Sunday, May 27, 2007

30 hours in Bangkok- Part 1

Life is never short of surprises and so in a matter of less than a year, I am transformed from a guy who has never seen the world beyond Mumbai on one side and Kerala on the other, to a South East Asia trotter, albeit on a small scale. After spending a couple of months in Kuala Lumpur and almost winding up my job (as of now), I am looking forward to return to my native place and see my cute little niece whom I have never set my eyes on. But as fate has it, I am told I need to extend my stay for about 10 days more. My Malaysia visa is about to expire, so I need to leave the country for a brief while and come back so that I can get an on arrival visa again. Since India is far away, I and another colleague of mine with the same visa expiry problem (let’s call her V) decide to travel to Bangkok for the weekend. Now, company paid holiday is something you don’t want to give up any day, do you?

V and I go to the KL Sentral (that’s the spelling) and book a couple of tickets to and fro Bangkok for the next day. The queue for the low frill Air Asia is very high and so we settle down for a Malaysian Airlines flight. The two way return for a single person comes upto 1270 RM (the Air Asia tickets would have come at less than 200 RM). The flight is at 9 AM on a Saturday and we manage to arrive at KL Sentral two hours in advance. For Malaysian Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Air Asia, you can check in at KL Sentral itself, without having to go to the airport. There is a train service (28 min journey) which further connects the airport to this place. I believe Hyderabad is also toying with this idea – a rail corridor, stretching 30 km to connect the Begumpet airport in the heart of Hyderabad to the upcoming international airport in Shamshabad, with estimated investments of Rs 2,500 crore has crossed the proposal stage.

After an event-free flight, we land at the Suvarnabhumi international airport in Bangkok- Asia’s so-called sleaze capital. The procedure to get an on-arrival visa is, however, not hassle-free, as in Malaysia. The visa costs 1000 Baht, requires a return ticket, a photograph and proof of currency worth 10,000 Baht (in cash or traveller’s cheques). Since we do not carry a photo with us, we pay 200 Baht for each of our photos at the airport. The ladies at the counter are not very friendly and seem to bear some unknown grudge against us.

V forgets her wallet at the desk and goes to another counter. We remember it later and approach the ladies for the wallet. They seem to have no idea what a wallet/purse is, so I take out my wallet and gesture to them and after about 5 minutes, they get the message and the purse is returned. Finally, after gesticulating and speaking broken English, they give us both on arrival visas valid for 15 days. We complete the immigration clearance and move to the nearest information desk.

The lady across the counter beams at us and offers us a set of hotels. V is very clear that she’ll do the talking because she’s scared that they’ll sell me a sleazy accommodation; the reputation of the city scares her. So, we eventually settle for a hotel named PJ Watergate at a place I cannot remember (Just searched in Google- the place is called Ratchatewee). The package includes a night stay at the hotel (including complimentary breakfast for the next day) and a tour of the royal palace and a few Buddhist temples. It costs us 4800 Baht for 2 rooms and the guided tour (excluding entry fees at these places). The lady also informs that we need to take a cab to the hotel and it will cost us another 300 Baht (the metered rate starts at 35 Baht here).

In about an hour’s time, the cab transports us to the hotel, where our guide is waiting for us to start the tour. We have a quick refreshment and start off on our journey in a comfortable cab. Evidently, the King (Rama IX) and the Queen are pretty popular in Thailand and the city is strewn with their posters. The coup against Thaksin Shinawatra had his blessings and the people accept that. Our guide is a young Vietnamese guy called Yakee (his name tag says something else, though). Yakee is a nice guy but that’s the best I can tell about him. The poor guy is clearly historically challenged and does not seem to have any idea about the temples and struggles to give us any form of historical insights. His language is also not very understandable and the only thing I can understand from his language is that there are different architectural styles involved in the temples – Thai, Chinese, Indian and Cambodian.

