The King is dead. Long live the King !
King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the longest reigning monarch in Thai history, passed away round about the time I started writing this article. My curiosity about Thai politics was sparked off by Mr chung, our local guide in Chiang Mai, not lest because of his choice in clothing.
"Are you one of the Red Shirts ?" I asked, pointing to his red T shirt. "No ! No ! " He flapped his arms wildly in embarrassment. The next day he turned up in a pink shirt." So you're a loyalist then ?" I teased. Pink shirts and blazers had been the craze in Thailand ever since Royal astrologists determined it would bring the King good health. "I'm apolitical, but all Thais are loyalist !" He explained over a bowl of excellent noodles in a street-side food stall, always a better pick for local cuisine than upmarket restaurants.
The fact that King Bhumibol was one of the most beloved and revered monarch in the world did not happen by chance, but the result of methodical Palace propaganda which has successfully molded a public image of a righteous Buddha-King who's above politics, who's all peace, humility and good works, yet all powerful. The monarchy is further protected by Thailand's Lèse-majesté law
s, among the harshest in the world, which ensure any hint of criticism - even if true, would end in stiff punishment ; what's more this draconian law extends to even non-Thai foreigners, as we shall see.
For hundreds of years Thailand had been ruled by an absolute monarchy, but the revolution in 1932 stripped King Prajadhipok, the reigning monarch, of all power and prestige. Unable to accept being a constitutional monarchy, the childless king abdicated in 1935. Bhumibol's elder brother, Ananda Mahidol, then 9 years old and studying in Switzerland, was declared the next King. Just as the last Emperor in China, Regents were appointed by Parliament in the interim until he came of age. In December 1945, aged 20, Ananda returned to Thailand, only to be found dead in his bed 6 months later, shot in the forehead with a Colt 45. The royalist establishment tried to pinned the crime on a couple of palace pages, then on the Prime Minister Pridi Banomyong (instigator of the 1932 revolt), but South African writer Rayne Kruger expounded in his book "The Devil's Discus"(1964) that it was possible, supported by forensic evidence from Scotland Yard, that he was shot accidentally by Bhumipol. Both brothers were known enthusiasts of firearms. The Thai Government banned his book and a local printing house involved with the Thai translated edition was burnt down. Only through the organization "Freedom Against Censorship Thailand", that the book was reprinted in 2009 by DMP Publications, Hong Kong. This matter was also touched on in the book "The Revolutionary King" by William Stevenson (2001). An official ban was impossible as the biography was written with Bhumibol's blessing, but Thai-born American Joe Gordon was less fortunate, in 2011 he was jailed for 21/2 years for Lèse-majesté, because he translated sections of the book into Thai and posted them on line.
This was how Bhumibol assumed the throne in 1946, and once there he plotted to restore royal status by allying himself with crooked generals and politicians. In 1947 the elected government was overthrown by a military coup in Bhumibol's name, subsequently he was awarded many powers in the new 1949 constitution. In 1957 the Prime Minister Pibulsonggram was ousted for committing Lèse-majesté, Bhumibol promptly imposed martial law, then appointed General Sarit Thanarat instate. During Sarit's premiership, the monarchy was fully revitalized, many archaic ceremonial practices were brought back, including the controversial protocol of crawling in front of royalty during audience, which was specifically banned by his grandfather King Chulalongkorn. Bhumibol's birthday ( 5th December) was declared the National Day, instead of 24th June, the Siamese Revolution of 1932.
In the next 60 years Bhumibol proved himself to be a proficient political actor. He had managed to elevate the monarchy into the single most powerful component of the modern Thai state, and exerted political influence behind the scene. American journalist Paul Handley in "The King Never Smiles" chronicles Bhumibol's shadowy presence in insurgencies, the Vietnam War and alliance with the US to combat Communism, not to mention the countless military coups to replace elected civilian governments, the massacres of 1972,1976 and the Suchinda bloodshed of 1992- in all instances unarmed students and civilians were killed by royal-backed militias. In a nutshell Thai politics is polarized by one hand by progressive politicians, and the other military men in league with the monarchy, all scrambling for a piece of Thailand's power pie. The Yellow Shirts ( yellow is the King's color as he was born on a Monday, in Thai culture every day of the week is designated a color) are the royalists, ultra-nationalists and the urban middle class, also known as People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD). They sabotaged the elected Governments in 2005, 2006, 2008, and again in 2013-2014. The Red Shirts are the UDD ( United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship), members composed mainly of rural citizens from the northeast and north Thailand , the urban lower classes of Bangkok, and the intellectuals.
