A frown in the Land of Smiles

Worry consumed the cabbie on the April afternoon last year. As his beat-up car wove through traffic on a highway into Bangkok, the radio blared updates on Thailand's latest wave of political unrest. A major anti-government demonstration loomed.

Rumors filled the newspapers, like the Bangkok Post's report of the Royal Thai Army's 2nd Calvary Division moving toward the capitol to quash unrest.

The cabbie took his eyes from the road and made a shooting motion with his hands. There would be violence, he said. Red ribbons, the color of the opposition, fluttered from the rear-view mirror. 

He was right, as tanks rolled into Bangkok a few days later, buses burned and protesters died. A year later, the turmoil has worsened. More Thais are dead, some 800 injured in the country's worst political violence in 20 years. The cabbie's resigned voice predicting violence is burned in my mind. The bafflement I felt then has only grown. 

From the surface, Thailand is an unlikely location for violent political upheaval. Rarely will you find a kinder, more welcoming population. There is a gentleness and warmth about Thais that is disarming and becomes even moreso when you realize it is genuine. The national discreetness extends to the violence. A few blocks from protests, you can't tell anything is amiss. Foreigners aren't targeted. Most Thais keep smiling and carry on as if nothing is different, only adding to the bizarre feeling. How could this land be on the brink of all-out civil war? 

Deep-seated problems fester behind the smiles, in the divide between the mostly rural and poor supporters of ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinwarta, ousted in a 2006 coup, and those opposed to him and backed by Thailand's elite. Thaksin's supporters are red-shirts, the opposition yellow shirts.

In between is King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the aging glue holding the country together (confusingly, yellow is also the color of the monarchy, and the country is virtually covered in yellow on royal occasions). He is revered by Thais on both sides of the divide and is supposed to be above involvement in politics. But his Privy Council is essentially a political arm. Whispers and riddle-like statements link the council to the chaos. Criticizing the monarchy is a significant social faux pas, not to mention illegal.

It's a confounding, complex mess of factions, agendas, protests, counter-protests and power-plays. Unraveling it can give you a headache. No solution is in sight. More violence seems inevitable. 

So, I think about the cabbie and that sweltering day in the Land of Smiles and am sad. Sometimes, everyone is right and everyone is wrong. And no one wins. 

Khat and the worst place on earth

Few places in the world are stranger than Djibouti. Earlier notes detail my journey there, though a suffocating land infested with flies, dust and, of course, khat. That's the leaf-like drug most of the East African country is addicted to. It's an unnerving, eye-opening experience to walk through a city that's collectively stoned each afternoon after the daily khat shipment arrives from Ethiopia.

So little is written about Djibouti that those notes - thrown together on my Blackberry when I could find a spare minute - have become popular with contractors trying to learn more about the country before deploying there.

A few years back, Esquire had a fascinating look at the khat trade and its impact on Djibouti, which the magazine dubbed the worst place on earth. The piece is worth reading, to understand the drug and the country it controls.

Just don't read it while chewing khat, or you won't be able to make it through all 7,000 words.

Signs of the times

The signs litter Ko Jum on dead-end dirt roads, isolated stretches of beach, palm groves and rubber plantations, with milky latex trickling down tree trunks into small buckets. They warn in English and Thai that the island sits in a tsunami hazard zone. That's like saying "the sky is blue" or "jellyfish sting."

No one pays them any attention.

The signs came after the sea devastated the island and much of coastal southeast Asia in December of 2004. Some signs, fronting the island's longest stretch of beach, point toward the Andaman Sea. After the first couple dozen, they feel absurd. Who here needs a sign to remind them of the danger from the sea? And what good, exactly, would one of these signs do if the island was again belted by waves taller than buildings?

At the Fighting Fish bar near the beach, I wondered what that day was like. For hours I stared at the horizon and tried to imagine the waves coming at me. Would I run? Would my body freeze with panic? Would there even be time to react? But all that was in front of me was the calm water with longtails sputtering through it and jagged outlines of tourist-ravaged Ko Phi Phi on the horizon where the sea once rose up.

The bar, part of the Woodland Lodge, didn't fare badly during the tsunami. A few nearby bungalows were destroyed and sand still covers the once-lush landscaping. The owners, a Scotchman named Ray, wearing a Glock T-shirt, and his Thai wife, Sao, stuck it out. The place is back to normal. But a book of photos of the tsumani's aftermath still sits on the bar's counter.

In the corner, a television with a gecko resting in the middle of the screen played a loop of the BBC. An orchestra of croaks, chirps, creaks and buzzes came through the building's open sides. When the cicadas start up, they drown out conversation. That starts at 5:30 a.m. and continues until well after dark. A couple of German women at the bar filled a water bottle with a fifth of rum and purple candy. The bar was painted with bright fighting fish. Smoke from mosquito coils in empty Singha beer bottles drifted up and outside lights were struck on the palm trees. One of Ray's dogs curled up on a plastic chair in front of the television. A gang of frogs in a pool by the kitchen moaned so loudly that an Englishman pounded the ground in front of them until they quieted, as his wife roared with laughter.

The scene was so peaceful, so normal that it made the day the sea came feel even more remote. The damage is repaired, the dead are buried and life goes on. The signs remain. And, after a while, they blend into the scenery.