The entry fees to the palace and temples comes to about 350+ Baht totally for each person. V is disappointed and expresses her displeasure regularly in Hindi at the inability of our guide to tell us anything at all. Incidntally, Yakee tells us that there are different postures of the Buddha, based on the different days of the week – Monday Buddha, Tuesday Buddha etc.- and shows us the statues with the various postures in the temple. I am not too sure about the veracity of this claim, though. There are many statues that we see but the most prominent of these is the Reclining Buddha- a huge statue made up of solid gold, which stretches across 46 metres. This statue is housed in the temple Wat Pho.

(A photo of the reclining Buddha)
We also manage to visit the Wat Phra Kaew temple which contains the Thai version of the Ramayana in the temple walls. This temple is very sacred and does not allow visitors not dressed appropriately. Signs put up around the entrance show you are not permitted to enter wearing shorts, sleeveless shirts, singlets or any form of open ended shoes. Sarongs and long trousers are usually available for loan. The temple also houses a miniature model of the famous Cambodian temple complex Angkor Wat. After the temple, we visit the Grand Palace which is a ceremonial palace and used only occasionally by the royal family. This is in the same compound as the temple and provides a contrast with its European style of architecture (Yakee informs us that Italian marble was used). We also visit the Wat Arun temple but I am unable to recollect much about it. Honestly, temple travel is not my forte but then V is fascinated by history and is insistent on checking out all the temples (I fancy history for its politics than art).

By about 6 pm, we are through with all our temple/palace visits and return to our hotel. We decide to go to the Floating market the next day, about 70 km from the city. A private tour would cost us about 4000+ Baht, so we decide to take a group tour which would cost us about 700 Baht each but would mean that we would travel with a group of people and with a different guide. After seeing Yakee’s knowledge and the monetary deal, we decide to take the group trip. Meanwhile, I retire to my hotel room to take a rest while V decides to take a look around the place. Instead of taking rest in my room, I end up watching the Nicole Kidman starrer The Interpreter, in HBO in the room.

V returns after some time and we head towards an Indian restaurant nearby called “Mughal Darbar”, which seems the sole eatery nearby serving vegetarian food. It is run by a Sardarji and has a set of giggling red dressed Thai girls, not too keen to serve us a meal. We are offered salad and mineral water, along with the food but we decide not to have it lest we are charged for it. Amazingly, we are charged for this free offering given and reversed only when I protest. The Sardarji looks at us wondering where these Indians have come from, refusing to pay a paltry sum of 20 Bahts but gives in and reduces the bill.

It’s about 9.30 pm now and we go around the place but most establishments are shutting down and there’s nothing to do. Rather regretfully, we retire to our rooms. Tourists going to bed by 10 pm in Bangkok- either the place is too bad or we are lousy tourists. Probably the second part is true.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

The French Presidential Roulette

In a few hours from now, French electors will be voting in the second round of their presidential election. In the first round, the field was narrowed to two candidates, the Right Wing Nicolas Sarkozy and the socialist Ségolène Royal. The remarkable thing about that round was the huge turnout — 83 percent; quite a contrast with the 2002 election, when there was a high proportion of abstentions.

The media spin doctors have of course gone on an overdrive, billing it as the battle between the glamorous, intelligent and articulate Royal and the hard nosed, no-nonsense Sarkozy. The glamour angle (after the rather boring faces of Chirac and Mitterand) provides a good copy for all readers. Both the leaders are born in the post-World War era and do not carry the baggage that the previous generation carries. Both were disliked in their parties as being overambitious and under-qualified upstarts but they have managed to capture the imagination of the French public.

This has been one of the most widely discussed elections that France has seen; probably a lot to do with the fact that it has never elected a woman as its head of state. The fact that Ms. Royal is not only relatively young (53 yrs) but also quite attractive has added colour to the elections. Sarkozy is also young (52 yrs), ambitious and a pragmatist and has a sharply divided opinion in France.

A few months back, photos of Royal frolicking in a beach in a bikini were widely circulated in the press. The French press is quite finicky about publishing such photos of leaders but it still found its way into the papers. But the visuals have not impeded her chances in any way. Stories have also been circulated about Sarkozy’s wife missing during his campaign. All this gossip has managed to bring about life in the rather boring world of politics.

However, what I find the most interesting aspects of this French election are the voter turnout and the woman/mother angle of Royal.

