Poor Circulation: Exploring the World on £20 per Day


In April of 2008, I called time on a career that never was, sold all my worldly goods and set out to travel the world on a motorcycle...

.................... then all of this just seemed to happen

.



Post 407: The Thai Festival of Song Kran 2558 - [Posted April 18th 2015]

Between 13th & 16th of April, Thailand celebrates the arrival of New Year with the festival of Song Kran. Every April, millions of tourists flock to Thailand and join the now infamous water fights in the Silom and Khao San areas of Bangkok. However, in the Bangkok district of Lak Si, the place I call "home", far away from the commercial tourist traps of the city, in an area where tourists seldom tread, this is how Thais really celebrate ….

Post 406: Supporting The Dhamanurak Foundation – [Posted April 14th 2015]

Our association with the Dhamanurak Foundation began in 2013. That year, my partner Nongnoo decided to celebrate her birthday with a party, but, it would be a party with a difference.  Instead of the usual night of food, beer and birthday cake with a few close friends in Bangkok, she’d decided to host a party for a large group of underprivileged kids in the Province of Kanchanaburi. 
 Located just a few miles from one of Thailand’s major tourist attractions, but appearing nowhere on any map, the Dhamanurak Foundation is home, school and medical centre for approximately 120 kids. Ranging between 1 and 16 years of age, the kids are either orphans, or from homes where for various reasons, their parents are simply unable to care for them. Founded in 2001 by a Buddhist Nun named Jutiporn, who continues to run the centre on a daily basis, the Foundation survives on voluntary contributions from the public.
 Back in 2013, Nongnoo had spent a couple of days gathering supplies and raising money before heading off to Kanchanaburi with four or five close friends. Repeating the celebration in 2014, we’d raised more money and a few more volunteers had joined us, but in 2015, we’ve been overwhelmed by the generosity of others. Long before dawn on March 7th this year, fifty people in thirty fully-laden vehicles set out from their homes in various parts of Thailand to offer their support for the kids of the Dhamanurak Foundation.  
 In 2013 all efforts had been concentrated on the party, an opportunity to provide a few hours of fun and entertainment for the kids.  In 2014, the party had still been central to our efforts, but we’d also managed to provide additional support for the Foundation in terms of money, equipment, clothing etc. Another byproduct of our efforts has been an increase in public awareness, and that awareness appears to have kick-started an entirely new movement of independent supporters.
 This year, a group of university students had concentrated on hosting the party, which given the closer proximity of age and energy levels, was an amazing development for the kids. We’d still provided food and special treats for the event, but the student’s support has allowed us to concentrate our own efforts in other areas.
Without the support of volunteers, organisations like the Dhamanurak Foundation simply wouldn’t exist, but once established, money becomes their lifeblood. From our efforts, we do raise and give a certain amount of money to the Foundation, but this is Thailand and we’re silently aware that hard cash in any organization here can be the catalyst for corruption. It’s difficult to believe that anybody would steal money from these kids, but unfortunately, the world is what it is and not necessarily what we want it to be.    
 However, by providing the seemingly boring but costly everyday essentials; classroom equipment, cleaning materials, sewing machines, food, crockery etc., we help them to manage and release their own funds for various capital projects. The Dhamanurak Foundation’s list of needs is long, but with the help of some amazingly generous people, progress is being made. Recently, work has begun on replacing the temporary bamboo accommodation units with more modern low-maintenance permanent buildings, and at the same time, converting previously unused semi-derelict buildings into such things as mushroom growing houses, workshops and poultry enclosures.
If anybody following this would like to learn more, or to in some way help or become involved, then please drop me an email: GMail   geoffgthomas 

Post 405: Why Don’t You Believe in God? – [Posted April 11th 2015]