Bhumibol's "network monarchy" includes the business elites, Privy Council and Supreme Court, its ability to exercise power rests on the Thai people's unwavering worship of Bhumibol as the bodhittsava-like figurehead. Thai children are indoctrinated from an early age with the 3 pillars of Thai society - Nation, Religion and King. Bhumibol was ascribed the guardian of ancient traditions and credited with saving the Thai people from imperialists, communists and neocolonialists. The Military channels and publications are dedicated to sing praises of the monarchy, and in 2006 when the Thaksin government was under attack, Privy Council President told graduating military cadets that the Thai Army must serve the King - not the government.
Bhumibol's protrayal as the "Development King" and "Renaissance King" was carefully orchestrated to minute detail. Bhumibol was indeed talented, he was a painter, musician, photographer, author, translator and sailor. It's also true he was head of many development projects in rural areas, and his visits to these projects were heavily promoted in the best of lights, making them seem far more important and successful than they really were. All the Royal Projects were funded by the government though Bhumibol was head of Forbes magazine's list of the "world's richest royals" from 2008 to 2013; he was also the owner of the Golden Jubilee diamond, the largest faceted diamond in the world. The Crown's enormous fortune is managed by Crown Property Bureau (CPB), all income is exempt from taxes.
Sadly ignorance and blind devotion of the Thai masses to the King is of paramount importance to the ruling class in Thailand, so books like "The King Never Smiles" must never see the light of day. In 2006 the Thai government contacted George H. Bush and the president of Yale University Richard C. Levin to enlist their help in banning the book. Obviously it didn't work ! I noted a travel book was also banned in Thailand but for a different reason - the book had a picture of a scantily clad go-go girl sitting on the lap of an American tourist as the cover, thus offended the moral sensitivity of the Thai Tourism Board. Which hardly seems fair when one compares the 2009 Youth tube video which shows Princess Srirasm, third consort of Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, feeding cakes to the Prince's miniature poodle Foo Foo, stark naked but for a tiny G-string - even if it was the dog's birthday party and the dog was Air Chief Marshal in the Royal Thai Air Force, a position conferred by the Prince.
Back to the trip, Chiang Mai was the ancient capital of the former Lanna kingdom and Wat Phra That Lampang Luang is one of the best examples of Lanna architecture. Wat Phra That Lampang Luang was founded in the 13th century, it is built on top of an earth mound, a Naga stairway leads to the temple grounds, which are surrounded by high fortified brick walls. According to legend Buddha visited the site some 2,500 years ago and donated a hair, which is now enshrined in the temple's large chedi. Within the compound are the Phra Kaew Don Tao Buddha image (cast in the 16th century), the oldest surviving wooden viharn (14th or 15th century) in Thailand, and the Ho Phra Phuttabat ( footprint chapel), all constitute to make this one of the most highly revered temples in Thailand. The temple can be reached by horse drawn carriage from Lampang town, where we had seafood lunch.
During our visit Khom Loi ( Lanna style sky lanterns) were launched by the monks to bring good luck, which also serve symbolically to let problems and worries float away. It was the Yi Peng Festival of light, a time to make Buddhist merit. Yi means two and Peng means a full moon, it's a Lanna festival therefore best seen in Chiang Mai. Intricately shaped lanterns are also used to decorate houses, gardens and temples. Khom fai are revolving lanterns due to the heat of the candle inside.
Yi Peng coincides with the Loi Krathong ( to float a basket) in Thailand, and falls on the evening of the full moon of the 12th month in the Thai lunar calendar, usually November in Western calendar. It is a hybrid of the Brahman festival to honor Buddha, and the annual homage festival to Phra Mae Khongkha, the Thai goddess of the waters, rivers, streams, and canals. Krathong can be made with banana stalk or bread, decorated with leaves and flowers, incense sticks and candle. A small coin is sometimes included as an offering to the river spirits, while the candle venerates the Buddha with light. Styrofoam krathongs are now banned as they are non bio-degradable and pollute the river.
The floating away of the Krathong symbolizes letting go of all one's hatred and anger. People sometimes put clippings of fingernails or hair on the Krathong to let go of negative thoughts. Legend has it when a boy and a girl launch a Krathong together they will be lovers either in this life or in the next.