Up in smoke

By day, the Bamboo Bar wasn't much to look at.

An open air shack made of coconut wood fronted a desolate stretch of beach on Ko Jum. Signs hawked longtail trips to Krabi and Ko Phi Phi and scuba diving. Ratty blankets and candle holders covered the sand in front of the bar. No one stirred, inside or out.

But darkness transformed the place. Candles flickered in the sand, throwing shadows around palm trees. Strands of white Christmas lights wrapped around the bar. An iPod was connected a pair of speakers. A generator's hum filled the space between songs.

Clouds covered the moon. From a hundred yards away, the dabs of light from the bar painted a mystery. Something exotic. Something your mind could play with. Something that was more than its ragged reality.

Up close, there was enough light to see the cloud of smoke that engulfed the counter. The twentysomething bartender alternated hits from a bamboo bong with long drinks from a pail with a half-gallon of rum and soda. A man dozed on the counter. Another stumbled toward one of the candles and arranged shells. The bartender introduced himself over and over. He took more hits. He introduced himself again and, for the fifth time, wanted to make sure we approved of the concoction in the pail.

The dim outline of a couple laying next to each other in the sand flickered by in the candlelight.

We drank cans of Singha. The bartender couldn't remember how much they cost. Holding the cold can against your forehead did more to combat the heat, even late in the evening, than drinking the bitter stuff.

The only other coherent customer was an artist from England down to her last few baht. The island's air was too humid for her paintings to properly dry. She nursed a beer and cigarette and wondered what she would do for money.

Cicadas screeched, overwhelming the music.

The bartender drifted back into a world of his own making. You could say the same about the island. A different world, where a couple of cans of beer at a ramshackle bar on a beach where you can't see another light as the evening's entertainment.

Edge of the world

Sometimes you want to disappear. From being connected, 24-hour news cycles, e-mail, cell phones, television, the Internet and the hundred other things that scream for attention. And the messages they bring each day turn your stomach. Factories closing. Layoffs. Pensions wiped out. Banks failing. Foreclosures. Whole industries dying. Markets in free-fall. Countries on the verge of collapse. Scandals. Unrest. Wars. Uncertainty. Fear. Plug in and there's a new reason to wonder what's happening to the world. But you can't help but look, like a reality television show gone horribly wrong.

But then you're in a bar on a tiny island in the Andaman Sea as the Rolling Stones play in the background, surrounded by a gang of people who look as if they're on the lam. A bonfire on the beach throws shadows around palm trees and through the heavy night air. The rest of the world seems a hazy, distant memory.

Ko Jum, off southern Thailand, feels as if it sits on the edge of civilization. No electricity or paved roads. A couple of ramshackle bungalow operations front the long beach locals ride scooters down. The only traffic there are thousands of scampering crabs. Acres of rubber trees and coconut groves. A combination bar and tattoo parlor. Even the ferry from tourist-jammed Ko Lanta doesn't stop here, relying on longtail boats to meet it at sea.

A battered and torn sign that used to read "Happy New Year's" hangs over the entrance to the open-air joint. Gold garland and red fabric is wound around varnished coconut wood posts. Shells strung through fishing line dangle from beams. Piles of old books to borrow are in the corner. In the corner is a faded, gilt-framed portrait of Thailand's King Buhmibol. A couple of dim electric lights, powered by a distant generator, barely light all this and the plates of seafood curry and fried rice that emerge from the kitchen.

The motley crew at Bo Dang have disappeared. One has stayed in bungalows here for eight years. Another wears a skirt to his ankles and bleach-blond hair to his shoulders. A third has dreadlocks that fall to the small of his back. Three men in a corner talk in low voices, switching between three different languages. This is a melting pot: Thais, Germans, Aussies, Kiwis, French, Brits, Americans. Most of them are scraggly, deeply-tanned and stoned. And skirts are everywhere, just not on any women.

Everyone drinks cans of Archa beer, fished from a huge ice-filled cooler next door. The beer is cold, fizzy and has little flavor. Perfect for the stifling air that leaves you dripping wet at 8 p.m.

A shriek interupts the Stones. Then a slender girl sprints through the joint and into the kitchen. The three others at her table on the sand front of Bo Dang jump on top of it. There's a snake.

The girl doesn't come out of the kitchen. She's hyperventilating, flapping her hands wildly in front of her face. The cook, a smiling, rotund Thai women doesn't know what to do. A man shakes his head, retrieves a shovel and goes in hunt of the snake. A half-hour later, the girl's boyfriend coaxes her out of the kitchen. Everyone has long forgotten the scene and returned to building small mountains of empty beer cans on the tables, jabbering and staring into the inky night.

Nothing intrudes here. No one is connected. Then one of the skirted men walks to the stereo and fiddles with it. For a moment waves crashing on the shore are the only sound. Then Richard Marx blares "Right Here Waiting." No one blinks. The hardcore, leave-the-world behind vibe has been turned on its head. The song is hideous and the moment perfect, as the real world seems impossibly far away.

Thailand snaps: The encore

Ko Jum.

Bangkok.

Bangkok.

Three-fourths of the gang, Bangkok.

Ko Jum.

Thailand, through the camera

Longtail, off Ko Jum.

Ko Jum.

Phuket.

Bangkok.

Uninhabited island, Andaman Sea.

Ko Jum

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