If there’s one lesson that travelling’s taught me, it’s never to offer my personal opinions on partners, politics or religion, especially when drinking. So, when the only other English speaker asked me why I didn’t believe in God, I’d fobbed him off with a generic answer and quickly changed the subject. But, his question had intrigued me.
For all of my adult life I’ve consider myself an atheist, but, I’ve never really investigated the root of my non-belief. My parents were certainly Christian, Methodists, and at an early age I attended Sunday school, and perhaps, that’s where my journey towards atheism really began.
Before I could walk, I was christened, and as soon as I could talk I would kneel at the side of my bed each night and recite this simple prayer: Gentle Jesus meek and mild, look upon this little child, pity my simplicity, suffer me to come to thee. It’s safe to say that being christened wasn’t a personal choice, and the words of that first prayer had actually scared me. Why did I want ‘pity’, pity was for people who had worse lives than me, and why would I ever want to ‘suffer’ for anything?
Throughout my time at junior and secondary schools, I’d struggled with reading and writing - later diagnosed as dyslexia - but I’d known that I wasn’t an idiot and actively tried to prove that point by asking lots of relevant questions in class. In general my questions were welcomed by the teachers, but at Sunday school, well, the ministers weren’t quite so accommodating.
At school, my physics teacher had told me that the universe was almost fifteen billion years old and measurably expanding, and that planet earth had been around for at least four billion years. As I’d questioned his reasoning, he’d pointed me towards an entire section of scientific research material in the school library and encouraged me to investigate the evidence and to draw my own conclusions. In social studies, they’d introduced me to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and shown that recognisable humans had inhabited the earth, specifically Africa, for at least 200,000 years. If I wanted further evidence of evolution, I should visit the Natural History Museum in London and evaluate the evidence for myself. So, at the age of twelve, we spent our summer vacation traipsing around London on an amazing voyage of discovery: The Science Museum, The Natural History Museum, The British Museum and the Planetarium. 
For my inquiring young mind, the school teachers’ responses to my questions were appropriate, but in church my questions had seemed neither reasonable, nor in most cases, answerable. I’d been told that God created the earth, and that five days later he created Adam before taking a day of rest. But, if Adam came two thousand years before Abraham, and Abraham lived two thousand years before Jesus, wouldn’t that make the earth, and therefore mankind, at the very most six thousand years old? When I’d innocently questioned the Sunday schools teachers’ timeline, they hadn’t pointed me towards scientific papers, to independent research or to physical evidence in various museums, they’d simply pointed me to their book, the Holy Bible.
The Bible wasn’t an easy read, but I’d struggled through a few random chapters and what I’d found had disturbed me far more than that early childhood prayer. At the time, many of the words had been beyond my comprehension, like ‘Apostasy’, but being told by a loving omnipotent God that if members of my own family ever cease believing in him, I should stone them to death, had seemed more than a little harsh. When it comes to wavering belief in God, I also discovered that the name Thomas had history, and I’d decided that it was time to stop asking questions, and, to stop attending a church that actively discouraged scrutiny.     

Post 404: Why Thailand? My Thailand - [Posted 7th January 2015]

 
When strangers ask “where do you live?”, and I reply “Thailand”, their reactions are often quite predictable. Most are too polite to tell me what they’re actually thinking, but their knowing smiles are the perfect windows to their thoughts - A rustic home on the beach, evenings on a bar stool, cold beer in hand and bikini clad maidens tending to his every desire ... The lucky bastard!

  The paradise beaches of Koh Phi Phi
I can understand why they think that, just as I can understand why many Thais, and probably quite a few Americans, firmly believe that every Englishman lives in Downton Abbey, but the truth, for me at least, is far removed from their perception. 2014 was probably an average year for me, and I spent just five evenings attached to various bar stools across Thailand. Three of those evenings were at a travellers meeting in Chiang Mai where I was speaking, and the other two were in Bangkok with a good friend; writer and adventurer, Dr Greg Frazier. In each of those bars I was seen, and probably photographed, with a cold beer in my hand, but to the best of my knowledge there were no bikini clad maidens tending to my every desire or anything else for that matter. Sure, I do have a Thai girlfriend, but if I ever asked her to tend to even the mildest of my actual desires, well, I’d become a eunuch and she’d be out of my life in a flash. As for living close to a beach, well, I’m at least 200 miles from any beach that any sane person would ever want to visit. I live in Bangkok, a little area called Lak Si. Ever heard of it? No, nor had I until I moved here four years ago. It’s certainly not a slum, but neither is it gentrified, but at £70 per month the rent on my studio apartment is slightly more attractive than the view from the balcony.
 
  The early morning haze of Lak Si
So, if I’m not here for the beaches, the booze or the bikini clad beauties, then what the hell am I doing in Thailand? Well, it basically comes down to a combination of economics and laziness, something that I’ll try to explain.
 
After riding around the world, settling back into my normal life was impossible. That's not just because my house had burned down while I'd been crossing Siberia, but because a year without working had become an impossible habit to break. What I really wanted was a gentle middle-class lifestyle, the UK definition of middle-class not the lower income American version, and I figured that the annual income of a teacher would be a really good starting point. In England, that would mean earning around £40,000 per year, which sounded like an awful lot of Monday morning feelings and a decent amount of hard work, but in places such as Thailand, a local teacher earns around £5,000 per year. I guessed that with my messy writing, and with a few additional irons in the financial fire, I could earn £5,000 a year without having to sacrifice too many hours of idleness. So, if I could do that while living in Thailand, and Thailand would allow me to stay there, then I’d be laughing.
 
The economics of teachers
Of course, I could have easily chosen Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos or even somewhere in Africa, but I didn’t. I already spoke a little Thai and, well, in the interest of full disclosure, I already had a few female friends here in the Land of Smiles. [Don’t shoot me, I’m only human and I thought you might appreciate the honesty]
 
Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to live life with a cold beer in my hand and the warm ocean lapping at my feet, and even to occupy more bar stools, but when you’re living on £5,000 a year, paradise looks nothing like the marketing material that brought you here in the first place.
 

