we are released that night after bail payment

– we attend court the next morning to answer the charges

Well, that didn’t sound like a good deal to me. I have quite an aversion to signing false declarations. However, Trond Rogne had called his lawyer, who was there to advise us. Her view was that this “confession” was no big deal, we could retract and contest the matter in court. Getting home was to be preferred, so that’s what we did.

All except one person, a German lady who said that no way would she declare that she had been gambling when she had not and to hell with it, she would take whatever was coming, good or bad, and no paying bail for her.

Well, full marks for adhering to one’s principles, and I may well have done the same in a Western jurisdiction, but the fact that one could retract and contest in court swayed the matter for me.

And as an aside, I spent some three months in 2011 getting my wife out of a Lebanese jail; she was there after false accusations were made by a malicious psychopath that she was an arms dealer and an Israeli spy. I spent quite some time observing conditions in jail; the police are courteous and polite until they are not, and when they are not one will very much wish to be somewhere else. One cannot be certain if and when the mood will change and it’s better out than in.

Anyway, some people had the 5,000b on them, some did not. Calls were made, the ATM visited, and those who were short were fixed up.

In the meantime, assorted friends and relatives visited and did runs to the nearby 7-11 for supplies. The police provided free cartons of bottled water. And, most importantly, club manager Jeremy Watson, a retired British chartered accountant and long-time Thailand resident, had been on the phone to the Thailand Bridge League officials who were more than a little perturbed about the matter. We had a secret weapon in the form of Khunying Chodchoy (Esther) Sophonpanich, whose photo the journalists had recognised on the TBL web site. Khunying Sophonpanich is President of the Asia-Pacific Bridge Federation.

http://www.zoominfo.com/p/Khunying-Sophonpanich/95130729

Now if I understand correctly, Khunying is an high-end honorific that can only be bestowed by the King. Esther had quite a bit to say to the police by telephone that night and agreed to attend the police station and court the next morning. This is something like finding out that Baroness Rothschild is heading to the local police station to sort out some minor matter – she will get a hearing, and then some, particularly in a monarchy.

“Issues”

It was now getting on to midnight and there had been some “issues”.

– Trond’s children (aged 6 and 9) were waiting to be picked up from school (his wife visiting her mother in the north) and requests to the police for assistance were ignored. Eventually he was able to get a friend to pick up and care for the children overnight; the poor children had no idea why they had been abandoned.

– An elderly Dutch lady with some health problems was visited by a most irate member of the local Dutch Club; he wanted her home asap. After quite some arguing she was released at midnight.

– Two players needed their medication. This was denied and, while I have not researched the matter, may well be a human rights violation.

– Jeremy Watson was charged with card tax evasion (the unstamped cards) and running the club on unregistered premises; his bail set at 50,000b. A whip-around quickly raised that. I asked to be shown the relevant legislation; furthermore, I wanted to see the documentation for Jeremy’s bail, it having strangely come down 140,000b to 80,000b to 50,000b. I gather these were amongst the funniest things I have ever said.

Even Trond’s lawyer was in stitches.

It was a matter of sitting about waiting, with the occasional signing of documents (Father’s name! Mother’s name!), having passports confiscated and being fingerprinted. The slowest part was waiting to be called up one by one… a minor Thai official spent an age staring at a list of names, wondering how to pronounce such strange jumbles of letters (Ole Skjeveland?).

At 03:00, 4th Feb, we were free to leave, all except the courageous German non-signer and card tax evader Jeremy Watson, who had more paperwork to attend to. Trond’s lawyer was still there, so things looked to be under control for them both. We were under orders to attend the police station at 10:30 and be ready to attend court later in the day.

Getting back to Sattahip was too much of a chore; I got a 500b hotel room for the night and had delightful dreams of Khunying Sophonpanich tasering assorted bare buttocks.

The morning

We congregated at Soi 9 in the morning; it was as I expected, just more waiting.I found out that Jeremy had been released at 05:15; no sign of Ms Courageous Non-signer.

