Friday, May 28, 2010

The Haw Wars, 1865-1890 (สงครามปราบฮ่อ)

Around the time that Louis Napoleon Bonaparte's regime was ending in France, the Taiping rebellion having failed in China, King Mongkut (Rama IV)had just gained an acceptance for Siam as a rightful nation in world diplomacy. Between the years 1865 and 1890, the Thai Kingdom's northern parts which was then bordering with the French protectorate Tonkin, were being raided by Chinese rebels that had fled southwards after their defeat in Nanking and other rebellions.

Rama IV

Armed, organized and trained but outlawed warriors banded together under different leaderships who distinguished their different groups by using colored flags. There were red, black, yellow and stripped groups of flagged bandits roaming the country side. The Black Flag group, led by Lui Yongfu was the most legitimate of the colored flags and fought for both the Viet and Chinese rulers against the French.

The Yellow Flags, led by Huang Chongying, were modeled after, but rivalled the Black Flags, failed to gain legitimacy and were pursued by both Qing and Vietanamese armies, as well as their original contenders, the Black Flags.  They were broken and on the run, raiding, looting, and harassing defenseless towns.

Many of those rebels roaming the countryside in the South of China towards the ending of the 19th century were Muslim Chinese, known as Hui in China and Panthay to the Burmese, while in Siam and Laos they were known as Haw.  

By 1872, bandit groups had drifted across the frontier of Laos and were occupying a large part of Laos which was then a tributary state of Thailand. In 1873, the Red Flags sacked Dien Bien Phu (a place where, at that time, French opium dens were making fortunes), and the Stripped Flags gained control of the Plain of Jars and the area of the Phuan (Xieng Khouang).

Several unsuccessful attempts to subdue the rebels were pressed upon by Viet, Laos and Thai kings.  A prince of Phuan was killed in one attempt and a Thai Praya was shot at in another. Each time that the Siamese army retreated, the rebels came back to raid towns. The rebels had equipped themselves with modern repeating rifles and Birminghan-manufactured ammunition and were skilled in guerilla warfare.

The Thai army was mostly made up of untrained men recruited from the North and Northeastern farmlands.  The commanders sent by King Chulalongkorn were unfamiliar with the terrain and logistics.  In one campaign, supplies were lost to the rebels, in another campaign an outpost was lost because its captain fell ill with malaria.  The Thai army's offensive to subdue the Haw bandits took so many years because it was also difficult to fight during rainy seasons.  Without success in one year, the army would have to regroup again the next year to push for another offensive.

In the end, the Thai army was supplied and trained with foreign weapons to match the fighting power of the Haw rebels. A British surveyor, James McCarthy, under hire by the Thai king to map Thai terrain during that period, was an observer of the Haw Wars.  He had noted that on one occasion some of those weapons carried by Thai recruits weren't even loaded!

A successful strategy was finally planned and the Thai army moved in a more coordinated offense, and managed to squeeze the perimeters of the bandits into a smaller territory. After some key towns the Yellow Flags had taken were freed, the Haw bandits were pushed out of the Northeastern borders of Siam and Laos back into China. 

The observation of this particular historical moment is very interesting for me personally due to an unquenchable curiosity to know more about a hometown and family that I hadn't grown up with.  In answer to my constant pestering questions about the past,  my Mom once recounted to me that the Promasakha Na Sakon Nakhon family was related to ours, the Singhakul family (a story that I will tell later in another blogpost).

Sakon Nakhon is a province in the Northeast of Thailand, about two hours from the Mekhong River border with Laos.  When I unearthed, in the scantily recorded history of this town, an interesting record of how the name Promasakha Na Sakon Nakhon was given to a highly esteemed governor of the Muang, relating his role for recruiting and leading people in support of the offensive against the Haw bandits, the Haw Wars became for me an important reference point to find out more about events that had shaped the times of my mother's grandparents.

Since I am now able to use the internet to access sources in English and increasingly more in Thai, I am seeing a clearer picture of how a sleepy town on the edge of empires is, in fact, not as insignificant as one had perceived. Several connections to many other important world events could be drawn from this single event.