POST 403: I’m hearing only bad news, on Radio .... [Posted 31st December 2014]

As 2014 draws to a close, unless you’re a purveyor of bullets, surgical masks or radical religion, then it’s safe to say that it's been a big year for bad news. I’m sure there’s been some good news scattered around somewhere, but in the main, 2014 has been a horrible year for humanity.
 
In Asia and the Middle East, aircraft mysteriously vanished or fell from the skies as Islamic State, Al Nusra Front, Taliban and Boko Haram all rose to new heights of depravity. Taking advantage of the media dead-zone created by the world’s concentration on atrocities carried out in the name of some twisted god of peace, Bashar Al-Assad continued to murder thousands of his own people in Syria while Israel decided to flatten any areas of Gaza that hadn’t already succumbed to their previous bombardments.
 
In Europe, political unrest in Ukraine was swiftly followed by the takeover of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine by Russian backed separatists. Despite Vladimir Putin’s claim that it wasn’t a Russian bear shitting in the woods of Donetsk and Luhansk, the outside world disagreed, economic sanctions were imposed and the Russian Ruble collapsed in spectacular fashion.
 
Meanwhile, in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Mali, Nigeria and Guinea, the Ebola virus killed almost eight-thousand people, but when one poor individual died in America, it suddenly became Obama’s fault. T-Shirts with the slogan ‘EBOLA - Obama’s Gift to America‘ sold almost as quickly as Assault Rifles and in 2014, sixteen thousand more Americans lost their lives in home-grown gun related crimes.
 
Closer to home, my home, 2014 was certainly an interesting year for Thailand. 2013 had ended with the government in limbo and the country at risk of being physically divided into North and South. Civil War was calling and action had to be taken, so Thailand fell back on its own illustrious history and the Generals seized power in the countries 17th Military Coup. Sadly, that wasn’t the end of Thailand’s political shenanigans, simply the beginning ….

Post 402: Thailand. Is the Land of Smiles losing its lustre? [Posted November 18, 2014]




For as long as I’ve been travelling, the holiday destination most likely to provide complete satisfaction, has been Thailand. Other places were generally good, but no matter what your nationality, age, sex or budget, when it came to providing complete satisfaction, and that’s not a metaphor, Thailand was always a nailed-on certainty. However, times and cultures are changing, other destinations are rising and Thailand, for many reasons, is losing some of its lustre. Tourism and Agriculture are mainstays of the Thai economy, but agriculture has faced recent challenges and the income from tourists is falling. Economically, Thailand is hurting.   
Shortly before leaving California, the Tourist Authority of Thailand embarked on a campaign designed to restore confidence in Thailand as a first-choice destination for travellers. I suspect that six months of political unrest, followed by the introduction of martial law and then a military takeover of government has done little to improve Thailand’s image. I can't remember the pithy strap-line that TAT employed in their latest campaign, but given other recent events in the famous Land of Smiles, the fall of a government and subsequent rise of the military was probably the least of their recent challenges.
 
For tourism in Thailand, 2014 hasn't been a good year. On the island of Koh Tao, the brutal murder of young British travellers Hannah Wetheridge and David Miller, and the subsequent investigation by the Royal Thai Police (RTP), has been well documented around the world. In the eight weeks since the horrific murder, there has been much speculation regarding the effectiveness of the investigation carried out by the RTP. I know nothing about detective work, and I certainly don’t watch CSI on the television, so unlike many others, I don't intend to play armchair detective here. But, I will point out a subtle but important difference between police investigations in Thailand and Great Britain. In the UK, the police are very selective when publically releasing information about on on-going investigation, but here in Thailand, the opposite is true. The more horrendous the crime, the greater the opportunity for officials to have their faces, and personal thoughts, aired on national television before 65 million people. Within hours of Hannah and David's bodies being discovered, a senior officer on the investigation announced that the assault had been so violent that it couldn’t possibly have been carried out by Thais. Thais it would seem, had been immediately eliminated from the investigation. As an observer, it also seems that here in Thailand, those officials tasked with investigating crimes develope an early theory on a solution to a case and then search for the evidence to support it.
Two undocumented migrant workers from neighbouring Myanmar have now apparently confessed to murdering Hannah and David and are currently in police custody awaiting trial. If found guilty by the judge, Thailand does not have trial by jury, these two young men could be sentenced to death. I've seen no evidence, so I won't speculate on their innocence or guilt, but many observers seem to think that the two boys in custody are simply scapegoats, patsies taking the fall for a crime committed by others. Time, and further investigation, will hopefully reveal the truth and provide justice for all. 