In Chiang Mai’s Old Town, especially the areas near the Three Kings Monument and the Thapae Gate were all decked out with gorgeous decorations and festooned with flowers and lanterns.
There was a flurry of activities all day long - the Best Krathong Competition, Beauty pageants, Thai and Lanna dances, and of course parades and fireworks. I squeezed to the front of the crowd to see the parade and found myself face to face with the black Phi ! A large Thai lady with a large camera quickly shoved a small coin in my hand and motioned me to give it to him, feeling like a 6-year old I sheepishly obeyed. Apparently the local custom to ward off bad luck is to pay the devil.
Towards the evening we gathered for the traditional dinner, eaten like a picnic sitting on the lawn, followed by a spectacular light and sound show.
The float parade at night in neighboring Chiang Rai was spectacular. I would imagine being a judge of the Beauty Pageant must be such a hard job, all the girls were so beautiful !
In a country where she-boys are more beautiful than real women, even roadside promises of beauty carry authenticity. I was reminded a few years ago in a medical conference a Thai plastic surgeon boasted to be the fastest gun in transgender operation (male to female) in the world. Astonishingly the operation took him a mere 20 minutes from start to finish, well, I'm sold !
I was interested to note during the time of my visit, the incumbent Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra (2011-4), and her brother Thaksin ( Prime Minister 2001-6), were from Chiang Mai. Their ancestry is the same as mine - Meizhou Hakka, Guangdong. Chinese had a long history in Thailand, dating back to at least the 13th century. Today Thai Chinese is the largest Chinese diaspora in the world, as well as the best integrated- considering 18 of all the Thai Prime Ministers and the majority of parliament are of Chinese ( whole or partial) origin. The present Royal Family, the Chakri Dynasty, was founded by King Rama I who was part Chinese. His predecessor King Taksin of Thonburi Dynasty, also had a Guangdong father and a Thai mother. During Taksin's reign Chinese immigration and trade was actively encouraged. Things started to get dicey for the Chinese in 1918 with the Private School Act aimed at Chinese schools, then King Rama VI legislated that all Chinese must adopt Thai surnames. Chinese were further discriminated against from 1930s -1950s under the military dictatorship of PM Plaek ( even as he was part Chinese). After the 1970s Language Red Scare nearly all ethnic Chinese speak Thai exclusively, though a number of Chinese words had filtered into the Thai language, especially names of dishes and foodstuff.
Chiang Mai also carries particular poignancy for the legion of fans of the songstress Teresa Teng, who passed away in Suite 1502, Imperial Mae Ping Hotel in 1995. She was probably the most famous singer among Chinese in recent years, there's a saying : "Wherever there are Chinese people, the songs of Teresa Teng can be heard". The enterprising Mr Pratya Pichaisat, Director of General Affairs of the hotel, has kept her memory alive, for a price ( room rate starts from 25000THB a night) you could stay in the very room she died, which has been kept virtually unchanged.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, 15 kilometers from Chiang Mai, was founded in 1383. According to a legend, Monk Sumanathera was directed in a dream to find Gautama Buddha's shoulder bone in Pang Cha. King Nu Naone bade the monk to bring it to him in Lamphun. Once there the relic broke into 2 pieces. The smaller piece was enshrined at a temple in Suandok, the other piece was placed on the back of a sacred white elephant and released into the jungle. The elephant climbed to the top of Suthep Mountain, trumpeted 3 times, turned around 3 times, then knelt down and died. King Nu Naone took this as an omen and built the original chedi at the site. To get to the temple one has to climb up a naga staircase of 309 steps.
I always love visiting local food markets - for a Chinese food is the Alpha and the Omega. In Chiang Mai we were taken to a market that specializes in Thai people's favorite snacks - bugs !
While the rest of the group went to the zoo, I toured the museum and the Old Town. Chiang Mai is very rewarding to go around by foot, my advice is to allow oneself plenty of time to poke into every nook and cranny.
Chiang Mai is famous for the Night Bazaar. Mr Chung was aghast when I told him I was going alone. I didn't understand the fuss until much later. The Night Bazaar spreads over the three-block stretch of Chan Klan Road in the heart of the city, the exact spot the Yunnan trading caravans passing through in bygone days did their sales. The whole place buzzed with street vendors, their stalls displayed a wide variety of goods, souvenirs and foods; there were also a lot of street performers as well as charity drives, all trying to turn a buck.