The little details recounted by McCarthy of repeating rifles and Birmingham manufactured ammunition opened my eyes to how British imperial ambitions, whether intentional or not, were entwined in that moment.  The name "Haw", before just a name of an ethnic group, led me to discover that they were the same as Hui, Muslim Chinese who were, at that moment in history, leading a serious rebellion against the Qing dynasty.  Those rebels weren't just mindless raiders, they were pretty likely sent to that specific area. Whether as part of mercenaries simply following a campaign to harass French powers in the area, or as part of the Panthay Rebellion's leader's plan to occupy as much area as possible in readiness for his planned move into Burma, I will have to investigate further.

The lengthy campaign against the Haw also revealed in finer details the growing pains and mistakes of then a still evolving administration of the fourth, fifth, and sixth reign of the Chakri dynasty, learning, modernizing bit by bit, on the ground, less than 150 years ago.

The picture of elephants standing in formation with the Thai army above recalled to mind a funny anecdote of how King Rama V had once offered to send elephants to aid the US during its Civil War.

A revelation more relevant to the present, was the idea invoked of how, in actuality, not so far away China is, from the frontiers of Thailand. Our modern maps show that the space between the center of Thailand and the heart of China is quite immense, but if in the 19th century, all that space was takable by rebels, refugees moving over land, in a matter of months, fighting prolonged for decades, the illusion of that safe distance seems rather foolish indeed.  If anything such as a serious political unrest were to happen in that great land up North, Thailand would be receiving the brunt of an unimaginable deluge of refugees. We've never really overcome problems generated by refugee situations of the Vietnam wars, and even now, we are having increasing difficulties managing illegal immigrants in a million or two, escaping the oppression of the Burmese Junta. 

The different colored flags was also an odd reflection on the yellow and red colored political polarization happening currently in Thailand.

Recommended further reading:

Islam and Commerce in Old Yunnan
Surveying and exploring in Siam, by James McCarthy

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The winding road to Rachaprasong

Just wanted to note Philip J. Cunningham' excellent post on how it's not just simply red vs. yellow, government vs, people, or whatever.  It's much, much more complex.

Please read in Phillip's own words at "The Long Winding Red Road to Ratchaprasong and Thailand’s Futureon his blog Frontier International.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A different auteur: Apichartpong Weerasethakul

Congratulations to Thai film director, Apichartpong Weerasethakul, for winning the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival 2010 for his film "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Life".

I remember that as I was watching one of Apichart's film, "Tropical Malady" at TIFF, after it had won the Cannes' Jury Price in 2004, in the dark trying to understand what he had wanted to say with his movie, I'd noticed quite a number of viewers who'd just simply given up and walked out. Of course, they were under the pressure of a film festival where one only wanted to see as many films that attracted one as time could permit. I toughed out quite a number of cringes and perplexities... to be surprisingly rewarded by a few really subliminal forest and country scenes. I was transported across time and space to moments in my own past when I, myself had commuted with Thailand's many beautiful nature scenes. One memorable beautifully shot scene of a huge tree swaying in the moonlight had made the whole movie worth watching. I left the cinema that night wondering if a viewer who had never been in such an atmosphere before would have felt something similar to what I'd felt. The story he was trying to tell itself, though, made no sense at all. Apichart's skill was not in narrative.

A year later, I made an even greater effort to understand Apichart's films by watching "Syndromes and a Century" and even bought a DVD one of his first movies, "Mysterious Object at Noon", from Bay Street VDO, one of Toronto's blessing for those who are intrigued by different kinds of film. 

Apichart is skilled at evoking memories of a time past.  His movies aren't about contemporary Thailand, but he portrays a Thailand that informs many of our present moments in such an intriguing way that you end his movies asking questions about your own perceptions of those times, or even asking about your perception about perception. 

I think what the jury at Cannes this year voted for was a "yes"; the world of cinema is ready for  surrealism from a Thai point of view.  Apichart's win and the timing of his win was as surreal as his movies. Under the fall of volcanic ashes, his themes of death and dying, belief in reincarnation, belief in a world where other forces besides human's co-existed amongst us, were like a sad mystical echo for those lives lost in the streets of Bangkok.  His memories expressed in Uncle Boonmee's story came from another time in Thailand's history when ideals also fell under conventional forces of repression. Ideals that were eventually proven false but still its loss painfully felt for those who had experienced it. I suppose this is an artist's way of putting out that big question, "Why?"