Esther Sophonpanich (on whose team I played in Canberra in 1982) appeared and was as charming and courteous as always. She headed upstairs to kick the sh… I mean, quietly discuss the matter with the the Chief of Police and was there for over an hour.

Trond’s lawyer was there, as was legal representation of the owner of the bridge club building.

While waiting, I found the local reports online; I was optimistic that word would spread to Western outlets. It most certainly has.

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/05/how-trumped-up-charges-led-thai-police-to-raid-expat-bridge-club

Esther came down to tell us that the gambling charges had been dropped; we would get our passports returned shortly and the 5,000b bail money would be refunded.

We were free to go home at about midday. The German non-signer had been held at a different venue and was released.

EDIT: In fact it took some hours after our release for Jeremy and a lawyer to locate the German lady; she was released in the company of her husband at about 16:00.

 

In Closing

You may have wondered, why the military presence in all this?

Thailand is under military rule (albeit with plenty of freedom for everyone) and one of the mandates is to stop corrupt activities. One such is gambling, another is police bribery. The military came along to police both.

And how did all this come about?

The Guardian report on the previous page is on the right track; this nonsense was started by the disaffected Thai ex-wife of a man who works for the owner of the club building. She is a nutter; last week she came by to accuse me of being an Australian policeman sent to spy on her. She made a complaint of gambling to the Office of the Prime Minister, whose staff have perhaps been a little over-enthusiastic.

Returning to the matter of the unstamped cards: http://www.thailawforum.com/laws/Playing%20cards.pdf 

Jeremy Watson is still facing charges of too many cards, unstamped cards, card tax evasion and failing to wash behind his ears. Ok, I made the last one up, but you get the idea. Fines and/or jail seem to be mandatory. We’ll see!

We have a Thai lawyer examining the wording of the Thai legislation.

What is meant by “person” and “possess” in Section 8?

Is bridge, recognized in Thailand as a sport, exempt from the “120 cards” provision?

How does the fact that the club has been given gifts of packs of cards from overseas visitors affect matters?

Well, if I thought such questions were of interest to anyone I would be sure to keep you informed.

But I doubt that they are.

A bridge too far

Pattaya is Thailand’s cess-pool of vice. Parts are a grim town of prostitution and drugs. It can also be quite fun as well and there is some great golf nearby! But that may be a story for another day

Until now playing Bridge was never seen as one of those vices.

Just a hint to the Pattaya police – if they want to clean up a combined washroom and poker club might be the answer.

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But yesterday afternoon a  group of elderly bridge players were surprised by a visit from the police on Wednesday.

Thirty-two foreigners, including British, Swedish, Norwegian and Australian citizens, were arrested during the anti-gambling raid.

They said they were not playing for money, but were held for possessing too many unregistered playing cards.

Thailand’s military rulers have vowed to crack down on corruption and crime.

The players were released on bail on Thursday, after 12 hours in custody.

In addition to 12 Britons, those arrested included three Norwegians, three Swedes, two Australians, a German, a Dane, a Canadian and a New Zealander, AFP news agency reported.

An 84-year-old Dutch woman was also among those held.

There is a video of teh raid on youtube – unfortunately in Thai only.

Pattaya Police round up Bridge playing vice gang!

The Army, Pattaya Police and District Officials, conducted a raid on a 2nd floor rented room abive a soi 2 restaurant South Pattaya after a tip-off from an informant of a regular gathering of foreign nationals above the Alto’s Restaurant & Bar in Soi 2 off the Thappraya Road in South Pattaya. The Jomtien & Pattaya Bridge Club have met there 3 times a week since 1994.

Over 50 officers stormed the premises and found 8 tables and 32 foreign nationals, consisting of 26 men and 6 women playing cards.

As usual the police arrived with an army of media journalists and camera crews so that they could show there fine detective work and that they were clamping down on a serious vice issue.

No money was changing hands, however the officers scoured the law books and found an offense was being committed and therefore the alleged organizer of the event, Mr. Jeremy Watson aged 74 from UK was detained for further questioning.