I am aware Bazaars the world over are fertile grounds for petty crimes like pick-pockets or purse snatching. Thailand is also generally considered "high threat" for credit card and ATM card fraud, and foreign passport ( particularly western) scams as they are highly prized . What I didn't know was in 2000, a 23 year old Welsh backpacker was raped then strangled with her sarong in the Baan Aree Guest House, just 5 minutes walk from the Night Bazaar. 2 weeks prior to her murder a German tourist was shot dead, and in 2009 a British music teacher was stabbed to death in his home in Chiang Mai. I used to think mishaps only happen in Full Moon parties on the beach, as depicted by the film " The Beach" by Leonardo DiCaprio, but this delusion was utterly shattered by the killing of British tourist Johanne Masheder by a monk, who had also previously raped an Australian backpacker. Cleric crimes are more common than most people realize. In 2013 an American expat was chopped to death by a cabbie with a sword. Farang (foreigner) murders are frequent enough for Andrew Gardner to write the book " How Not To Get Murdered In Thailand " and John Stapleton his book " Thailand ,'One of the Most dangerous Tourist Destinations on Earth'". After a spate of British rapes and murders, the UK Government issued official warnings about violence to the 860,000 British tourists who go to Thailand each year. While I don't agree Thailand is the most dangerous tourist place, it is indeed a crime center of Asia, the players are international so not all the killers are Thai. Drugs, prostitution, extortions, weapon sales, kidnaps and police corruption are intertwined. Rape is normalized as 80% of Thai soap operas broadcast year-round contain scenes of rape or gender-based violence, and blame-the-victim attitude is pervasively held not just by the public but especially among authorities. After Hannah Witheridge, a British backpacker, was raped and murdered in Koh Tao in 2014, Prime Minister Gen Prayuth Chan-o-cha commented : " Foreign women would be unsafe if they wore bikinis, unless they're not beautiful" ! Firearms proliferation is not a US monopoly, an estimated 10,000,000 Thai civilians hold firearms, but only 3,870,000 are registered. In 2002 firearm homicide cases in Thailand was 20,032, third highest in the world after South Africa and Columbia.
Sukhothai Kingdom was founded by King Ramkhamhaeng in the 13th century. According to Thai historians, this marked the beginning of the Thai nation. Sukhothai means " Dawn of Happiness", and the capital city consisted of 193 buildings and temples, even a Hindu shrine to Vishnu, now all in ruins. Ramkhamhaeng was credited with adopting Theravada as the State religion in 1283 through Sri Lanka, and inventing the Thai script. The monk Mongkut who made a pilgrimage to north Siam in 1833 found the famous Ramkhamhaeng stele, which is now in a Bangkok Museum. Ramkhamhaeng was also the first one to start trade with the Yuan Dynasty of China and even produced Sangkalok( Song Dynasty ceramics) in Thailand. After the Burmese-Siamese War (1594-1605) Sukhothai was abandoned. In 1953 it was re-discovered by King Bhumibol, much restoration was done in the 1960s, and in 1991 became a UNEXCO World Heritage Site.
The design of Sukhothai was based on the Mandala, representing the universe with the central principal stupa (shaped like a lotus bud) to enshrine the relics of the Buddha, surrounded by smaller stupa in eight directions. The artistic style is a mixture of Khmer and Singhalese, characterized by lotus bud chedi and statues of walking Buddha, clothing draped around the body.
Wat Mahathat was the largest and most important temple, it has a large seated Buddha figure set amongst the pillars of a now ruined sala.
Wat Chang Lom is a 14th century Buddhist temple of the Lanka style . It consisted of a bell shaped stupa built on a square foundation, surrounded by 32 elephant sculptures along the base.
Very large images of the Buddha was in vogue during the Sukhothai era. This is a 12 meter tall standing Buddha image known as Phra Attharot.
The Wat Rong Khun ( White Temple 白龍寺 ) is the poster boy of a modern Thai Buddhist temple. The ubosot (main temple) incorporates contemporary visual art with classic northern Thai Buddhist temple, characterized by its three tiered roof and stylized Naga serpents on the barge boards. It is privately owned, designed and built by Chalermchai Kositpipat, who spent 20 years (1977-1997) and THB 40 million of his own money in the project. It's his offering to Lord Buddha because he believes it will bring him eternal life. Mr Kositpipat was born in Chiang Rai of a Sino-Thai family, as an artist he's best known for mixing traditional Buddhist art with contemporary images. In 1988 he was commissioned to paint the murals for Wat Buddhapadipa in London. He's also the first artist to receive the Silpathorn Award, created in 2004 to honor living Thai artists in mid-career.