I hope to see more of Apichart's work. Even if I will be left full of questions, and his work is likely not going to so well-accepted in Thailand. I hope it is the inspiration needed for many more younger generation Thai filmmakers to have the courage, drive and commitment to one's conviction to come out and do something different, and bring more of Thai cinema to international attention.

PS.  For those who would like to read an extensive account of Apichart's win at Cannes, please read Wise Kwai's Thai Film Journal.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Himmapan Forest-3: The world of the Nagas

Nagas, morphing rain-giving majestic serpents, are probably one of the most revered mythical creatures in Thailand.  I was born on a Saturday and my protective Buddha figurine is that of the Buddha sitting on and under the protective shade of the 7-headed Naga, Muchalinda.

Wat Pho

In Buddhist stories about the life of the Buddha, it was told that not long after the Buddha had gained enlightenment, he travelled through many towns and villages to teach the people about his path towards enlightenment.  On the outskirts of one village, he settled into deep meditation under a tree for seven days, oblivious of the heavy storm that was raging about him during that time.  Muchalinda, the King of the Nagas, called Phya Nak by the Thai people of the North, Northeast Thailand and Laos, protected the meditating Buddha by morphing his body into a big shade over and around him.  When the Buddha came out of meditation, Phya Nak transformed himself into a human form to bow before the Buddha and returned to his crystal palace in joy.

In another Buddhist story, the Buddha went to teach the angels and gods in celestial heavens, his descent was aided by seven jeweled rainbow steps laid by the gods between the bodies of two nagas.

Naga sculptures can be found in many Thai, Northern or Laotian temples, at entrances, adorning stairways, or on rooftops, as gaurdians of these sacred places, or as a metaphor for the rainbow bridge that connects the human world with heaven. 

Prasat Hin Pimai

The original dwelling place of the Nagas is in the mythical forest of Himmapan, a place where the most beloved Buddhist tales took place. 

In King Lithai's Traibhumikatha, a description of the Naga and their dwelling place is given:

"After a kalpa is brought to an end by the great fire, a new earth is born.  Nothing is the way it was before.  The land had been flattened and is then a glittering white, as beautiful as a sheet of pure silver. Beautiful green grass grew.  The entire land radiates glory and splendor.  Everywhere is beautiful.

There are several lakes that are generally covered with five kinds of exquisite lotuses. There are trees with beautiful trunks untouched by insects or disease. They bear fruit and flowers that are a wonder and delight to behold. There are tough mountain vines, some with red floweres, some with yellow flowers. The whole place is a glorious spectacle as if someone had carefully planned it. This is the homeland of the Nagas.  It is their native dwelling place. Here there are crystal mansions, silver mansions and gold mansions beautiful beyond description. However, there are also some areas where nothing could live.  They are hollow and empty.

Under the Himmapan range, there is a cavity of some 200 yoth wide. It is the city of the Nagas where there are seven kind of gems: gold, silver, lapis lazuri, crystal, agate, ruby and cornelian. It is as beautiful as Traitrimsha, the abode of Lord Indra. Several large lakes are found where the Nagas live and play. The water is beautifully clear and smooth, like a large piece of glass polished a number of times. In fording places, Nagas bathe and play, large fishes gliding along together snapping at smaller fishes. Patches of water-lettuce and five kinds of lotus bloom spectacularly. The flowers of the sacred lotus are as large as a cart wheel. When the water ripples, these blooms sway back and forth looking delightfully pretty, as if they had been consciously arranged.

There is one kind of Naga that dwells in the ocean. When the female of this Naga is well advanced in preganancy, she thinks to herself: "What if the newborn were delivered in mid-ocean? The ocean churns and foams violently; great sea birds agitate the waters; the winds from the wings of the Garuda beat the waves into foam."  Thus reasoning, the pregnant Naga dives deep and long and emerges where one of the five great rivers run into the ocean.  The Naga then swims up river until she reaches the great Himmapan forest.  In this forest there are golden caves beyond the reach of the Garudas. 