The offense relates to Section 8 of the Playing Cards Act of 1935 which states that an individual is not allowed to possess more than 120 playing cards at any one time. At the Bridge event, considerably more than 120 playing cards were found by officers. Basically one deck per table so over 400 cards.

Computers, Decks of Cards and a book with results of the Bridge games were seized by officers as evidence.

The raid will concern other Bridge club organizers in Pattaya who assumed their gatherings were not breaking any of Thailand’s Anti-Gambling Laws.

All 32 card players were arrested and eventually released from Pattaya Police Station at 03.00am after almost 12 hours in custody and paying 5,000 Baht in bail each.

While police are still carrying out further investigations the foreign media have all picked up on the story with uniform incredulity.

Just worth noting that the Bridge Club of Thailand is sponsored by the Bangkok Bank and PTT

Emirates non-stop to Auckland

 

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Pictures: Emirates

Catching everyone by surprise last week Emirates announced that it will launch the first non-stop flights between Auckland and Dubai from March 2, in a move that will give it a brief crown as the longest flight in the world and effectively increase the capacity available for bookings on its trans-Tasman joint venture with Qantas.

Emirates will maintain its current trans-Tasman schedule of three A380 and one Boeing 777-300ER flights a day, despite adding five weekly non-stop services between Auckland and Dubai on a 777-200LR. The Auckland-Dubai sector will rank ahead of Qantas’ Dallas-Sydney flight as the longest in the world in distance and will have a flying time of 17 hours and 15 minutes.

The flight is just a little shorter than the planned 17 hours and 35 minutes non-stop from Dubai to Panama City launching on March 31.

Emirates’ decision to announce the new route just a month before the first flights is unusual, and industry sources said it was probably part of an effort to beat rival Qatar to the market.

Since Emirates already has a significant support and ground service organization in Auckland the logistics of the new flight are straightforward. Simpler than a new route.

Emirates said travellers booked on its existing services to Dubai and beyond via Australia would be able to switch to the new flight without additional fees, subject to seat availability. That will mean more trans-Tasman seats in the coming months.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission required Qantas and Emirates to maintain a minimum level of trans-Tasman capacity as part of their joint venture approved in 2013, which allows the airlines to co-ordinate pricing and scheduling.

Emirates has improved its load factor, or the percentage of seats filled, on trans-Tasman flights through its relationship with Qantas. In October 2012 Emirates filled about 69 per cent of trans-Tasman seats but that increased to 75 per cent by October 2015. However,  in October 2015 the Emirates load remained lower than Air New Zealand with 86 per cent, Qantas at 84 per cent, Virgin at 83 per cent and Jetstar at 81 per cent.

A Qantas spokesman said New Zealand has always been “central to the success” of its Emirates partnership, with the carriers combined contributing about 32,000 seats a week on trans-Tasman routes.

“We know that our customers like the range of routes and aircraft types available with Qantas and Emirates,” he said. “We expect that most Qantas and Emirates customers who fly to New Zealand will continue to travel via Australia, but this new route will supplement those existing services and provide an option that wasn’t available before.

Emirates said it would tie in the service in its code-sharing arrangement with Jetstar’s domestic New Zealand services, allowing customers from other parts of the country, including regional areas, to connect to Auckland. Jetstar launched in 2015 turboprop services from regional areas in a challenge to dominant carrier Air New Zealand. Qantas is examining a potential code-share on the non-stop Auckland-Dubai flights.

As for the competition Air New Zealand offers flights to London via Los Angeles and has partnerships with Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines for European flights via Asia.

 

Cold showers, pictures and a wedding

A week traveling Thailand – too many hotel rooms and cold showers and not enough decent internet access.

We flew into Bangkok on Saturday 23rd – and after an overnight at the airport we flew on NokAir on Sunday afternoon to a very cold and wet Chiang Mai.

The Sunday night street market in the old town has turned into an exploitational disaster. So many stalls – even in the middle of the road, ensures that even on a cold wet Sunday it feels way to crowded with too many stalls selling nothing that you would have any interest in buying.