Every detail in the White Temple carries symbolism, meant to be a surreal vision of Dhamma ( Buddhist teaching). The gleaming whiteness of the building signifies the purity of the Buddha, the fragments of mirrored glass embedded in the building's exterior sparkling in the sun represent Buddha's wisdom shining over the Earth and the Universe.
The main temple is reached by a bridge over a small lake, called the Bridge of the Cycle of Rebirth. In front of the Bridge are hundreds of out- stretched hands, symbolizing unrestrained desire. A semi-circle just in front of the Bridge represents human suffering and hell. The Bridge shows the way to happiness is by overcoming temptations, greed and desire, and crossing of the Bridge signifies rebirth into a state free of suffering, which is the land of the Buddha. After crossing the Bridge the visitor arrives at the Gate of Heaven guarded by two huge Kinnaree, half-human, half-bird creatures from mythology that represent Death and Rahu, who presides over men's fate.
The wonderfully ornate golden building is in fact the toilet. Kositpipat specificall
y chose gold to represent earthly material things and possession, and reminds us to focus instead on the mind and to make merit in Heaven.
The theme of the Dharma continues throughout the grounds. Whisky bottles are hung on trees, traffic cones have demon heads.
In 2014 a strong earthquake badly damaged the White Temple. Kositpipat decided to restore and further expand the Temple, but funding was a problem. As he has made a vow to complete the Temple at his own expense, he refuses to accept public donation of more than US$300, instead he encourages visitors to buy his art pieces, Buddhist art t-shirts and publications on sale in the museum. Around the Temple grounds are several concrete "trees" with thousands of medallion hangings - for 30 Baht you can add yours with your name written on it, or you can throw a few coins into the wishing well.
The Temple is open all year round, admission is 50 THB. Casual dress is fine but before entering the main bot where the Buddha image is housed, you're required to take off your shoes and cover your shoulders and knees. Photos are not permitted in the main bot.
Chiang Rai had been a Burmese city for centuries, while Chiang Mai was annexed by Thailand in 1899, Chiang Rai was only proclaimed a province of Thailand in 1933. King Mangrai the Great, son of a local chieftain and a Chinese princess from Jinghong, founded the Lanna Thai Kingdom in 1296. His statue is a significant landmark for Chiang Rai, every year a large number of Thais come to pay their respects to the ancient King, and bring him gifts of flowers and incense.
Another Chiang Rai landmark is the Golden Clock tower, designed also by Kositpipat and unveiled in 2008 in honor of King Bhumibol. It serves as a traffic roundabout. At 7,8 or 9 PM every night there's a light and sound show with laser lights and musical accompaniment as the clock chimes the hour.
Chiang Rai is the main commercial center serving the Golden Triangle border region of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos. 12.5% of the population are hill tribes . Racism in Thailand is a prevalent but little discussed topic. Demonization and criminalization of the ethnic minorities of Thailand's hill tribes, and the perpetuation of the myth that they are non-Thai has been perpetuated in Thai textbooks and the mainstream media.
So who are the Thais ? Little is known about Thailand before the 13th century, though Archeology finds confirm various indigenous communities resided in mainland Southeast Asia for thousands of years. Tai people from Yunnan Guangxi in China started mass migration southwards from the 10th century, the first mention of their existence is a 12th century inscription in Angkor Wat in Cambodia, which refers to Syam, which is Sanskrit meaning "brown ( people)" with a derogatory connotation. The Portuguese was the first European country to give a coherent account of the country and designate it as Siam ( Syam) in the 15th century. Over the subsequent hundreds of years Tai intermarried and absorbed Mon-Khmer, Burmese, Taiwan, Sino-Tibetan, Miao and Yao (minority tribes in Southern China) as well as Han Chinese, resulting in considerable genetic diversity in the modern Thai people. On the last count there're more than 30 distinct Tai ethnic groups in Thailand, which makes up about 85% of the population ! So Thai ethnicity is more a cultural identity than genetic origin. The biggest and most influential group is still Thais of Chinese origin, as 40% of all Thais are of full or part Chinese descent.