She delivers her young in one of these caves and remains to nurture him until he grows strong. When he is ready she takes him to a place where the water is only knee deep to teach him how to swim first in circles. After it is clear to her that he can swim well, she takes him back and forth across one of the great rivers. When he can cross the river with due swiftness, she induces a heavy rainfall which floods the Himmapan forest until it looks like an ocean. She then creates a spired mansion of gold, ornamented with the seven gems that gleam in glorious splendor. This palatial mansion is rich with decoration and good food.  It is as magical as those that are the dwelling of the devatas. The mother Naga places her child in the spired mansion and floats it down the river to the mouth, and out into the deep ocean where they dive to dwell under in the ocean bed.

There are two different kinds of Naga: the water-born and the land-born. The latter can change their form only when they are on land, they cannot do so in water. The water-born Naga can transform themselves in the water, but not on land. Neither kind can change its form in its place of birth, its death or where it sleeps. Nor can they do so when they assemble, nor when they are sloughing off their skins. The Nagas have the power to transform themselves only in places other than those just mentioned.  When they so wish, they can take forms as angelic as the devatas, their females as graceful as the female inhabitants of the celestial heavens. When the Naga seeks its prey, it will take the form in which it can most easily hunt its victim. In such a form they roam the land in search of food.  Sometimes they appear as common water snakes, sometimes as the Sai, or the Krasa, cobras, vipers, and sometimes as forest beasts. It is thus so because the Naga properly belongs to the Animal Kingdom."

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Himmapan Forest-2: A description from King Lithai's Traibhumikatha

King Lithai, fifth of the Kings of the Pra Ruang Dynasty, was ruler of Si Satchanalai, twin city Sukhotai, the first Thai kingdom.  He succeeded his father, King Lelithai, as the fifth monarch of Sukhothai Kingdom in 1347 and reigned until 1368.  His reign was peaceful, and he was a great patron of religion. He was the first Thai monarch who was ordained as a Buddhist monk, yet he supported studies of both Brahmanism and Buddhism alike.  In 1357, he sent royal envoys to Ceylon for the Buddha's relics which were later kept in a great stupa in Nakhon Chum, as town near the present Kam Phaeng Phet.  In 1361, he invited a great patriarch, Pra Maha Swami from Ceylon to preach Buddhism in his kingdom.

As a young prince, he had studied under two royal sages called Upasena and Atharaya.  When he was ordained as a monk, his named teachers were, Maha Thera Muneewong, Anomthassi, Thamma Pala, Maha Thera Sitthattha, Phuthaphong, Panyanantha, and Phutthakhosajaraya.

King Lithai was inspired by the teachings of Buddhism and wanted to encourage his people to  learn  more about Buddhism, and therefore composed one of the first Thai literary works, "The Traibhumikatha", in 1345.  Traibhumikatha expounds Buddhist philosophy, quoting references from over 30 Dharma scriptures, a demonstration of substantive research.  It was written in beautiful rhythmic prose rich in allusions and imagery, explaining  Buddhist cosmogony, ethics, biology, and the Buddhist faith as understood then.