So we gave up and went to Goodview by the river – it was cool but still busy. Music and food. And back to our hotel for a cold shower.

Breakfast. Open Air. 11C. Cold everything.

All day Monday was a photoshoot for Tai.

Loving Light Studio

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I would like to tell you more about the photoshoot – enough to say that I like James and I like how he goes about his work.

Monday night we met up with the lovely couple, Apple and Tim, and Apple’s slightly shocked mother! Back in Goodview. Even colder than the previous night.

Tuesday was an even colder morning; and wet. We were at Woraros market fixing Tai’s bridesmaid dress. Friendly folk there.

How cold was Chiang Mai:

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AirAsia back to DonMuang. Uneventful. Overnight at the Novotel Fenix on Silom Road. A dinner meeting at Siam with Bantarawan and Marko to run through their wedding plan for a few days later. Yes they did trust me to officiate. Brave. Their big day; their wedding day. Not something I could f*** up. So I had worked hard on the script for their wedding – keep religion out of it – but keep it meaningful. The plan – it should be emotional enough that their would be some tears.

Wednesday morning – the first of my BNH dental visits for root canal work. Take Tylenol and don’t think about me said Ajarn Charriyaporn (my dentist) as we finished up.

So that meant that for at least half of our drive to Dolphin Bay I really did not want to talk.

Dolphin Bay was pleasant enough – quiet – I had a long private walk early on Thursday morning – not a lot of sleep – toothache and some disturbing news about my mother – who had been found – unconscious – at home by Devon and Cornwall police.

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Thursday was another few hours driving the very slow Highway 4 to the south. And down to the Ban Saithong Beach Resort.

Just a few wedding guests there on the Thursday night with most turning up on Friday. this was good as for one night we had a superior room – before a significant downgrade the next day. Tim with Apple and Nina with Brendan and Indy did even better scoring the two Jacuzzi villas. The resort is very pleasant; and quite isolated. The beach not ideal for a beach wedding but just fine for a beachside wedding overlooking the ocean.

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Friday morning involved pictures around the pool and the hotel grounds before lunch at Bangberd beach and a drive around the beaches and fishing villages.

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That and the Bangberd beach jumping contest.

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Which brings us to wedding day and a Thai-German union with me as the Celebrant – and yes there were tears….so I reckon that was a success. The bride looked glorious; the bridesmaids mostly splendid and the groomsmen tall and well-fed!

Just one note here – trying to be the centre of attention is wholly inappropriate when it is your friend who is getting married – and we all know who I mean here!

There are lots of wedding pictures: This is a good place to start:

Bantarawan and Marko wedding pictures

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That is about up to date – the party ended at 3am – other than for some noisy guests who sat on the wall outside the rooms and chatted until later – I was very glad I was not in the 5am departures. A leisurely drive along the coast to Prachuap Khiri Khan and then the highway to Hua Hin – for (at last) a hot shower.

View above Dubai

There are some new videos on YouTube promoted by Emirates and Boeing under the project title ‘View from Above.’

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The Dubai video seeks to capture the diversity of the emirate, from the Burj Khalifa, Burj Al Arab, the Atlantis to the desert sand dunes and folk dances.

In all honesty it is another video (albeit well made) of rich man’s Dubai. This is not how 90% of the population live.

Dubai is among the many destinations covered in the project, such as Poland, New Zealand, Ireland, Sydney, and Sri Lanka, among others.

All the footage used in the video has been shot using unmanned recreational drones.

View above Dubai

Two Systems Failure

China’s promise of autonomy for Hong Kong is ringing hollow – from the Economist

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The lugubrious Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong’s chief executive, was never the man to cheer you up. This was a handicap as he made his fourth annual policy address to the Legislative Council (Legco) this week. The mood in the chamber and the territory as a whole was sour. Business frets about the slowdown in China. Political life remains scarred by the failure of the pro-democracy “umbrella” movement of 2014. To protests, Mr Leung plodded through a speech on economic issues, with a special emphasis on China’s regional plans. He did not even try to allay rekindled fears that Hong Kong’s freedoms are in jeopardy.

