The sharper edge to traveling in Asia

Foul Play Suspected in disappearance of journalist Dave Walker in Cambodia

Written By: herbrunbridge - Feb• 20•14

WalkerDave1aAs was reported in the Phnom Penh Post this week, noted Canadian journalist and filmmmaker Dave Walker has been reported missing from his Siem Reap guest house for five days. His passport, telephone, computer, and possessions were all left behind, and foul play is suspected.

Walker reportedly left the Green Village Angkor guesthouse on February 14 with only a bottle of water, taking a short walk while his room was being cleaned. As of February 19, Walker has not been located. According to National Post writer Stewart Bell, Walker had been working on a film on the subject of a former Khmer Rouge official. Walker’s friends are at odds as to whether he might have made enemies with former members of the Khmer Rouge, as speculation is that his disappearance may be linked to investigations he made in preparation for the film.

If, in fact, there is no direct Khmer Rouge link to his disappearance, who else might have wanted Walker silenced? Reports are rampant in Cambodia regarding NGOs (non-governmental organizations) working with police and military officials to shake down male visitors falsely accused of abusing children. In such cases, a bribe, often in the neighborhood of $30,000 USD is demanded, and if not paid, the victim is jailed. Could Walker have possibly been investigating such a story?

Speculation as to the cause of Walker’s disappearance is rife and police are reportedly investigating. Unlike a number of other westerners who have disappeared in southeast Asia over the years, Walker was a well-known individual. Dave Walker is perhaps best known to westerners as the co-author, along with Richard Ehrlich, of Hello My Big Big Honey, a book written in 2000 based on love letters to Bangkok bar girls.

WoWasis book review: ‘Bangkok Express’ by James A. Newman

Written By: herbrunbridge - Feb• 19•14

NewmanBKKexpressAdmittedly, it’s a challenge coming up with new twists when writing Bangkok Fiction. Bar girls, bad girls, corruption, and “influential” bad guys are all staples. It’s a brave writer that newly dips is foot in this muddy stream, and James A. Newman is one of the latest, in his detective novel Bangkok Express (2012, ISBN 978-1-4092-7754-5). The author has lived in Thailand since 2001, and among other things, has been a litigation insurance broker, which gives him some necessary insight into the crime upon which the book centers.

Murders are taking place on the island of Ko Samui, disguised as accidents so the perpetrators can collect insurance premiums. Into the fray comes London-based Joe Dylan, an investigator who, unlike most other protagonists in the Bangkok Fiction genre, doesn’t drink or make it a habit of bedding bar girls. There are some interesting characters in Bangkok Express, as well as several plots twists that move the book along nicely. The insurance scam is nicely explained, a theme that is reminiscent of Byron Bales’ novel The Family Business, written in 2003.

Where the book came up short for us was in the loose ends that never quite got tied down by the end of this 225 page story. Gantira, who plays a major role in the book, just sort of disappears at the end, as does James Hale, who seems to vacillate between being a saint and a sinner. And there doesn’t appear to be anything in the character of the policeman that would prompt his shooting of his teenaged daughter, which we here at WoWasis saw as a flaw in character development. 

ThailandPromoBannerWe’re left with the feeling that the book was too hastily finished (publisher’s deadline) and the ending was rushed. According to the book’s page on Amazon, this is the first of a series on detective Joe Dylan. Possibly those loose ends will be followed in a subsequent novel, it this one leaves the reader lacking a sense of fulfillment. Newman’s not yet thirty years of age, and presumably has a lot more writing left in him. A successful series leaves the reader wanting more, but also offers a sense of completion with each book. That sense is lacking here, and it’s hoped that Newman’s follow-on efforts in the series won’t be as rushed, be a little stronger in character development, and offer some degree of finality that will satisfy the reader to a greater extent than Bangkok Express does.