The "Three Planes of Existences"  was made up of 10 books.  In the 9th "Book of Nature",  I have extracted the following description of Himmanpan Forest:
"The Himmapan mountain range is 500 yoth high, 3,000 yoth wide and has 84,000 peaks.  A gigantic jambloan tree grows at the foot of this mountain range.  This tree stands on the banks of a river named Sida Nadi, the River of Coolness.
Next to the river are six forest: Kurabha, Korabha, Mahavideha, Tapandala and Somolo.  In these forests dwell sages of the Dharma who eat only fish and animals that die naturally. Yaksa, or giants roam these forests in great numbers.  People who live in these forests have no need to till the land for a living because rice and beans grow without the need for toil and trouble.  All the fruits of this land are as sweet as honey.
There are 7 large mother lakes: Anotata, Kannamunda, Rathakara, Chaddanta, Kunala, Mandakini, and Sihapapata.  All seven lakes are of equal sizes.
Lake Anotata is encircled by five mountains: the golden mountain Sudassanakuta, the mountain of seven precious gems-Chitrakuta, the green Kalakuta, the fragant mountain-Gandhamadanakuta, and the silver mountain-Krailasa. All five mountains are of equal sizes and curve into the Lake Anontata whose clear waters are fed by the powers of nagas and devatas.   
Waters from the lake flows out at four cardinal points marked by the face of a lion, face of an elephant, face of a horse, and the face of a bull.  Each outward flow of water encircles the lake three times before they exit midways between each cardinal point.  However, the river of the south does not behave like a normal river, after flowing southwards, it is blocked by a mountain, so it shoots upwards into the air, and then falling on a three-sided stone, it forms a three sided Lake of Lotuses, out of which flows a massive river above ground as well as one below the ground until they meet an animal shaped mountain and breaks into five rivers: the Ganga, Yamana, Aciravati, Mahi, and Sarabhu.  These rivers flow through towns and cities of men and out into the ocean."
Source: From Anthology of ASEAN Literatures,"Traibhumikatha: the Story of the Three Planes of Existence" by King Lithai, published by ASEAN in 1987.
The stories of the beautiful mythical lands of Himmapan, were used in Buddhist teachings usually imparted orally at temple gatherings to encourage people to study the Dharma which were inserted in the telling of tales of Buddha's own lives or his previous lives, so that they can refine themselves to be able to see or enter this wonderful land, but also to go beyond to reach the celestial heavens.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Himmapan Forest-1

On the walls of Thai temples and at its gates, you will come across many mythical creatures of Thai mythology. Some familiar ones are the Kinnaree (half-human, half-bird), Garuda (half-bird, half-man) and Naga (transforming seven-headed snake).  

However, there exists several more: two/three/four-legged, fish-based and flying creatures, such as, the anthler Ghilen/Kirin, the lion Kraisorn, the horse Ussadorn, and the mighty Erawan elephant.

These fabulous creatures all lived in the mythical Himmapan forest.  The Himmapan forest is said to be located on a mountain range of 84,000 peaks, many conclude to correspond to the Himalayas, a geographical location where the stories originated from, an India so ancient it had influenced storytelling for religious purposes of both Hinduism and Buddhism.  

Both Hinduism and Buddhism are thousand years old religious teachings that have relied on oral memory to preserve a vast body of knowledge that was passed down thousands of years, pretty much intact. The Buddhist tales of Himmapan were recounted in the stories of Traiphum, Three Planes of Existence.

According to these entertaining yet instructive legends, Himmapan was located in the southwestern continent of Chomputaweep, one of the four continents of the 'universe'.  The center of this world/universe, which is just one in an unlimited number of other world/universes, is the sacred mountain, Sumane, which connects us to other planes. 

Each of the four continents floated on a world/universe filled with waters. The Himmapan forest was the sole connecting passageway from Chomputaweep to the center of the universe, Mt. Sumane, and was equated symbolically with the way of the Buddha. It is said that there was once a time when we could see and enter the Himmapan forest, and travel between the heavenly planes and human world was possible.  However, with the loss of high moral standards, we can no longer see this great forest nor its strange animals.

Traiphum is a Buddhist cosmogony, a system of symbols embodying esoteric knowledge that was to be later transposed into a myriad of artistic forms decorating many Buddhist temples of Thailand.  The mythical creatures of the Himmapan forests, some which were considered guardians of Buddhism or holy places, were dressings to make the Buddhist teachings colorful enough to be remembered generations after generations.


You can read and browse through pictures of more Himmapan creatures at  When you visit the Emerald Buddha Temple, Wat Pra Kae and the Grand Palace, look out for their sculptures and look closely at the murals to see how many you can identify.  Or when you visit the National  Museum look closely at the intricately carved wooden panels brought from ancient temples around the country. Himmapan creatures always guard entrances.  At the Temple of Dawn, Wat Arun, you will find stucco adornments of lions and ghilens.  At the Erawan Museum which carries the majestic Erawan elephants as its roof, you will find a garden imitating the Himmapan forest dotted with sculptures of Himmapan animals.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Thailand must step back from becoming a polarized society

I long for the days when I could pick up a yellow shirt or a red shirt without having to feel that if I wear one or the other, some stranger in the street is going to be making assumptions about my political standing. Yellow used to be a color of love, loyalty and friendship, the PAD totally corrupted the meaning of the color of yellow. Red used to be a color or passion, of love, of a call for attention, and now it's a color many fear and feel anger towards in Bangkok.

