Monday, January 27, 2014

Siamese Cats

27 January 2013

My rolling luggage, Big Wheelie, somehow was wounded when in storage at the train station.  He came out with an abrasion - a tear in the top layer of fabric.  It didn't go all the way through to the packing space; it was as if something sharp was placed on top and just tore through the top layer.

Luckily, I had a lovely iron-on patch from Oamaru, New Zealand, the place with the very cute little blue penguins.  Yes, the patch was a picture of the little blue penguin.  

So I cut a label off a tank top and sewed that over the tear.  Then borrowed on iron to adhere the patch over the repair.  And then, because this is luggage, I found some red thread and sewed that around the patch, ensuring it is on as permanently as I can make it.

Now why didn't I think to buy a koala patch when in Australia???

Okay, on to the subject of this blog - Siamese cats.  
Thailand was once known as the kingdom of Siam.  Yes, home to Siamese cats.  These photos are all cats in our neighbourhood, and I dedicate this post to the kitties of Soi Silom 14.

The following is from the website 
and I thought it was interesting enough to share:

    " The Siamese cat originated from Thailand, formerly known as Siam. These cats were held in such high esteem in their native country that no one except the King and members of the royal 
family were permitted to own them. They were originally known as Royal points.

    " Written records reveal that Siamese cats, in their 
country of origin, were venerated as guardians of the temples. When a person of high rank died, it was usual to select one of these cats to receive the dead person's soul. The cat was then removed from the royal household and sent to one of the temples to spend the rest of its days living a ceremonial life of great luxury, with monks and priests as its servants. These cats were reputed to eat the finest foods from gold plate and to recline on cushions 
made of the most opulent materials, which had been provided by the departed one's relatives in an attempt to receive good fortune and blessings. Once they became temple cats, they were supposed to have special powers and could intercede for the soul of the dead person. "

The article continues:

      " In 1884, Owen Gould 
brought to England a pair of Siamese cats from Siam as a gift for his sister Lillian. These two cats, Pho and Mia, father and mother, are 1a and 2a in the British Siamese Cat Register, but they have no "pedigree", their particulars are "unknown, imported from Bangkok". The progeny of Pho and Mia, Duen Ngai and Kalahom and Karomata, were exhibited at the Crystal Palace in 1885 and excelled all competitors, but unfortunately died after the show. 

    " Between 1884 and the end of the century, a considerable number of Siamese cats were imported into England and are recorded in the British Siamese Cat Registers. Miss Forestier Walker, one of the founder members of the original Siamese Cat Club in England, owned Tiam O'Shian, an ancestor of Tiam O'Shian IV, who was a prizewinner at the the London Crystal Palace Shows of 1900 and 1901.

    " Mrs. Robert Locke founded the Beresford Cat Club in 1899 and was its first president. Mrs. Locke owned the first registered Siamese cats in America, Lockhaven Siam and
Sally. Calif and Bangkok were bred from Siam and Sally Ward. It was said that Calif and Siam "carried all before them" at the Chicago show in 1902.

    " Probably the first Siamese cat in America arrived during 
the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881) as a gift from the American consul in Bangkok to the President's wife, Mrs. Lucy Webb Hayes. Mrs. Hayes was notified that a Siamese cat consigned to her had arrived from Hong Kong on January 3, 1879. It was transported to San Francisco on the steam-powered SS Belgic, with charges prepaid by the consul in Bangkok. The cat had been placed in the charge of the ship's purser until San Francisco and thence was sent by express to Washington. After the cat's safe arrival at the White House, she was named Siam, and soon became a much-admired favorite."

While Siamese cats no longer guard the temples, they certainly retain the attitude that they deserve special treatment.  And reverence.  And special foods.

Although I think my favourite is the one I think of as Motorcycle Cat.  How cute is that little one?

Of course, the tortoise shell cat needs to hire Grumpy Cat's publicist - I think they could vie for the title of Grumpiest Cat.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Shutdown Bangkok

26 January 2014 - Part 2

Two things are going on in Bangkok right now, and I need to explain some of it.  However, keep in mind that I have a rather cynical view of politics in general, and tend to be suspicious of most governments.  (In high school, my Civics teacher told me I didn't understand crime or politics.  I asked him what was the difference.  I must add in my defense that it was 1972.)

What I'm saying is that my understanding of Thai politics is coloured by my own beliefs.  And our comprehension of the bigger picture of Thai government and the political situation is limited by us being outsiders, who have only been in country for less than a month, and who don't have any emotions invested in the situation.