Ironically the concept of a Thai nation was non-existent until the 20th century, before then there was not even a Thai word for 'nation'. King Rama VI imposed the idea of "Thai-ness", re-wrote Thai history from an ethno-nationalist viewpoint, and imposed the policy of " Thaification" of Thailand. Since then minority tribes were forced to assimilate and regional peculiarities were repressed in favor of one homogenous "Thai" culture.
We went to a couple of hill villages, one sadder than the next.
The first one was the Padaung Karen Long Neck Village. These are the "giraffe women" described by Polish explorer Vitold De Golish in National Geographic years ago. The neck ring adornment is started when the girls are 5 or 6 years old. Over the years the coil is replaced by a longer one and more turns are added, until there are 20-25 rings which can weight up to 25 pounds. The "long neck" is a visual illusion, the weight of the brass pushes the collar bone down and compresses the rib cage, so the appearance of a stretched neck is in fact created by deformation of the clavicles. The coils are made by Burmese craftsmen, coiling and uncoiling is a lengthy procedure, so the rings are rarely removed, usually only when the women are sick or to replace the ring with a longer one. They sleep in them and after years of continuous wear the collar becomes an integral part of the body, even then there could be problems. The muscles covered by the coil become weakened, and the skin can be bruised and discolored, so the women sometimes pad their necks with leaves to prevent chafing and sores.
Most women also wear brass rings on their arms and shins. The rings on the arms are worn from the wrist to the elbow, those on the legs from the ankles to the knees. Cloth coverings are kept over most of these rings. The rings are made of solid pieces of metal and can weight up to 30 pounds.
There're many theories to explain the neck rings. The women say it's a cultural identity, a sign of beauty and wealth and that it will attract a better husband. Adultery, for example, is punished by removal of the rings. The rings certainly exaggerate the sexual dimorphism of women's more slender necks. Then there's the belief neck rings protect women from tigers which grab victims by the neck. Some anthropologists hypothesized the rings make the women less attractive to other tribes and thus prevent slavery. Another theory suggest the coils give the women resemblance to the dragon in their folklore. The Kayans are animist, they believe their ancestry was the result of a union between a female dragon and a male human/angel hybrid. Over 200 folk stories have been preserved through oral history, research on the oral history indicates their true origin is probably from China.
The women have a rich tradition of crafting from wood carving to weaving, and the village is lined by long stretch of stalls where they sell their handicrafts, scarves and bags ; which is a better job than hard labor in the fields and rice paddies. Rice is the Padaung main crop. Long-neck tourism is big business but little of the money finds its way to the Kayans as all operations are run by the Thais. Women who wear the rings are paid 1500 baht a month to run souvenir stalls and the men receive a rice allowance of 260 baht a month.
Most of the tourists who pay 250 baht (US$8) per person to gawk at the Long Neck as human zoo exhibits have no idea what they're about. They are actually not a Thai hill tribe. The Padaung ( a Shan term) is a sub-group of Karen in Burma where they'd suffered oppression for decades. In the late 1980s when civil war between the Karen separatists and the Burmese army became intense they fled to Thailand, but they were never officially granted refugee status, but treated instead as illegal immigrants. Human Rights Watch 2002 reported continuous discrimination in Thailand, they're deprived of education, basic sanitation and medical care, imposed restriction of employment opportunities and vulnerable to exploitation. Those suspected of aiding guerrillas are tortured and sometimes killed. They are confined to small pockets of guarded villages on the northern Thai border separated from most of modern Thailand.
When I stopped to chat to the ladies ( using a mixture of English, Mandarin and body gestures), I found them to be affable and eager for outside contact . The 5 year old daughter of one stall worker, cowed by the dozens of flashing cameras, threw a tearful temper tantrum. After a great deal of effort her mother and I managed to coax her back to smiles, which just shows how universal the problems of working mothers are as they juggle work and child care - here especially as the men generally do little and the women do most of the work.