When you talk politics, you are expected to take sides. Common ground, moderate solutions get washed out in the emotional battle of who's right or wrong. Each side thinks only in black and white. Relationships become strained and society as a whole erodes. When we reach the point where burning buildings are pitted against lives taken out by guns and grenades, our society is on the verge of imploding.

How do we step back from the brink? Stop trying to insist on proving who's right or wrong. Let's look for the white in the black, the black in the white, like in the symbol of the Tao.

Thailand became the land of the free because we understood the concept of a buffer zone, an area designated to avoid conflict between two hostile power. Yes, it's more painful than when our ancient enemies the Burmese burned our capital to have our own people do it. However, it underscores the urgency of how important it is for us to reconcile our differences, to listen to what the other side wants.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Live reporting on May 19 Military Crackdown in Thailand

From Al Jazeera via which offers streaming of live content from some TV stations that you can use with your iphone.

The quality of reporting of Al Jazeera on Thailand situation was excellent compared with BBC and CNN. CNN's correspondents came under attack by Thai FB users, a note written here, and further elaborated by Thai blogger here.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Ira Glass: Building blocks of storytelling

Facebook, Restaurant City, and political angst

If you know the game Restaurant City then you'd have no doubts about the connections between the two topics in the title of this blog post. If you're a player, you know how addictive it can be, especially once you've got your little restaurant to look just the way that pleases you and you're earning those virtual dollars real fast.

You're probably scratching your head about the third part, though.

For someone who connects her disparate parts on the internet... son in one city, daughter in another, herself halfway across the globe from familiar friends, family and food, Facebook gives a comforting...maybe illusionary, sense of connected identity. Two years now, in a country where they don't speak my language, where I'm still licking my wounds from having to depart some very good friends in another country. I shy away from making new friends knowing that I'm going to have to pack up and leave in a year or so. So what've I got? Facebook and Restaurant City. Pathetic, isnt' it?  Even worse....

If you're reading this blog, you may have also noticed that there was a huge gap in my blogging. Where've I been? What have I been doing? Well, depressed. Uninspired by life. Angst...caused by politics.

Who would have thought that the state of one's country political falling apart can affect one's psychological health? How complex one's sense of identity is. Group belonging, so basic a need, so unaware of its central role in our sense of well-being until it's been challenged.

These past months have been spent flicking through The Nation and Bangkok Post pages in between Facebook news feed and feeding my workers in Restaurant City. Facebook news feed was also supplying me with tweets from Suthichai Yoon which kept me up to date on developments during critical nights faster than the newspaper could. I was also able to exchange and calm some of my angst with one or two more "friends" who were more vocal about their political feelings than others. Trying to explain it away gave some comfort, but we were all pretty much helpless and had to simply watch  violence unravel itself.

At the start of 2010, it looked like things were going to move for the better, there were clear signs of economic recovery from the sub-prime financial crisis, Thaksin's Judgement Day trial was closing.    Then Abhisit's government under-estimated the aggressiveness of the Red Shirts and an attempted clear up of the protestors botched up on April 10.

He should have known better, I thought. All those M79 grenades being lobbed around Bangkok since the demonstration started should have been fair warning.

To date there are 30 dead, plus a reported 7 more since last night. How many more during this weekend's second attempt to clear up the protestors?

Why do we have to resort to military action against the people? Why are such people constantly attracted like moths to camp out for a fight where everybody loses? Why do people feel that their life is worth giving up for a twisted, outdated notion of nationhood? Isn't there a better way to fight for democracy, for equality than to tear your country apart?  