(Hannah & David, RIP) 
On the 31st December 2013, I chose to welcome in the New Year with friends in the rural village of Ban Noen Kum. I was the only person waiting for 2014 to arrive, everybody else was Thai and they were waiting to welcome 2557. It's complicated, but you gradually get used to it when you live here. At the same time, a thousand kilometres to the south on the island of Koh Tao, Nick Pearson celebrated the New Year with his parents and elder brother. On the first morning of 2014, Nick’s parents woke to the horrific news that in the early hours of the morning, their 25 year old son had fallen 50ft down a cliff and drowned in the ocean below. The local police quickly concluded that Nick’s death had been a tragic accident, closed the case and the incident received little lasting coverage in the media. Nick’s parents were unconvinced by the handling of the case, the lack of investigation and the untested conclusion that the police had seemingly reached so quickly. But the police, and certain local interested parties, had apparently been insistent that Nick's death was nothing more than a tragic accident that his parents ought to accept.
On returning to their home in Derby, Nick’s parents spoke openly, and on the record, about the tragedy and declared their dissatisfaction with the local handling of the case on Koh Tao. It now seems that certain local parties and places mentioned by the Pearson family at that time, have also been mentioned in relation to the Hannah and David case. However, Koh Tao is a small island, and such coincidences may simply be that, coincidences. In December, an independent inquest into Nick’s tragic death will be opened in England. Once again, time I hope, will reveal the truth.
(Nick Pearson RIP)
August 20th 2014, on the island of Koh Samui, just a short hop from Koh Tao, 46 year old local bar owner Schwartges Volker was leaving a popular nightclub on Chaeweng Beach with his girlfriend. In the car park of the nightclub, a group of Thai youths were sitting on Schwartges motorcycle drinking beer. He asked them to move on, but they refused and an argument quickly transformed into a brutal attack. Schwartges Volker died from stab wounds received in the attack. Fortunately there were several witnesses to the attack, the incident had been captured on CCTV and the police quickly tracked down the suspects. The youths aged between 15 and 17, sons of local families, confessed to the murder and handed the murder weapon to investigators. Case solved? Apparently not.

Today, 18th November 2014, those same youths are due to be released from custody without charge. Apparently, due to the retraction of witness statements, it seems that there is insufficient evidence to prosecute the youths for the crime to which they’d already confessed.

(Schweartges Volker RIP)  

In the early hours of 15h November 2014, a man identified only as Michael S, a 25 year old German language teacher, was sitting with two friends at the public park in Udon Thani. At the same time, three Thai youths who’d spent much of the night drinking beer, were roaming the area on their scooters. The young Thai’s had with them a garden hoe, a similar weapon to that used in the brutal murder of Hannah and David on Koh Tao. Without any provocation, the youths attacked the young man and his friends.
While the young man remains in critical condition on ICU, the police have found and arrested the three youths, aged between 17 and 18. According to the senior police spokesman, the youths had seen the German sitting in the park and simply ’dared each other to imitate the murders of the two British backpackers on the island of Koh Tao’. According to the Khao Sod English news agency, at the press conference the police colonel then stated that ’this action is a typical case of youth recklessness’.    

  "A typical case of youth recklesness". I’m not sure that the police colonel’s choice of words is appropriate, or perhaps it’s the translation that’s misleading, but Thailand is certainly becoming more violent. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Thailand is any more violent than other places, it’s just that all places seem to becoming more violent these days.
 
(Two suspects in the Michael S. assault) 

When I first came to Thailand in 1987, I began reading the Nite Owl column in what is now the Bangkok Post. Nite Owl was, and hopfully still is, an American character by the name of Bernard Trink, a journalist who’d moved to Thailand in the early 1960’s. In Trink’s weekly multi-page articles, he often reported on the darker underbelly of Thai society; prostitution, pimps, drugs, organised crime, extortion, corruption, gangland feuds and random acts of violence. At the time, much of what Trink mentioned went unreported in the English speaking media, but those were pre-internet days, a time long before social media could send bad news viral in a matter of hours. Trink went on to become a legend here in Thailand, and while I disagreed with much of what he said at the time, his columns were often hilarious and I loved the way that he said it. Reading those same articles today, many of which are still available in the archives of the Bangkok Post, suggests that violence and crimes, particualrly those perpetrated against Westerners, is far from a new phenomena in Thailand. 
 
(The legend that is Nite Owl aka Bernard Trink) 
 
By choice, I now live part of each year here in Thailand, a volunteer with the ability to relocate at any time. Aside from some minor petty incidents with authority, and the odd local eccentric, my time here here has been positivie and trouble free. However, in recent times I’ve become much more aware of how my actions and words might be interpreted by others. I’m not saying that I’ve changed my ways because of an increasing fear of violence, I’m just more inclined to think for a few seconds before I speak, especially when something is angering me. In the past, an angry Thai might be inclined to punch my lights out, but today, he or she is just as likely to reach for a knife or a gun. That, unfortunately, is not perculiar to Thailand, but more a reflection of how this whole world is changing.





For anybody considering visting Thailand, I'd certainly encourage them to come and enjoy the experience. My only advice is to be sensible, to learn a little about the culture before you arrive, what to do and what not to do, to avoid confrontation and to smile and walk away from any situation that makes you feel uneasy. Sure, there are certain things that should be avoided here, like renting a Jest Ski on any beach or taking a Tuk-Tuk in Bangkok, but aside from that, just arrive, relax and enjoy your time here. Every year across the world, tourists and expatriates will be conned, be assaulted and in very rare cases murdered, but when it happens in a Kingdom as seemingly gentle as Thailand, the tragedies seem to be amplified.
To steal Nite Owl's now famous closing quotation:     TiT - This is Thailand.