WoWasis book review: Dean Barrett’s ‘A Love Story: China Memoirs of Thomas Rowley’ historical erotica

Written By: herbrunbridge - Feb• 18•14

BarrettRowleyLeave it to veteran expat western author Dean Barrett to put a new twist on Asia-based fiction. His latest novel. A Love Story: The China Memoirs of Thomas Rowley (2013, ISBN-13: 978-0-9788888-3-1) will make readers want to hold on to their hats (and scrotums) as protagonist Thomas Rowley, a western soldier in China, is captured and then enslaved by beautiful and powerful female Taiping soldiers. The story takes place during China’s Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864), where Rowley, serving in Frederick Townsend Ward’s mercenary army, becomes separated from his comrades. His female captors begin by publicly humiliating him, giving him to soldier Sweet Little Sister, who rides him as a horse, whips him, and makes him sleep with his fellow equines. Soon, Rowley becomes enamored of his slave keeper, and for the remainder of the story, remains devoted to her, dedicated to her every whim and fancy.  Astute readers will recognize elements of the Stockholm syndrome at play here, and conjure up visions of Sacher-Masoch’s classic novel Venus in Furs. What makes this story compelling is that the love is requited, and when the female army rests in the Eden-like Peach Blossom Spring with forty pages remaining to be read, it occurs to the reader that the end of Rowley’s bliss cannot be far away.

Indeed, some of Barrett’s best writing here describes Peach Blossom Spring itself, a mythical paradise to which the author has alluded to in previous books. Here’s how he describes it in Rowley:

As we entered a narrow gorge, the clouds seemed to sweep with an almost unnatural speed across the sky and I heard the howl of rushing wind. The wind increased until I thought we might actually be blown to the side of the trail, but we must have entered a part of the gorge protected from the wind because the wind suddenly died.

At the sound of running water I turned my head. A sparkling spring meandered toward sheer, white-faced cliffs, a solid mountain wall which appeared precipitously steep and impassable. And yet we continued on in that direction. Soon the air was sweetened with an intoxicating fragrance. On both banks I saw peach trees ablaze with deep pink blossoms and beneath the trees a myriad of delicate pink and white blossoms had carpeted the banks of the stream. An eerie shaft of golden sunlight shot out from a well concealed opening in the cliff, bathing the women warriors in a deep yellow glow. Sweet Little Sister looked down at me from horseback and smiled. “We are here,” she said.

The women dismounted and led the horses through the narrow gorge. We emerged into a sunlit, bucolic land of villages and temples and farms and fields. Beyond intersecting dykes, mulberry trees and bamboo groves stretched to the horizon. I could see how prosperous the farms appeared especially compared to what I had seen during my captivity. We passed fertile fields of rice and cotton and beans and corn and almost every crop I could name.

Villagers espied us and abandoned their work to warmly greet the Taiping women whom they obviously had seen before. I noticed their clothes seemed to be of a fashion totally different from anything I had previously seen in China. Young men and women immediately helped unpack the horses and others took them off to be cared for. Several gathered cautiously about to stare at the long-nosed, ghostly white, foreign-devil.

In the distance I could glimpse the sun reflecting off of a series of small lakes and setting fire to the bells of a seven-story pagoda. The wind was gently ringing its bells and at its base peach blossoms carpeted much of the entrance area. In the distance I could hear someone playing a flute.

 

ChinaPromoBannerThe book, though, is based on the psychological nuances of erotica, an oriental fantasy that kept us thinking of Sax Rohmer’s Dragon Lady operating within a sexually-charged environment that many of us adolescents no doubt dreamed about when we read those books as youths. But make no mistake, Barrett here takes it to very adult proportions in keeping with what one easily finds today in Bangkok, where the author lives. As such, the story essentially operates in two historically distant, yet sexually similar worlds. And there is justice: a large-breasted, prejudiced, and class-conscious western woman is brought to her knees as easily as Rowley, becoming the lover of her female subjugator, a sub-plot in which Barrett must have reveled as he wrote it.

Barrett’s written a number of books on Asian themes, both fiction and non-fiction. Clearly, this amalgam of erotica and history has been brewing some time before bubbling to the surface. We couldn’t put it down and neither, do we suspect, will you. Highly recommended. Buy it now at the WoWasis eStore.