Looked at in a certain light, such fears can seem overblown. Hong Kong still debates politics with no holds barred. Groups banned elsewhere in China freely proselytise. And any perceived encroachment on the territory’s freedoms provokes loud protests. Yet the alleged abduction since October of five Hong Kong residents by the Chinese authorities has cast a dark shadow. Three vanished in mainland China and one in Thailand. The disappearance on December 30th of the fifth man, Lee Bo, has caused particular alarm. He appears to have been snatched from Hong Kong itself and spirited across the border to the mainland, without his travel documents or any record of his leaving. His fate remains unknown. Like the other four, he was associated with a publisher and bookshop specialising in one of Hong Kong’s more esoteric niche businesses: scurrilous tales of intrigue, infighting, corruption and sex among China’s Communist leaders. A forthcoming title purports to uncover the love life of President Xi Jinping. Many have assumed that the Communist Party’s displeasure with the firm’s output explains the mysterious disappearances. China has not denied it.

The implications would be grim. Under the Joint Declaration of 1984 with Britain over Hong Kong’s future, China promised that “one country, two systems” would apply after China resumed sovereignty over the territory: ie, that Hong Kong would enjoy autonomy in all but its defence and foreign relations. Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, guarantees among other things freedom of speech and judicial independence. The suggestion that Hong Kong’s people, should they displease the sovereign master, might simply be kidnapped makes a nonsense of this.

A torrent of outrage has gushed from China’s usual critics in Hong Kong: Martin Lee, a veteran barrister, legislator and pro-democracy campaigner, called the apparent kidnapping “the most worrying thing” to have happened in Hong Kong since British rule ended in 1997. Even the Communist Party’s loyalists in Hong Kong are at a loss. The local government usually sees its role as justifying the central authorities’ ways to Hong Kong, rather than the other way round. Yet this week the justice secretary, Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung, called the fears the incident had evoked “totally understandable”. Legco’s president, Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, founding chairman of the biggest pro-Communist party, insisted that China should reassure Hong Kong about its autonomy. And many businessmen, even those who usually advocate placating the central government in the interests of political stability, think that extrajudicial rendition would cross a red line.

China also faces international scrutiny. Britain, hoping to position itself as China’s best friend in Europe, did little to show support for the pro-democracy protesters in 2014. But the missing Mr Lee holds a British passport, and Philip Hammond, Britain’s foreign secretary, has said that his abduction to the mainland would be an “egregious breach” of the Joint Declaration. Gui Minhai, who vanished in Thailand, is a Swedish citizen; the European Union has called the events “extremely worrying”. They were also widely watched in Taiwan. China hopes that island will also eventually accept Chinese sovereignty under the promise of “one country, two systems”, but Taiwan is likely on January 16th to elect an independence-leaning president.

Since the disappearances look disastrous for China’s image, many in Hong Kong believe that they cannot have been a deliberate policy by the central leadership. They speculate that lower-level officials overstepped the mark, or even that Communist Party factions hostile to Mr Xi are trying to embarrass him. China is left with a headache. It will have to cook up some plausible-sounding explanation for the mystery and coax, cajole or coerce the missing men into playing along. That, the theory goes, explains the prolonged silence.

For pessimists, however, the snatching of Mr Lee is just the most outrageous instance of the mainland’s increasing interference in Hong Kong. They see other examples, including the purchase of the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s main English-language newspaper, by Alibaba, China’s e-commerce goliath; and the decision by Mr Leung to appoint a pro-government ally to chair Hong Kong University’s governing council, rather than the university’s own nominee.