Post 401: Returning to Thailand - Posted 16th November 2014

All in all, it’s been one of the finest summers on record...
 
I’ve spent almost six months, months of uninterrupted sunshine, writing and relaxing in the redwood hills above Boonville, Northern California. I could tell you all about it, the endless social events and the carefree rides on the KLR650 to the coast and up into the hills of Mendocino County, but I won’t. That’s because you probably already hate me and adding fuel to the fires of envy, well, that would do little to improve our relationship. 
So, as October began fading into history, Virgin Atlantic whisked me painlessly out of San Francisco, and eleven sleepless hours later, deposited me at London’s Heathrow Airport. My mission in England was simple, I had a full week to complete a few simple tasks, but the more I travel the more elusive ‘Simple’ seems to have become. 
Every page of my three-year-old passport was full, no more room for visas and stamps, so I’d made an appointment to obtain a speedy replacement at the UK Passport Office in Eccleston Square SW1. To be honest, over the years I’d lost a certain amount of confidence in government bureaucracy,  all governments, but aside from a few issues with my passport photographs, which were in turn too big, too small and too shadowy, the UK Passport Office did exactly what they said they’d do. Four hours and six happy-hour pints of lager after presenting my application form and existing passport, I returned to the office and collected a shiny new 45-Page version.
With my faith in government bureaucracy partially restored, my second task was to obtain a new double-entry 60-Day Tourist Visa from the Thai Embassy on Queen’s Gate SW7.  Since leaving Thailand in April, certain things in the Land of Smiles had changed. The government was now a military concern, martial law was still in place and the new General at the helm had announced a serious crack-down on tourists staying in the Kingdom for far longer than would be expected of normal tourists. The Thailand Forums on the internet had been awash with horror stories of people being denied entry, and when applying for my last visa in Vientiane, a Thai official had placed a cautionary stamp in my passport.  I do tend to worry about things like that, probably because I’m lucky enough to have very little else to worry about, but such things do concern me. Needless to say, I’d once again been worrying about nothing. After less than three minutes of waiting in the Thai Embassy, I’d handed over my single-sided application form and two correctly sized photographs, paid my £20 and was asked to return the following day to collect my passport and visa.   
 
The weekend was spent in Braintree Essex, a little precious time with my daughter and too much time making arrangements for the future storage of the Triumph Tiger. I should sell the damned thing, I’ll probably never use it again and it just stands outside collecting years and rust. But, I guess that after so many miles and countries together, we’ve become sentimentally attached and I just can’t bring myself part with it. One day I’ll do something about it, but in the meantime it’s going to live in Norfolk, a vacation by the sea. In the coming week, SilverX Motorcycles in Braintree will collect it from its current home and store it until A2B Motorcycle Transport can move it to its new home in Wells-Next-The-Sea. On the face of it, this should be a simple process, but when the movements take place I’ll be several thousand miles away in Southeast Asia. What could possibly go wrong?

 
The last time I flew with British Airways, it was ‘The World’s Favourite Airline’ and Margaret Thatcher was slightly miffed about the recently introduced international emblems displayed on the tails of the fleet.  That was several years ago, but when I’d purchased the return ticket to Bangkok, British Airways had been the cheapest carrier available. Arriving at Terminal 5 in good time for my flight, not because I was well organised, but because the reasonably priced hotel I’d been staying in had a very unreasonable check-out time, the smiling assistant at the check-in desk had asked me if I’d be prepared to delay my departure until the following day. ‘Let me think about that’ was my initial response.  Nowadays, you seldom board a flight with empty seats, and in order to maximise capacity, airlines overbook their busy flights. Statistically speaking, they know that a certain percentage of passengers will fail to arrive for the flight, but if everybody with a ticket actually turns up to check-in, I guess that the shit hits the fan. To cut a long story short, British Airways offered me £492 to relinquish my seat on that day’s flight. To put this into perspective, £492 is almost as much as I’d paid for the original ticket and was slightly more than my maximum monthly budget when I’m living in Southeast Asia. Foolishly, the ‘worrier’ in me took a few minutes to look for the catch. Delay for 24 hours and receive one month of living expenses? It was a perfect no-brainer, but sadly, my thought process took too many valuable minutes and during that time, a group of happy-back-packers had accepted the deal. Opportunity closed, revert to Plan A. 

British Airways no longer claim to be ‘The World’s Favourite Airline’, but judging from this experience, I have to say that they’re still pretty damned good. The 12-hour flight was painless, but once again sleepless, and I arrived at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport exactly on time. With my TM7 landing card completed, and with a shiny new passport to present to the officer, Thai immigration was a breeze.  Walking through the Green Channel dragging my 20Kg world behind me I’d officially returned to Thailand, but in my absence, how had Thailand changed?                      