France has the fifth largest population in Europe at 63 million. Its citizens enjoy free healthcare and education. Those in work enjoy a relatively high standard of living and five weeks' statutory paid holiday. It is the most popular country in the world among tourists, receiving about 75 million visitors a year and has the third largest income in the world from tourism.

But France's economy has grown more slowly than any other developed country in the world. In 2006, its 2% growth was the worst in Europe. It also has one of the highest unemployment rates - 9.8% - of any European country. Public finances are coming under strain from the pension system and rising healthcare costs and the tax burden is one of the highest in Europe, at nearly 50% of GDP in 2005.

France has long had a high level of immigration. There are now 4.9m immigrants in France and the French Muslim population is estimated to be the largest in western Europe. Many live in the suburbs in low-standard social housing; unemployment is high among these communities and crime is a serious problem here. In France, the Presidency of Jacques Chirac has lasted many years, and in the past three or four years there have been increasing signs of discontent with the political state of the country.

France has suffered from serious economic problems, and high unemployment, particularly among young people. This has led to racial tensions in cities, where citizens from ethnic minorities have become ghettos of the unemployed and deprived. The high turnout of voters is a clear reflection of a widespread wish for change.

Royal is an unwed mother of four kids and the father is a prominent leader in the Socialist Party. This would in many places not go down well with the public but this is probably more acceptable in France and maybe Europe. It’s a point worth considering if US would be willing to accept such a leader. A country where abortion is an election issue may not necessarily appreciate an unwed mother as a Head of State - a “moral” Bush or an “immoral” Royal???

In India, Royal would stand no chance at all. The conservatives would scoff at her unwed mother status while the liberals may fume at the idea of four kids. If Richard Gere can attract imprisonment for kissing Shilpa Shetty, wonder what would happen if an unwed mother (not even of the Gandhi family) stands for elections?

The idea of a woman Head of state is not new to Asia, with the likes of Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Bandarnaike, Gloria Arroyo and Shiekh Hasina covering a great deal of the political spectrum in their respective countries. Ofcourse, the fact that they belonged to prominent political families was an important point in their favour.

Ms Royal has had to do a tremendous fight to emerge as a leader within her party itself, especially with repeated sexist attacks on her personal life. She’s, however, fought against many of the odds and emerged as the leading contender for the role. Politically, she’s been accused of being naïve, with little understanding of foreign policy.

She has also been projected as a bit of a lightweight when compared to Sarkozy. While Sarkozy has won points for his assertive style, his demeanour has not exactly gone down too well with the minorities and immigrants. But as all media stories say, France seems all set to elect a president it admires but does not widely like (Latest opinion polls indicate a nine poll lead for Sarkozy).

All the rhetoric dished out in the last few months will finally culminate in that final knockout blow to one of the candidates; however, whatever the result, the high voter turnout is an abject lesson for all democracies – something that the Labour party in UK may have to keep in mind, considering the rather poor opinion that the British public now holds of Blair and Co.

I have not done any analysis on the two candidates to suggest who is better for us in India. The experts in CNN and NDTV would probably have brought about this story. Often wondered whether all this analysis even matters; after all, it is the bureaucracy that runs democracies and not the political class, especially when the leadership has no great vision. Nevertheless, you can read more on the policy differences between the two candidates here, which, eventually may not make too much of a difference.

As per the French constitution, there cannot be any media coverage in the last 48 hours of a poll. So, all analysis in France has come to a standstill and the public is keeping its fingers crossed to witness what could probably one of the closest fights to the hot seat in France. Will it be the hard-nosed Sarky or the softie Sego?

Ofcourse, some things never change. So, there are constant media references to Royal's sex, physical attributes, wardrobe, marital status etc. While Royal has managed to use the looks and gender factor to her advantage, there is always a lurking suggestion from the media hinting at the idea of a "woman president". Does a female Head of State necessarily mean a country turning progressive? Can we judge women politicians by their policies alone, keeping aside gender politics?

P.S. Incidentally, India also has a role to play in the elections. There are 5,534 registered French voters of Pondicherry who would be casting their ballot in this poll. Talk about globalization!!!