In 2005 UNHCR for Refugees opened registration for third country resettlement to the 50,000 refugees in the area. Thailand has issued exit permits for more than 20,000 other Burmese refugees but none for the Padaung Karen Long Neck. The reason is Mae Hong Son is Thailand's poorest province which depends heavily on tourism, and Kayans are the most popular tourist attraction. Unlike other refugees, because of their commercial value, the Kayans have not lived in the largely sealed-off refugee camps but in villages, now the Thai authorities are using this against them, and claim they're economic migrants rather than political refugees. In 2008 the UNHCR expressed reservation about Long Neck Tourism due to the Provincial Government's continued refusal to allow registered Kayan refugees to leave, a policy linked to their economic importance. The same year some of the younger Kayan women removed their neck rings as a protest. Then as an incentive to persuade them to stay, the Thai government has opened a new village project at Hway Pu Keng and offer the Kayans their own houses, freedom from the Thai controller, and the possibility of Thai citizenship in the future.
The next hill tribe village we visited was just as sad.
80 kilometers from Chiang Rai is the Village of Santikhiri ( Hill of Peace) on the Doi Mae Salong Mountain. It was formerly known as Mae Salong (美斯樂) and was the site of fierce mountain battles for 4 decades. It was only opened to tourism in the mid 1990s. Most of the population of 20,000 are direct descendants of the 5th Regiment of the 93rd Division KMT( Kuomintang) 26th Army. Virtually everybody here speaks Mandarin and incredibly it is here that the KMT soldiers and their descendants became the newest National Minority of Thailand.
The tragic story of the KMT troops were recorded in the Chinese novels "A Home Too Far" ( 異域, 1961) and "Ruined City of the Golden Triangle" (金三角邊區荒城 1982), both by Po-yang ( 柏杨 ). The book "A Home too Far" landed Po-yang in the Green Island political prison for 9 years for criticizing the Taiwan KMT Government, but in 1990 it was made into a film featuring Hong Kong heart-throb Andy Lau in a lesser role. Another well known book is "The Tragic History of the KMT Troops in the Golden Triangle,1950-1981" (金三角國軍血淚史：1950-1981) by Qin Yihui (覃怡輝) in 2009.
In 1949 after defeat in the Chinese civil war by Mao's PLA (People's Liberation Army), remnants of KMT, a force of 12,000 led by General Duan and General Li refused to surrender, and fled from Yunnan to Burma's Shan State plateau, to continue an insurgency. They were initially supported by both Taiwan and Washington. As China entered the Korean War in 1950, the CIA desperately needed on-the-ground military intelligence on China. The two KMT generals agreed to infiltrate soldiers into China for intelligence gathering missions, in return General Douglas MacArthur promised them military equipment air dropped by secret planes to assist them to retake China. But when the Korean War ended in 1953, funding and military assistance from both the US and Taiwan dwindled, so to meet their expenses the KMT generals entered the Golden Triangle opium racketeering. Because of the "exchange opium for arms " deals, which saw weapons ending in the hands of Burmese ethnic minority insurgents, the Burmese launched military offensives against the KMT for 12 years.
In Jan 1961 some 5000 Burmese soldiers and 20,000 PLA troops swept the Shan State and the KMT was crushed. 4,000 bedraggled and exhausted soldiers of General Duan's 93rd Division, latter dubbed the ' Lost Army' as they were eventually disowned by Taiwan, arrived at the mountainous sanctuary of Mae Salong in Thailand. In exchange for asylum the KMT soldiers agreed to fight as mercenaries against the communist insurgencies in both Thailand and Laos. Throughout this time until the Thai Communists were ousted in the 1980s, opium trafficking was still the main source of income for the KMT, so much so in a 1971 report CIA stated that Doi Mae Salong was one of the biggest heroin refineries in S.E. Asia.
By this time the drug financed KMT had become an embarrassment to Thailand as well as its US ally, so in 1981 the Army was disbanded and most but not all of their families were granted Thai citizenship. Over a thousand lives were lost in the battles, so essentially the citizenships were bought with blood. With help from King Bhumibol crop substitution programs in the cultivation of coffee, corn , fruit trees, Chinese herbs, mushrooms and above all High Mountain Oolong tea (which is now Mae Salong's main product) were instituted, at the same time Mae Salong was renamed Santikhiri and the region opened up to tourists. All projects were intended to create viable alternatives to the opium trade.
General Duan Xi-wen (段希文), founder of Mae Saong and erstwhile drug warlord, passed away in 1980 and his mausoleum sits on the side of a hill high above his town, not far from his tea house.