What is wrong with the Thai people?!!!!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Childhood memories recovered

My brother never gave up searching for links with our past childhood years in Lebanon.  He passed me the link to this site: Anglo-American.Scuola-Salesiani and I recovered a few more precious connections enough to inspire me to respond to the website's 3-minute interview request.  The 3-minute interview I submitted:  
1. How was life in Beirut different in those days and what are your most vivid memories of that time?
My memories of childhood in Beirut is like Popeye’s special can of spinach. When I’m weakened by life’s challenges, I reach for those special memories of a happy childhood and feeling thankful that I was blessed with that, I can face the next foe that comes my way.
Maybe every 7 years old experience the same period of enchantment I had; innocence, protected, unconscious of the turmoil of the adult world around them, totally enclosed in a wonderland of their own making. Then by the time one becomes 11-13, he’s a little bit more conscious of the world around him but not totally, more intensely aware of their immediate social group – other adolescents of their own ages where the school is main backdrop for all of that initial outreach to the world. Responsibility and engagements in world affairs were not yet demanded of us.
I remember Beirut as a beautiful place, vivid blue skies and beautiful people. I loved walking the seaside boulevard with my parents, visiting Pigeon rock, playing in the street in front of our apartment with anyone wanting to play, having the freedom to bike with some friends to explore places my Mom would have scolded me for daring to go, picnics in the countryside where you needn’t fear you were trespassing on someone’s property, and just enough awesomely ancient places to visit to make one wonder about the greater humanity we belong to.
Actually, come to think about it, the time I shared with my siblings and parents during those years were more important than I had considered. Maybe even more than the great time I had at school. I didn’t like going to the markets with my Mom but they were extraordinary, full of sound, people, smell, something strange and new to experience. I remember my shock at seeing a hen slit in the throat, and another person sitting beside plucking out another dead one’s feathers. However, there was also the delicious aroma of bread shops we visited. A kid’s favorite treat seemed to be fresh-baked pita! I didn’t know that I liked the smell of cooked lamb until I was a grown up in far away lands where lamb’s not so common, and that particular smell could pull me in like a magnet to some exotic Lebanese restaurant.
When I was old enough to be allowed to walk to school, I was constantly entertained or tortured by my brother’s teasing, or simply absorbing in the familiar path dotted with trees and nice buildings. My parents were very sociable and we hosted many visits of trainees of the aviation profession, friends who worked for the UN, some visiting officials, or countrymen who were passing by. There was even a Thai princess who came for a yatch race. With the guests, we took many trips to see the famous tour sites of Lebanon, one day we even drove all the way to Damascus on the invitation of someone who had visited us. There was a beautiful starry night one Christmas Eve, walking home from a party with parents and brothers, so beautiful I thought I saw angels dancing in the sky. It snowed one winter night in the city as we came out of the cinema… it was magical because it rarely snows in the city. When we took trips up the mountains during winter time, the near blinding sunlight reflecting off the snow felt strangely out of place and it also never felt as cold as it should have been. It would always fill me with wonder to be able to transport myself from a sunny seaside to sunny snowcapped mountains in less than an hour. In the summer, my parents took us swimming often at the club or just to join the crowd at beaches with family friends. I remember trying to learn how to play tennis with the wall while my dad did his rounds with his friends, learning how to bike with my dad down a very steep hill. A friend of my father’s invited us to his country house one time and they went pigeon hunting. Somehow, grilled pigeon looked better than broiled chicken! I had two best friends who weren’t from school but from my apartment building, one Fillipina whose brothers went to Salesian, another Turkish whose brother also went to Salesian, and there was a pretty Armenian girl as well.

Some happy moments in school were when I was able to do well in some sports or games. I really enjoyed the trips organized by the school. What was the name of that camping ground that I have vague memories of it being property of the school? We went there many times. Among my classmates, I remember friends from England, Yugoslavia and Egypt. There were other countries as well, generally the feeling was that these classmates from various places didn’t stay for long much. The ones I knew for a long time who were my classmates for more than 2 or 3 years, I couldn’t find much in common with, being an Asian, I felt a bit out of place there. The common question on the streets were, “Where are you from?” “Are you from Japan?” Very few had a clue about where Thailand was. I think I shifted back and forth from being very shy and spontaneously expressing myself. What gave me confidence was the fact that I was there for a longer time compared to other kids in class. Simon Busby was the only classmate I remember being in my cIass from Grade 2 through to Grade 8.
I remember being able to accomplish some amazing spin and fly feats on the monkey bar in front of the football field. Volleyball and basketball was fun when I could get the ball which the boys somehow got more of than the girls. However, I discovered that I wasn’t a good runner and I was embarrassed to come out last in the race during that famous Kermesse. I loved reading and that was really encouraged and supported at Salesian. Later in life, I’ve come to realize that I had received the best reading program possible, speed reading became real handy later in my work with the government. The library was my hunting ground and there was a kind librarian that encouraged me to look for different kinds of books, even if I was quite crazy for the romantic novels…. well, there also was Nancy Drew and stories about British boarding schools…Enid Blyton. I liked the challenge of the touch typing classes, I think they were with Father Leahy. French classes were fun but I don’t think I learnt much. However, I think those classes encouraged me to take French as a second language all the way until University, and gave me confidence to pursue other languages as well. There was a geography teacher in either fourth or fifth grade who had fascinating stories to tell about the world. I remember the spelling bees more than the materials of various other subjects.