Post 400: 'Homeward Bound' Poor Circulation II ... Posted July 30th 2014

This morning we left an old and dear friend behind us. We turned our backs on the Pacific Coast Highway and turned inland on Highway 128: ‘Boonville 25 Miles’. It’s a sweetly paved ribbon of road that’s bordered on both sides by giant redwoods. They’re the tallest trees that I’ve ever seen and quite possibly, the oldest too. They look like a ceremonial guard, pencil-straight with dark red tunics and pointed green helmets, proudly standing to attention and welcoming us into California’s Anderson Valley. With the constant twisting of the asphalt beneath our wheels and the sweet heavy scent of the early morning forest, the dappled shade from the giant trees and the total absence of traffic, we’re discovering another valid contender for the world’s best motorcycling road. It’s another road that I never want to end, but sadly, that desire for infinity has little to do with its beauty or suitability for motorcycles.  
BOONVIILLE A Novel by Robert Mailer Anderson. Most books that I’ve read have had little to do with the reality of my life. They’ve generally been works of fiction, stories set in times and places that were a thousand years, or a thousand miles, away from me. But, this book was different and it’s proximity had disturbed me. After turning the final page, I’d returned to Amazon and found myself agreeing with exactly half of the reviews. I’d found five stars and one star, love and hate with absolutely nothing in the middle. If novels were food then Anderson had written the literary equivalent of Marmite. Anderson’s BOONVILLE is a small community of seven-hundred and fifteen ill-sorted souls in Northern California; peace loving hippies, gun loving rednecks and self-exiled Mexicans who’d possibly avoided the official count. The novel had introduced me to a disparate cocktail of humanity, one-third depression and two-thirds insanity, shaken for decades before being gently stirred and violently kicked into an unwelcoming twenty-first century. BOONVILLE was a town that had once been dominated by hard-drinking loggers, and then by hippies who’d arrived in search of love and togetherness, but discovered marijuana and stayed on in the hills long after the music had ended. Anderson’s writing was almost as quirky as the town, and as edgy as the people he’d portrayed, and long before turning that final page I’d concluded that for any traveller with the luxury of choice, BOONVILLE would be an easy town to avoid. However, on this particular journey, spending a certain amount of time in Boonville was never going to be optional.
I should be enjoying the final few miles of our journey together, but I’m not. My mind’s in a strange place right now, ignoring the beauty of the road and concentrating instead on the darker images of Boonville. They’re images that Mom had failed to mention, that I’d totally missed and that Dad had never had the opportunity to see. I adjust my nearside mirror and get a clearer view of the topbox behind me. Dad’s offering me his most unconvincing smile and Mom’s just telling me not to worry. Their efforts are kind and well meaning, but they’re not really helping. I can already see Anderson’s characters preparing to greet us, rolling their joints and combing their beards, tuning their banjos and liberally greasing the prettiest pigs in town. We’re twenty miles from Boonville and we’ve travelled twenty thousand miles to get here, but I’m mentally unprepared for arrival. I back-off the throttle, slow down the pace and encourage my mind to concentrate on the present.

The road continues to twist but the redwoods gently thin as the bleached golden hills transform into luscious green vineyards: Handley Cellars, Roederer Estate, Husch Winery and Navarro Vineyards, all regimentally green and rustically polished. Between the numerous vineyards, sheep and horses graze in dusty meadows, and in ancient orchards, apples thrive on gnarly trees. Roadside signs, hand painted with lots of love and random apostrophes, announce the sale of fresh organic produce; apples, peaches, pears, figs, olives.  This is clearly an abundant valley with good food, fine wines and more importantly, a soon to be united family. In perfect unison, we bank to the left passing a large wooden house and an invisible cloak of marijuana adds substance to the damp morning air. Life seems to be good around here.

 Five miles short of Boonville, we slow to 30mph for the small town of Philo. The Post Office, Libby’s Mexican Restaurant and Lemon’s Market line one side of the street and on the other, a small gas station and a random cluster of slightly neglected wooden huts. The huts probably act as cheerless homes for migrant workers, Anderson’s uncounted Mexicans, those who toil in the vineyards in the hope of building a brighter future for their families here in land of opportunity. There are perhaps five or six assorted huts and a couple of small single storey houses on either side of the road, but surely insufficient homes to justify this tiny no-horse town having its own bloody Post Office?

In a flash, the town of Philo is behind us and the road ahead begins to straighten. Beyond the eye catching white picket fence of Goldeneye Winery, we begin our final descent into Boonville. Arm doors and cross-check for landing.