So - Thailand has a king (Rama IX) and the queen, his wife.  This is a hereditary title, and he has been king since 1946.  However, the king is essentially a figurehead, and doesn't exactly run the government.  (He is the one who decided to put up his picture all over, on billboards and monuments and bridges.  He definitely is supported by the people of Thailand, and they seem proud to have a king who has been in this role for so many years.)

Now, at the same time the government is actually run by a parliamentary democracy that was established in 1932.  However, there have been various military coup d'etats, the most recent in 2006.  So while there are elected officials, well, there are military rulers who kind of put themselves into office.

Most recently, the anti-government protests have focused on a few issues:  first, the former prime minister was found guilty of financial crimes against the country (as in embezzlement) and was jailed; then his sister became prime minister, and was seen as basically a puppet for the jailed former PM; and now, elections are scheduled but there aren't enough people running for the various offices so this would freeze government actions because, according to the Constitution, there needs to be a certain number of members in the parliament before laws can be made, a budget passed, those kind of governmental actions.

Got all that?

So - there are the anti-government people (who wear yellow to identify themselves) - they are trying to shut down Bangkok by holding demonstrations in the area of the government buildings and at major intersections.  There are the pro-government people (in red) who demonstrate against the protestors.  The whole thing is basically peaceful, but there are occasional fights or shootings - not so much on the part of the police or the military, who are trying hard to stay out of it and keep the peace, despite the fact that there is now a state of emergency declared, and laws against public gatherings of more than five people.  No, most of the violence seems to be protestor versus protestor.  Red versus yellow.  A minor government official was shot and wounded at his home.  Some protestors were shot.  Some people have been injured, others killed.

On top of all of this, the anti-gov't protestors decided to call for the PM to step down and hold new elections.  She did that, and an interim government was established.  (Of course, the anti-gov't people don't like the interim people.)  Then the interim gov't decided maybe there shouldn't be the elections next month (Feb.) because the situation is so unstable.  The anti-gov't people said they can't decide that, they have to follow the constitution.  The gov't sent the issue to the courts, who decided the interim people have the right to decide whether or not to hold the elections.

And that is the current state of affairs.  Simplified, but the essentials.

We see ripped political posters along our street.  We read about the situation in the newspapers.  And we saw one little group of people blowing horns and whistles, and waving Thailand's flags, as they marched and cheered their way along a side road.  (No idea which side they were on, they were wearing red/white/blue flags.)

And we'll see what happens.  A "practice election" is slated for 2 February.  Not sure if that will happen or not.  Not sure if things will be okay when we return to Thailand on 8 Feb, after going to my father's funeral in the US.  Not sure whether the interim government will go with the elections, or hold off.

You know that supposed Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times"??  That's what we've encountered in Thailand.  

Fortunately, the papers have carried maps of planned protests, so we were able to book a hotel outside the protest zone.  Yay for planned protests!  (Despite the warnings from various other countries suggesting their citizens stay out of Bangkok.  We really haven't seen or heard anything major.)

And the king and queen?  They've set up a fund to pay for medical bills of those injured in the protests, or to help the families of those killed in the demos.  Which is nice, but, well, also limited.  Because it does seem as if maybe they could step in and do something.  Although I guess the constitution has limited the royals' power, so maybe they really can't do anything.

So - while all that is going on, the people who are staying uninvolved (the ones who respond to political questions with "I love the King") are getting geared up for the Chinese New Year on 31 January.  Stores are decorated, hotels are decorated, stores are selling items for the holiday, people are practicing for roles in parades and other celebrations.

The ladies at our hotel told us we need to stay for this (it happens while we're in the US, so we'll miss all the fun) - they said there's dancing in the streets, and fireworks, and parades, and small firecrackers - it sounds wonderful!  The women said to wear red, because that's the colour of the New Year celebration.  (I joked that someone might think we were pro-government if we wore red - she laughed and said carry the red shirt and don't put it on until we're in the middle of the celebrations!)

With the new year celebrations, there is much gift giving.  This includes giving gifts to the ancestors.  We see all kinds of small and large gifts designed to place on the shrines for the ancestors.  I'm almost tempted to buy something for my parents' graves - my mother loved Asian art, and my father loved to travel and enjoyed all of our travel reports (as well as phone calls from each new country).  So it seems appropriate to take some little ancestral gift item and place it on the two gravestones.  I haven't found the perfect little thing yet, but I'm looking.  (In our tradition, we place a small stone on the gravestone when we visit the cemetery - so maybe I should find pretty Thai stones.  Another option.)