WoWasis book review: ‘Don’t Mean Nothing,’ Vietnam nursing experience by Susan O’Neill

Written By: herbrunbridge - Feb• 07•14

ONeillDontMeanNothingLike many other veteran of the Vietnam war experience, Susan O’Neill, who served as an army operating nurse in 1969-1970, was angry enough when she returned that she simply wanted to forget it. Years later, she wrote about her experiences in fictionalized short stories in her Don’t Mean Nothing: Short Stories of Vietnam. (2001, ISBN 0-552-99975-X).  Although she swears this is all fiction, it becomes clear that most, if not all of it, is factual, and she’s changed names and possibly places to protect both the innocent and guilty.

The book takes a while to get its legs.  The drudgery of the job, the asininities of many of the officers, and the questioning of why the U.S. was there in the first place don’t produce a lot of action stories, but give it time, because the book unfolds well. Many of the characters appear repeatedly in different stories and there’s very little in the way of character development. The personnel are who they are, and make no mistake, they are, almost to a person, jaded about the war and its aims.

O’Neill takes a sympathetic view to both the Vietnamese and to many U.S. soldiers, who were essentially sold a bill of goods before they arrived. Nevertheless, many of them re-up, feeling that at home, there really isn’t much awaiting them. The oppressiveness of attempting to win an unwinnable war is omnipresent, keenly felt as yet another soldier — on either side — arrives in her field hospital (she serves in Phu Bai, Chu Lai, and Cu Chi) with injuries that will created lifelong challenges or soon result in death.

VietnamPromoBannerFor us here at WoWasis, the best chapter ‘Hope is the Thing with the Golf Club,’ which documents the tits-and-ass show brought in by Bob Hope, in which the comedian’s endless string of bawdy jokes falls increasingly flat on the audience. One of the most memorable characters is the magician Sammy Cohen (‘This Rough Magic’) who spurns a lovemaking attempt by his female assistant to such an extent that the reader is led to believe that he’s probably gay. Or is he?

O’Neill provides more questions than answers, and we found the book to be a worthwhile read more than a decade after its writing. We’re happy it’s still available, and recommend reading it as a worthwhile diversion that still conveys the power of the moment. Buy it now at the WoWasis eStore.

WoWasis book review: ‘Ying Yang Tattoo,’ Korea-based fiction by Ron McMillan

Written By: herbrunbridge - Jan• 31•14

McMillanTattooProbably because Thailand is such a draw for literary expats, there’s a dearth of well-written hard-boiled fiction situated in other Asian countries, Korea being no exception. For that reason, we here at WoWasis were particularly interested in Ron McMillan’s Yin Yang Tattoo (2010, ISBN 978-1-905207-31-2).   McMillan’s not a veteran writer. It’s his second book, and his first based in Asia.  And it’s a good one, written as though he’d been in the writing game for a while.

In addition to a number of compelling characters, McMillan paints Korea well, having worked there as a photographer and English teacher. Alec Brodie, his protagonist, is a boozy, out-of-work photographer that gets involved in an international scam that’s way above his head, ultimately involving an ex-girlfriend of his. We like the fact that he’s not perfect and not all that extraordinarily bright, either. But somehow he stumbles along through 310 pages, slogging it out with friend and foe. The plot’s brilliantly written and moves nicely through some crazy twists. McMillan knows his Korea, and utilizing geographical areas to bring an element of verisimilitude to the meanderings of Brodie, who’s always in more danger than he realizes. The author understands Korean politics and culture, educating the reader along the way on elements as diverse as the Korean CIA and the proper way to make raw fish really tasty. One of our favorite descriptive passages involves Seoul’s Dongdaemun market, revealing McMillan’s chops as a master of description. Throughout the entire book, the reader is well aware of being in Korea, rather than in some nameless pan-Asian locale.

There were too maAsiaPromoBannerny references to blues and R&B music for our liking, a minor fault that seems to be common among fiction writers that are also musicians, particular to the musical passion of a given author. McMillan’s good enough at establishing mood that he really doesn’t need to school the reader on musicology while Brodie drinks in a bar. On the other hand, the author’s background as a photographer is essential to the story, and his takes on the tricks of the craft (and its pitfalls — after all, that’s a lot of stuff to carry) are wonderful educative elements.