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Post 399: Thailand Democracy RIP? - Posted 29th May 2014


‘A week is a long time in politics’. It appears that in Thailand, a week is also a very long time without politics, or at least without government. Since the military announced a state of martial law on May 20th 2014, closely followed by a coup, it seems that much in the Land of Smiles has changed, including perhaps, my own views on democracy. 
As an individual I firmly believe in democracy, and as a liberal standing somewhere to the left of centre, I firmly believe in freedom of speech, fairness and equality for all citizens. So, after less than two weeks of military leadership in Thailand, why do I now feel that it’s probably the best thing that could have happened here? Don't get me wrong, that's not a personal show of support for military intervention, but a reflection of how bad Thailand's alternatives really were.
A few years ago, I was deeply in love with my latest motorcycle, a BMW R1100SS. Deep red paint with bags of torque and a lusty exhaust note, it was a bike that constantly reminded me of everything that was good about motorcycles. I was working as a motorcycle despatch rider in London, a difficult test for any bike, but that BMW turned every working day into an absolute pleasure. Sadly, a despatch rider’s income and BMW ownership were never an ideal pairing and as the mileage mounted, things started to go wrong. Small things at first; electrical niggles, brake issues, suspension glitches - things that didn’t stop the bike in its tracks but issues that I really ought to have fixed as they arose. But, being amazingly lazy and ever so slightly broke, I decided to ignore them and ride around the problems. Finally the clutch, which had been slipping for weeks, finally gave up on the task of delivering 100bhp to the rear wheel. On many bikes, replacing the clutch is a relatively simple task, but this was a BMW. Off came the exhaust system, the catalytic converter and the rear wheel. Then, out came the sub-frame and the shaft drive assembly, followed by the swing arm and rear suspension unit. Finally, I reached the burned-out clutch and set about replacing it. My journey towards the depths of the BMW's problematic clutch was a journey into the unknown, a true mechanical voyage of discovery. With BMW tools being unique to a BMW, and my own tools being universal to everything but a BMW, the process ended up taking two weeks to complete and during that time, I was forced into using a slightly different mode of transport.   
To non enthusiasts, all motorcycles are recognisable as motorcycles, but as enthusiasts, we know that beneath the visual outer skin, or the identifying symbol on the tank, they’re all amazingly different beasts. Democracy is the same. In Thailand the democratic clutch had burned out and no amount of cursing, kicking tyres or adding fresh oil was ever going to fix it. To the outside world it still looked like a democracy, but in mechanical terms it was absolutely unrideable and the only option was to rebuild it. If Thailand's democratic problems had arisen in Europe, then I'm confident that the courts and media would have done their jobs and called-out the politicians long before things had been allowed to deteriorate that far. But Thailand’s in Asia, a continent where democracy has a certain ‘uniqueness’ and is often seen by politicians as having little, if anything, to do with following the law or abiding by the decisions of the courts. 
For those people following the current reports and editorials in much of the Western media, you’d be forgiven for believing that the ousted government had no sins, and that once elected they'd followed a true path of democratic rule. You’d also be led to believe that democracy in Thailand was now dead, but it’s not, it’s just temporarily off the road and undergoing much needed and long overdue repairs. In two weeks, many good things have happened in Thailand and the military leadership seems to be gaining increasing support from the people, North, South and Central, but the Western media seem to be concentrating only on the negatives. The negatives certainly exist, and small groups, so far, have certainly taken to the streets to show opposition to the coup, but the true feeling within Thailand is far different from the West’s portrayal of it. Of course, most people fundamentally disagree with military intervention in a democratic country, but those living in Thailand are painfully aware of the alternatives. Without intervention by a third party, Thailand was undoubtedly heading for a bloody civil war, and ultimately, secession. If the West had been half as observant and critical of Thailand's elected politicians as it now is about the unelected military, then I firmly believe that the need for military intervention would have been avoided. 'The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil, is for good men to do nothing'. Burke, Aked, Kennedy? There's doubt as to who first uttered this famous sentence, but there's no doubt that it's applicable to Thailand's spiral into democratic immorality.

In time, working democracy and free elections will return to Thailand, and when they do, suspension, engine, electronics, brakes, gearbox and clutch will hopefully all work far better than they ever did before.   