The Chinese Martyrs Memorial Museum was built with Taiwan money as a tribute to the KMT settlers . It opens to a vast, austere central shrine that contains the memorial tablets of 750 KMT soldiers who fought and sacrificed for Thailand. The two flanking halls display the history and stories of the battles in Burma and Thailand. Faded photographs and documents in sandbox recount the struggles and development of Mae Salong through the years.
I was taken aback by the four big Chinese characters 精忠報國 ( kept faith to repay the mother country) which dominate the central hall. Such gallantry from a people abandoned by their own country ! Even though most of their descendants are now Thai citizens, the small Chinese community still cling tenaciously and insistently to their cultural heritage and identity, and they want their children to never forget where they came from (不忘本), as the abundant Chinese schools and the Chinese way of life testify. Kinship is what Chinese value most of all, 5,000 years of tumultuous history has taught us dynasties come and go, all politics and even political system is transient, but blood and culture withstand time and space . This is a virtue a number of Hong Kong people sadly lack, to their detriment .
My uncle is a Protestant preacher and in the 1970s was sent as a missionary to Mae Salong. He told of an incident when he was held at gun point by a gang of opium dealers and almost never made it back . Unfortunately even today drug is still a menace in the Golden Triangle, so I was most happy to witness an Anti-drug Basket Ball Tournament for the local youths.
Located an hour's drive north of Chiang Rai is the Doi Tung Royal Villa, former summer residence of the Princess Mother Srinagarindra Sangwan, mother of King Bhumibol, and the Mae Fah Luang Garden, an ornamental botanical garden covering 10 acres. The Garden brings substantial income to the area, directly as job opportunities for the locals, and indirectly from tourist revenue. Because the villa is on royal ground, we were advised to cover our legs and shoulders and not wear figure-hugging cloths.
By all accounts the Princess Mother was a genuine caring person. Trained as a nurse, she was a commoner who married a down-to-earth Prince. Her husband Prince Mahidol studied Public Health at Harvard and MIT( Massachusetts Institute of Technology), but died young from kidney disease. She was not conferred the title Queen Mother though she was the mother of 2 kings, because her husband was never King.
Princess Mother had a lifelong love of plants and concern for the environment. She started the Doi Tung Development Project in Chiang Rai Provence in 1988 for reforestation and sustainable development, which includes a Training Center in agriculture, weaving and dyeing, as well as a Hill Tribe Youth Leadership Program, and effectively helped stop the opium trade. She also initiated many projects in Education (schools and scholarships), Health care Foundations, Social Welfare and Volunteer programs. She was the first to start a Medical Volunteer Mobile Unit and her visits to remote areas by helicopter earned her the name 'Mae Fah Luang' among the hill tribes, meaning Royal Mother from the Sky. The Princess Mother was adamant : " Manners are an integral part of character-molding", those of Hong Kong's legislators who consider rudeness "hip and cool" should take heed ! On the other hand maybe it's too much to ask that politicians have good character !!
Unlike most Royal ladies, the Princess Mother was frugal and had only 2 outfits made in a year. She had a wide range of interests like painting, photography, astronomy and gardening; her years living in Lausanne, Switzerland, also cultivated a fondness in outdoor activities like trekking, horse riding and skiing. She also enjoyed badminton and Pétanque.
The Princess Mother passed away in 1995 at age 94, one of the longest-living members of Thai Royalty. After her death King Bhumibol appointed his daughter Her Royal Highness Sirindhorn to head her Foundations. Princess Sirindhorn is definitely my favorite Royal even though she's frumpy and dresses like a librarian.
Princess Sirindhorn is fondly called " Princess Angel" by her adoring subjects, many of whom secretly wish she could succeed King Bhumibol instead of her brother, the Playboy Prince Vajiralongkorn.
Like her father she's multi-talented. She's an accomplished musician and plays the trumpet, the ranat (xylophone) and saw duang - Thai traditional instruments. She paints and practices Thai classical dancing, and credited for her effort in reviving Thai traditions. She also enjoys jogging, swimming, biking and trekking. She has an aptitude for learning since 3 years old and at 12 years old started writing prose, poetry, short stories and travel books, the sales proceed goes to the Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Foundation which was set up in 1979 to support needy students. She's also known as "Princess of Technology" for her contribution to computer, cartography, meteorology, survey and photogrammetry, remote sensing and geographic information system, as well as nutrition. She teaches history at the Chulachomklao Royal military Academy, works towards Preservation of Intangible Cultural Heritage and is also a SDU Honorary Professor.