Overall, this book is so good that we recommend you take it with you on the plane when you first go to Korea. It’s fast-paced, so you can finish it on the ride, and full of so much cultural data that you’ll be ahead of the game when you land. This is a damn fine book by an emerging writer that writes like a vet, and there’s not a wasted page in it. Highly recommended. Buy it now at the WoWasis eStore.

Read a review of Ron McMillan’s latest book, Bangkok Cowboy

WoWasis book review: ‘Painted in the Tropics,’ the life of painter Theo Meier, by Harold Stephens

Written By: herbrunbridge - Jan• 28•14

StephensMeierIf you’re like us, you weren’t prepared to find that the Indonesia’s island of Bali hosted a number of extraordinary expat painters. Balinese museums and private collections are full of their work, and the viewer is left wanting to know more about these extraordinary artists. Noted expat Asian author Harold Stephens provides many important details of the people behind this movement in his Painted in the Tropics: The Life and Times of Swiss Artist Theo Meier (2013, ISBN 978-0-978695-17-0).

The book is primarily about Meier, a legendary character who left Switzerland at an early age, abandoned the family business, and sailed to the South Pacific. Like many young artists of his time, his travels initially took him to Tahiti to follow the romance of Gauguin. Where Meier found his paradise, however, was in Bali, where he lived and painted for twenty years. In in this era that Meier meets the expat artists whose paintings would comprise much of the work seen in today’s museums in the city of Ubud, people such as Walter Spies, Rudolph Bonnet, Arie Smit, and Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur de Merpres.

The Pacific War was to change all that, as Japanese occupation took its toll. And when things finally settled, the Sukarno years eventually created an environment unfavorable to expat artists (as the book details, Sukarno would raid their collections to build his own). Meier ended up in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he remained for twenty years until he passed away.

IndonesiaPromoBannerChiang Mai is where author Stephens met Meier and they became close friends. But as the author discusses, being friends with the mercurial Meier was anything but easy. After massive drinking bouts, the artist was known to have become angry enough to poke both friends and foes in the nose, or dash their drinks to the floor. A passionate cook, he would host massive village-wide parties on his birthday. He loved women, the subjects of many of his paintings, slept with some of his models and married others. He claimed, in a comment that Stephens would only reveal after his death, that he painted best when having an erection.

Writing of the romance of the South Seas and Southeast Asia is Stephens’ forte and passion, and this book encompasses many stories and people that only touch on Meier peripherally, yet are fascinating in themselves. Anthropologist Margaret Mead, musicologist Colin McPhee, and photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson are just three among the numerous larger-than-life personalities that make appearances.

This book is extraordinarily important for its contribution to the study of expat artists in Bali, and fills in the gaps in the life of an artist that heretofore had remained somewhat of an enigma. These three hundred pages contain fascinating stories, told by a man who knew the protagonist well. For lovers of Balinese expat art, the romance of the South Seas, and the general expat culture of the 20th century, this book is a must-read.

How can I stop my Thai wife from gambling? An answer from Pa Farang

Written By: herbrunbridge - Jan• 28•14

pafaranghalo[1]The Good Manner: Advice on Thailand from WoWasis’ Pa Farang 

This week’s dilemma: How can I stop my Thai wife from gambling?

Dear Pa Farang,

I’ve been married to my 23 year old Thai wife for about a year now. I’m a farang guy that retired to Thailand, living comfortably. We bought some land near her village, left Pattaya to live upcountry, and I built a nice house.

Lately, I’ve been noticing that we’re bleeding money, last week it was 10,000 ($300 US) baht that was supposed to go for food for an entire month. My wife left the house one morning, went out to buy the week’s food, and came back with nothing. I asked her what happened to the money. “Sanuk with friends,” she told me. I asked her about this “sanuk,” and it turns out that she gambled it away in an afternoon of card playing. There are a couple of former bar girls living in the village, and they all get together for card games two or three times a week.

She and I had a chat. I told her money doesn’t grow on trees, I worked hard for it, and if it’s gambled away we’ll be broke in five years (here’s the math: $300 US a week equals $15,600 a year!). She started crying and accused me of disliking her friends, mentioning that life in the village is boring without gambling.