Post 398: Martial Law to Military Coup in Thailand – Posted 23rd May 2014

Within 72 hours of declaring Martial Law, Thailand’s Army Chief, General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, has dismissed the caretaker government and placed the military in control of Thailand, another Military Coup in the famous Land of Smiles. Three days ago I said “It’s still early days and I'm not certain if there's a measureable distance between Martial Law and Military Coup, so things may quickly change”. However, I really didn’t expect things to change quite as quickly as they have. So what happened in those 72 hours, and, what made General Prayuth feel the need to take control not only of the Kingdom’s security, but also control of its government? 
On Tuesday, following the imposition of Martial Law, General Prayuth invited all leading political figures to attend a meeting to be hosted at Bangkok’s Army Club. This was the first meeting of all relevant parties since the start of the political unrest seven months ago. The aim of the meeting was to find areas of common ground and compromise between the two main political parties, the governing Pheu Thai Party (PTP) and the opposition Democrat Party, and their supporters, the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) and the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC). After the meeting was adjourned, it was announced that all attendees had been ‘given homework’ and would return on Wednesday to continue their discussions. I suspect that the Generals had noted that recently ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, and former executive of Shinawatra Corporation and current Prime Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan, had failed to attend the meeting.
On Wednesday, the second meeting began with Yingluck and Niwattumrong still absent. Reports suggest that after having twenty-four hours to consider the situation carefully, the various parties and factions were unable or unwilling to compromise or reach any sort of agreement. Several media channels also reported that governing Pheu Thai Party attendees stated that having discussed the content of the previous day’s meeting with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, they were unable to accept any meaningful electoral reforms until after another election had taken place. The validity of these reports is uncertain, but if General Prayuth had received direct confirmation that Thailand’s Government was indeed taking council and directions from a wanted criminal, a man living in self-imposed exile in order to escape a jail term in his native Thailand, then perhaps he’d considered that any hope of finding a direct political solution to the troubles was gone. Whatever happened, at some point in the meeting Prayuth announced that given the obvious political impasse, and the real threat of an imminent escalation in violence on the streets, the Army would be taking control of Thailand’s Government. After the meeting, representatives of the political parties and their support movements were detained by military police and placed under temporary house arrest. Several of those detained had long outstanding arrest warrants for crimes including, but not limited to, arson, incitement of terrorism, acts of terrorism, and murder. An announcement then called on 150 other officials to report to the Army Club within 24 hours and all international travel for all of the named people was prohibited. The list included the names of Yingluck Shinawatra and Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan. Thailand had just witnessed its thirteenth Military Coup in eighty-five years as a Constitutional Monarchy.
The announcement of Martial Law on Monday was swiftly followed by action. The military quickly uncovered several caches of arms in and around Greater Bangkok. The arms, described as war weapons were confiscated and the owners, mostly pro-government supporters, arrested. New investigations have been ordered into the murder of civilians during the recent political conflict and teams of military police have today confiscated thousands of documents relating to what seems to be significant money transfers by important political figures to their off-shore bank accounts. Today, the ruling military has also vowed to pay the beleaguered rice farmers all of the money that’s been owing to them from the deposed Government’s controversial and corruption fuelled Rice Pledging Scheme, a scheme that has so far cost the Kingdom, and more importantly its rice farmers, an estimated Bt450 Billion. With thirty unanswered murders and eight hundred serious injuries, many of which were caught on camera, and with weapons of war being openly stock-piled and even flaunted on the streets of Bangkok by all sides, and with billions of dollars being stolen from the mouths of the Thai people, one has to ask the question - What have the Royal Thai Police Force been doing for the last seven months?   
Since news of the Military Coup spread on Thursday, USA’s John Kerry and UN’s Ban Ki Moon have been quick to condemn the General’s action and have warned of future sanctions against Thailand if democracy is not quickly restored. Since the announcement of the Military Coup, a curfew exists across Thailand from 10pm until 5am and it’s uncertain how long this will remain in place. Initially taken from the air, TV channels are now returning and the internet has so far remained operational. Media and demonstrations now appear to be strictly controlled by the military but so far there has been very little in the way of a violent reaction to the Coup. Again it’s early days and things could quickly change, but the general feeling from friends in and around Bangkok is that they now feel far safer than before. I’m not sure if that feeling of safety qualifies as ‘hope’, hope for a resolution to the seemingly never ending problems that plague Thai politics, but it may be a good start. 
Democracy is a very emotive term, but democracy can take many different forms. North Korea, PDR Laos, Egypt, Cambodia and Zimbabwe all have democracy, but I don’t remember such outrage from the West when the democratically elected Mohammed Morsi was recently overthrown by the military in Egypt. Should Robert Mugabe be removed in Zimbabwe or Kim Jon Un in North Korea, I wonder what the West’s reaction would be? Perhaps it all depends on how ‘friendly’ the elected leader is towards the USA and its allies, and it’s safe to say that Thaksin Shinawatra and his successive proxy Governments have over the years, been very good friends indeed. I'm not suggesting that a Democrat led Government would be any better, at least under the current legal system, but I maybe they'd be less likely to waii so low to the West and spend a great deal less on lobbying.    


So, back to the question, why execute a Military Coup now? Could it be that General Prayuth saw little hope of any side giving an inch, or that the ruling government was being openly directed by the exiled Thaksin Shinawatra from his home in Dubai? Possibly, but I doubt that this alone would have convinced a seemingly reluctant General to execute a coup just three months before he was due to retire. Was it that recent calls for pro-government supporters to raise arms and fight the perceived injustice of Thailand’s courts had gained traction, and likewise the oppositions determination to stop them, and that the newly discovered arms caches were evidence that such action was moving closer and closer to Bangkok? Possibly, and allied to the first point, this might have been enough for General Prayuth to take such action. But, there may be another reason, something that is sadly inevitable but something that none of us care to mention.             

A statement from Prayuth’s spokesman early on Friday stated that ‘the General had not met with the King and had no wish to burden him at this time’.