Pessimists also point out that China has wielded enormous influence in Hong Kong since long before 1997. Bizarrely, though, the Communist Party is even now an underground organisation there. The secrecy may encourage subterfuge, rumour-mongering and even lawlessness. Some officials may well sanction illegal snatch-squads, to show that Hong Kong’s autonomy does not extend to anti-party activity. That this also proves the emptiness of the “one country, two systems” promise would be a small price to pay. Presumably having nothing useful to say on the issue, Mr Leung ignored it in his speech. A legislator from the pro-democracy camp, Lee Cheuk-yan, was expelled from the chamber for interrupting him to demand information about the Lee Bo case. Later he accused the chief executive of trying “to turn Hong Kong into the mainland”. Nearly two decades after its reversion to China, few in Hong Kong want that.

Sukhothai to Khon Kaen

It was our second annual four day tour of remoter parts of Northern Thailand.

My travel partner was Dennis – my oldest friend from Reuters days and best man at Tai and my wedding. We get on well; we bicker; we take pot-shots at eachother; if someone made a movie of our trip it would look like four days of verbal jousting.

But we both enjoy driving around the remoter parts of Thailand well away from the typical tourist trail.

Last year’s trip was a circular route from Chiang Mai to Mae Sariang, Mae Hong Son, Pai and back to Chiang Mai.

This year was a little more ambitious. We flew into Phitsanulok; drove to Khampaeng Phet and on for the first night in Sukhothai; a long drive to Loei; onwards to Chiang Khan and finally to Khon Kaen. Two flights and about 1,000kms of driving in four days.

The old city of Sukhothai is a UNESCO site – popular with foreign and local tourists. Some twenty ruined temples lie is well-maintained lawns and lakes. The grounds are easy to bike around. Staying in the old city adds to the charm but finding a decent dinner proved to be a challenge.

A bike trip around the grounds of Sukhothai at dusk and into the early evening is recommended as some of the temples are floodlit.

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Khamphaeng Phet’s temples are in less formal grounds over a larger area. But again the UNESCO designation ensures that the are is well maintained.

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Our drive to Loei included a lunch stop at Dan Sai (well off the travel route of most foreigners). We also had an unscheduled 45 minute stop when all traffic was halted at the side of the road so that a convoy of some twenty cars could take the Crown Prince’s long divorced first wife and her entourage along the road. They following day the same group arrived in Chiang Khan; were they following us.

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Loei is another small town that gets few foreign visitors. But it is a pleasant enough little town other than the barking dogs. We hiked over 800 steps/stairs up the nearby mountain/hill for fine views back to the town.

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Chiang Khan is a village transformed by local tourism. It has one road in from Loei and one main road that runs parallel to the Mekong. This road has 7-11. Tesco-Lotus, gas station, and banks. The small parallel street by the river is where old wooden homes have been converted into guest houses, coffee-shops, and small stores that come alive for the night market. There is a boardwalk along the riverfront. But there is little evidence of any remaining river traffic or river based industry and that is a shame.

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Outside of the night market activity it is a very quiet village.  But it is hugely popular with Thai tourists; it was busy on a weekday – it must be packed at weekends. And with a number of flights coming into Loei (about 50kms south) it is a popular spot for well-to-do Bangkokers!

Khon Kaen felt like a return to civilization. Like much of the North East there is a lot of new money coming into the area and it is evident from the new hotels, condo-blocks, shopping malls and entertainment areas that are being built.

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The flights into and from Phitsanulok and Khon Kaen were both full. Domestic tourism is doing very well.

Another fun trip. There is a full album of pictures here. 

 

 

 

 

Taiwan’s election returns the DPP to power and increases China tensions

Strawberry Feels Forever for Taiwan Generation Galvanized by China

17 January 2015

Note: this is an article from the Wall Street Journal’s Andrew Browne. Andrew is a colleague from my Reuters days and a genuine and well-connected expert on Taiwan and China. 

His report on the significance of the DPP’s return to power in Taiwan is one of the more insightful commentaries.

TAINAN, Taiwan—This was the revenge of the “strawberry generation.”

The tumult that swept Taiwan’s independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party to power over the weekend, crushing the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, began as a revolt among young people once disparagingly referred to by their elders as strawberries—soft, self-satisfied and apathetic.