If her gambling habit was active in Pattaya, I sure didn’t know about it. I don’t want to burn through our money, but I don’t want to lose my wife, either. She’s a good cook, has a pleasant personality, we have a great time sex-wise, and I’m depending on her to take care of me in my declining years (I’m 61).

I’m looking at options. Moving back to Pattaya with her to get away from village boredom seems like a reasonable approach. Have you dealt with this kind of situation before? I’m not a gambler, and want to get her away from this before it accelerates. What’s your opinion?

- Gambler’s Husband

ThailandPromoBannerDear GH,

I know a very attractive 25 year old bar girl in Bangkok, and have known her since she was 23. Last month she pulled me aside when we passed each other on the street. She wanted to talk, so we grabbed a bite to eat. She told me that she was getting smarter with her money, and that she was going to stop gambling. I asked her what brought about this change in philosophy. She’d lost 860,000 baht in on hand of cards, she told me. That’s $27,000 USD.

Gambling is a national sport in Thailand, and young women in the adult entertainment industry are some of its biggest contributors. Many of these women make more money than they’d ever dreamed of, and, being young and beautiful, think the income will never stop, and in fact, will accelerate with time.

You didn’t say if your wife was formerly an entertainer while living in Pattaya, so forgive me if I’m making an incorrect assumption. For a 23 year old woman used to the entertainment options in Pattaya (discos, etc) life in the village can be bereft of excitement. Gambling with her friends may be the entertainment choice of hers, and it will be hard to stop. If you try, she may just go behind your back anyway.

What you may want to do is have a frank discussion about family finances, and give her a small allowance that she can use as she wishes. What she does with the money is her business, but once it runs out, she doesn’t get any more that week. Instead of giving her money for shopping, go with her, and pay the shopping bill out of your own pocket.

If she’s like most 23 year-olds with a steady income (yours), she’ll spend as much as she can, neither having the knowledge of how hard you worked for it nor understanding that you probably aren’t making the money you used to, and that it can’t be easily replaced. You could always move back to Pattaya, but that won’t stop her from gambling, and your disco bill may mount up as well.

If you want to hold onto your wife, I’d suggest you consider her gambling to be a “cost of doing business,” that you can limit, but not stop.

As always, show the Good Manner, and have a great time in Thailand,

- Pa Farang

Read Pa Farang’s other columns in WoWasis for more advice on relationships and cultural matters in Asia

Bangkok’s grisly museum of death: WoWasis revisits the Siriraj Medical Museum

Written By: herbrunbridge - Jan• 22•14

Noted cannibal and Murderer Si Ouey waits for you, under glass, at the museum

Noted cannibal and Murderer Si Ouey waits for you, under glass, at the museum

What may very well be the world’s grisliest museum isn’t all that hard to get to, as long as you know where it is and what you’re in store for. But if you’re not a medical professional, you might need a strong stomach to get through it. We here at WoWasis first visited here in the early 1990s, heard about some upgrades, and determined it was time to get reacquainted. In our opinion, it’s a museum not to be missed.

Here you’ll see the paraffinned remains of Thailand’s most famous murderer, Si Ouey, hanging in a glassed-in telephone booth-like box. With no signs in English, you don’t recognize his significance. As a prisoner of the Japanese during WWII, he began eating the body parts of dead comrades to keep him alive when food rations were practically non-existant. After the war, he killed Thai children for food, favoring the heart and liver. Today, every Thai of any age knows of Si Ouey. And you get to see him here. The paraffin is starting to ooze out his toenails, dripping black on the pan beneath his feet.

The museum actually exists in three locations on the grounds of Siriraj Hospital, and most river express boats will take you to the Tha Rot Fai pier, on the hospital grounds.  The first museum is a tribute to museum staff, and also contains the remains of an ancient boat, found when the old railway station was removed. This museum is not as compelling as the museums in buildings 28 and 27.