The bad memories that brought reality closer to my enchanted world and drove in the fact that I was in a country affected by war were when during the first two years of our arrival to Lebanon (‘67-68), a number of siren warning of air raids would pitch the whole apartment in black for long terrifying moments. I never witnessed any bombing or shooting but the fear and tension when my parents talked about it certainly were transmitted. The last year before we were transferred back home, a car bomb was defused in the garage of a new shopping mall close to our apartment. A radio station a block away got bombed, we felt the vibrations and heard the glass shattering. A grandma of neighbors on the 2nd floor caught a stray bullet in her leg sitting out on her afternoon nap in her balcony.
2. How do you think that the years of school in Beirut have influenced your later life?
Some of the influences I have already mentioned above. The most important influence seems to have been because I experienced a happy childhood in Beirut, that made me basically a very healthy person psychologically.
Hmm, well, there’s the strange fact that I’m a Buddhist but I can recite the Lord’s prayers still by heart, and I love the sacred atmosphere in churches all over the world.
Being out of place in Beirut and to later feel out of place in my own country when we moved back to Thailand (for lack of a community to practice the language with, I couldn’t speak, read or write my own native language and had to take elementary Thai at 14), made me ask a lot of questions about people around me, and about what makes a society tick. It could have been seeing my father’s work as a government representative and his own training as an economist in action that sort of had me follow his footsteps. However, my brother once called me an activist and I wondered about that, I suppose I do try to fix the world in what ways I can and it probably had something to do with the subconscious knowledge that the world can go pretty wrong.
The contact with war in Lebanon and the arab conflict steered me towards a pretty long term interest in the role of the international oil industry. I wrote a paper about it for my Masters. I still find the question of oil and how its interests drives the world’s economy fascinating.
3. Whom did you stay in touch with over the years?

I exchanged letters with Maya, from Yugoslavia, who had left before the war started for some time, then we lost contact. I used to have dreams about Lebanon and the school for years until my brother, Joompon, found some contacts from Salesian in the late 90s. He passed word of Berit Ericson whom I have since exchanged some emails. Anand sent me an email through He had put up a pretty complete list of names of classmates but I can’t access that site and had lost his email. The Catalans, through my brother again. With Facebook, I found Samantha Naccachian who was classmates around grade 2-4, I think. Sevim and her brother Najib Tawil. I wouldn’t have found any of them if it weren’t for my brother!
4. Would you have liked to stay in Beirut after having finished school? And do you think your life would have been different?
Without doubt…if there were no war, if my father weren’t reposted back home, I would have happily continued living there. Wishful thinking. Of course, it’d have been different, I’d be Lebanese! :) I’d be able to eat Lebanese food everyday instead of searching out good Lebanese restaurants!
5. Do you think you will return to Lebanon one day? And if so, or not, why?
I would certainly love to. However, I have to work on planning and budgeting, time’s running out fast now. I’d like to see if I can find anything of what I remember. I’d like to be able to breathe the fresh Mediterranean air again, I do think it’s different there than the other Mediterranean places I’ve visited since. I think revisiting would take me back to the question started there, what makes societies tick. Nothing beats hands on, on-the-ground experiencing.
6. Are you interested in taking part in future reunions of ex-students?
I would but I don’t live a few hours away from Beirut.