The issue that galvanized them: hostility toward China and its territorial designs on the island, layered on top of fears about their economic future.

Two years ago, they found their voice in the Sunflower Movement when student protesters stormed parliament to block another in a series of trade pacts with China that President Ma Ying-jeou was trying to ram through. Critics accused him of pandering to corporate fat cats with Chinese interests at the expense of smaller manufacturers who generate local jobs. Entry-level pay in Taiwan hasn’t changed in almost two decades, while housing costs have climbed sky-high.

Nobody would think of calling Sophie Su a strawberry. Here in Tainan, a graffiti-filled city in the island’s south where anti-mainland sentiment is ingrained in the culture, she fixes concerts for rappers like Tiger Gui (the stage name of a local pancake vendor) who pumps out aggressively pro-independence messages.

““Hey, I am Taiwanese. What do you want to do about it?,” go the lyrics to one of Tiger’s expletive-laced raps.

Ms. Su wears her long hair dyed brown, and her large round eyes betray her Spanish heritage. Colonizers from Spain arrived in Tainan in the 17th century.

“Our position is simple,” she says, referring to China’s threat to use force to unify Taiwan with the mainland. “You can’t point a gun at our heads and ask us to be friends.”

As soon as the Sunflower protests erupted, Ms. Su hopped on a train to Taipei and slept rough in front of the legislature. When she saw the youthful faces in the crowds, some barely in their teens, she knew a social revolution was under way—and that she would be part of it. “I couldn’t stop crying,” she said.

President-elect Tsai Ing-wen rode this generational fervor to power. She hired campaign organizers sympathetic to the student cause, clambered aboard social media and used it as an engine for a national crusade for economic revival that excited the middle classes and small business holders too.

Her political challenge in office will be to hold that coalition together without blowing up relations with China. She’s not in favor of independence, but the size of her victory and the passion of her supporters are certain to make Beijing nervous.

Meanwhile, the grey-haired grandees who run the Kuomintang missed the trend completely—and the party that Beijing had banked on to deliver a political deal on unification, to match the economic ones, may never recover.

Tainan offers a glimpse of the future that Ms. Tsai has in mind. A Democratic Progressive Party stronghold, it has self-consciously shaped itself as a counter to many things that the Kuomintang stood for in the eyes of much of the electorate: big business, iconic urban landmarks, showy infrastructure and—worst of all—both commercial and cultural coziness with the mainland.

The city has become a haven for younger Taiwanese fleeing Taipei’s high costs. Amid old temple courtyards and alleyways the newcomers are defining new values and lifestyles for a postindustrial era. Money isn’t everything; they work to get by. Graduates open tiny bed-and-breakfast hostels and hole-in-the-wall jewelry shops. Technicians apply their digital design skills to household ornaments. Architects transform row houses from the Qing dynasty into coffee shops.

Local government seeds some of these startups with funds—and then stands back. “Our best policy to attract young people is to let them do whatever they want,” says Liu Shih-chung, Tainan’s Deputy Secretary-General.

Mainland tourists that have swamped Taipei aren’t especially welcome. “They’re too noisy,” says Mr. Liu. Japan sends the most visitors.

The incoming national administration plans to encourage companies to diversify away from China, while providing affordable housing and boosting social welfare. Tainan never developed much mainland business in the first place, and to underline its international aspirations the city recently declared English to be its official second language.

With the influx of creative talent has come a vibrant subculture of artists and musicians. Their language is Taiwanese, not the mandarin Chinese of the capital. And their public murals and graffiti, poetry and lyrics, promote a Taiwan identity rooted in pride of the island’s democracy.

Among them is Ms. Su, who grew up in the city in the shadow of a tall — and locally revered — ginkgo tree. For her parent’s generation, Taiwan independence might have been a political goal. To her it is a lived experience; she feels herself to be fully Taiwanese, not Chinese. “Our language is different, our written characters are different, our cultures are different,” she says.

The “strawberry generation” has come of age; bridging the differences with China just got much harder.