This is the Year of the Horse, the Chinese sign under which I was born - so this is supposed to be an auspicious year for me.

And that's the excitement that is Bangkok in January 2014!

Chiang Mai to Bangkok

26 January 2014

We decided to fly from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, since it wasn't very expensive and the train trip was long (and not as comfortable as we had hoped).  While it was interesting to see the landscape, towns, villages, temples up close, it was equally interesting getting a view from way high up above the clouds.
Especially since we didn't get to see all of these hills, almost mountains - I guess we hit this area at night.  Or maybe the train goes through the flatter areas.  I'm not sure of the exact route.

But it was amazing to see all the hills and mountains rising above the low-lying clouds and mist.  Or haze.  Or pollution, in the bigger cities.

Chiang Mai is 5 degrees north of Bangkok, about 600 km, or 370 miles.  So it's a totally different climate, also due to the elevation.  Much chillier during the days as well as the nights.  Nights are downright cold!  So that temperature change creates a lot of morning fog and haze, making these lovely mystical landscapes.

Anyway, we decided to stay in the city center this time around, since our first hotel in Bangkok, while nice, was way far from anything.  And we got tired of taxis stuck in traffic.  So we booked a hotel on Silom Road - in the city center, but not in the area of the government offices, where much of the anti-government protest and demos are taking place.  (That's the next blog post.)

So, Silom or Si Lom (pronounced see-LOAM) is a long main street, with little alleys or side roads off the main street - and these alleys or side streets are Soi Silom (Soy see-LOAM) and are numbered - so yes, we are on Soi Silom 14.  Confusing until you get used to the system, then it makes perfect sense.  It's like 1st St, 2nd, etc., but off the main drag so that you know what part of town it's in.  And the even numbers are on one side of Silom, odds on the other.  Makes perfect sense.

Especially on a road with elephant statues on the median.  (I love the statues, they are so whimsical!)

I'm not sure if this is considered the garment district, but there are certainly tailors all over the neighbourhood. 
 And tailors on the street, who set up their treadle sewing machines and take in work for customers.  We stopped and had this woman repair our bag from Bali.  Eighty baht later (about $2.60 US) and we were set.  LOVE it!

This is definitely a more posh neighbourhood than some we've seen, with the tailors, upscale tourist shops, lovely fountains, and some very fancy hotels.  (Our hotel is much more modest.)  

The fancy hotels seem to feature fancy shrines.  I enjoyed the little tableaus set out around the mirror shrine - really, it's almost like playing with dolls.  I'd love that job, being a shrine tableau designer, setting out the elephants and horses and dancing figures, creating little stories around the shrine.  Wouldn't that be fun?  Get to play with dolls and animals and get paid for it?  It just seems like such a joyful celebration of the belief system of the religion.

I haven't seen any Buddhist temples on Silom, just the shrines.  But there is a Hindu temple along this street, with all the wild colours and figures and decorative motifs on the wall.  Beautiful! 

And of course flower stalls so the observant can purchase offerings for the temples.  Or shrines.  Or just because they are beautiful floral embellishments.

It has been interesting to go from St. Thomas, with a good-sized population of people from India who are practicing their form of Hinduism, to Bali, where people practice a Hinduism with traces of Buddhism embedded in their beliefs and rituals.  Now we're in Thailand, where there are vestiges of Hinduism in the Buddhism practiced here.  Which is unlike the way Buddhism is practiced in Japan, where I've spent some time.  It makes sense, since Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) came originally from Nepal, which was Hindu at that time.  There's some question (dispute!) whether he practiced Hinduism, since he was a prince and thus not bound by religion.  But he probably was at least somewhat familiar with Hindu tradition and ritual in some form.  So to see the progression from Indian Hinduism to Balinese Hinduism with bits of Buddhism, to Thai Buddhism with bits of Hinduism, is sort of like watching the religions transition across the continent.  At least that's how it seems to me.  (Thai people say that Buddha was Hindu; Hindu people don't agree.  At least they aren't fighting over this issue!)

Anyway, just one of those things I've noticed and tried to make sense of, as one does when travelling.

So we continue to explore Bangkok, talk to Thai people to learn more about their culture and traditions (as well as the politics, which are volatile at the moment), and chat with other tourists and travellers.  I had a lovely talk this morning with a couple from Paris, and their Swiss friend who is working here in Bangkok - they were very interesting, and thinking of doing a similar all-over-the-world trip after retirement.  Voluntary nomadism is spreading!

Up next:  Chinese New Year, and the political situation in Thailand.