Building 28 houses the Forensic Medicine museum (Si  Ouey’s retirement home), the Ellis Pathological Museum, and the Parasitology Museum. The Forensic Museum is all about grisly deaths: murders, blast victims, electrocutions, stabbings, bullets to the brain. Where there aren’t whole bodies, there are body parts. One exhibition consists of a brain sliced in half so the trajectory of the bullet can be seen. Across from Si Ouey is a case with bloody female clothing, arranged in anatomical order. These undergarments and outer clothes belonged to Thailand’s most famous murder victim, Nuan Chawi (again, no English signage exists). Nuan was a nurse that had an affair with a married doctor. When she got pregnant, he stabbed her to death, cut her body in pieces, and threw it into the Chao Phraya river (a bridge named after her exists in that place now). The clothes reveal a terrible death, as she was stabbed in the groin area.

Always a crowd-pleaser, everyone likes the big ball diorama in Bangkok's Pathological Museum

Always a crowd-pleaser, everyone likes the big ball diorama in Bangkok’s Pathological Museum

The Ellis Pathological Museum next door provides jarsfull of conjoined babies and fetuses and babies with significant birth defects. The main exhibit in the Parasitology Museum, next door again, consists of the massive testicles of a sufferer of elephantiasis. Not only do you get to see these massive organs encased in glass, but there is a diorama with life-sized statues of a woman and man, she with an elephantiasis leg, he sitting on his testicles, as if they were a chair. Taking photos of anything in these museums is forbidden, but that didn’t stop a young Thai lady from lifting the loincloth of the man to see how everything was connected. We won’t give the secret away.

Finally, building 27 hosts the Anatomy Museum, another can’t miss, and the final stop on your tour. As you enter , look to your right, and you’ll see a room with some skeletons. In the far corner is the skeleton of a 7 foot tall giant, across from several others sporting horrifying leg bone deformities. In the main room are a number of cadavers, including a standing child that suffered from hydrocephalus, brain removed to show the cavity. What you especially don’t want to miss are exhibit numbers 2500, 2497, and 2502. They’re right next to each other, and display a full-sized blood system, nervous system, and muscular system, respectively.

It’s hard not to come away from the Siriraj Medical Museum with some poignant thoughts. We wouldn’t want to die the way those exhibited in the Forensic museum did. We wouldn’t want to have elephantiasis balls. And would we rethink having a child, seeing the multifarious defects so graphically displayed? Mostly, we walked away feeling that we were fortunate, in more ways than we could count.

If the purpose of a museum is to make the visitor think and reflect, this one gets four stars.

Siriraj Medical Museum
Buildings 27 and 28
Siriraj Hospital
Thonburi, Thailand
Take Chao Phraya express boat from any pier to Tha Rot Fai
Admission: 300 baht

Bangkok protests dealing massive financial blow to tourism businesses in Thailand

Written By: herbrunbridge - Jan• 21•14

Happy protestors watch the big screen while shutting down the Asok intersection in Bangkok

Although the PDRC (People’s Democratic Reform Committee) protests that have blocked major intersections in Bangkok is only ten days old, it has cost Thai businesses millions of dollars in tourist revenue. And it started being felt in early January.

Talk to any business, like we here at WoWasis did, and you’ll hear a similar tale from them all. Two antique shop owners at Bangkok’s River City told us that business was down conservatively 50% in January. When we walked into their shops today, a Tuesday at 1 pm, we were told that we were the first customers that had visited either shop all day. At the Nana Plaza go-go emporium, Rainbow 4, a club that usually has 100 or so dancers on stage at all times, was down to seven. There were perhaps twenty customers in a club that easily seats 200. Rainbow 4 is a club known to cater heavily to the Japanese customer. We didn’t see a Japanese customer all night, at any club, when we were there. A veteran Nana manager explained that with so few customers, girls weren’t bothering to come to work.

The unhappy face of the Bangkok tourism business

The unhappy face of the Bangkok tourism business

The Bangkok Post reported today that major global investors have pulled their funds away from Thailand because of its instability. Wells Fargo was one of them. Singer Frankie Valli pulled his concert from Bangkok and refunded tickets, citing “safety and security.”

There are some ugly economic rumors, too. One has Agoda, the well-known hotel booking platform, having half a million Thai hotel cancellations in Bangkok alone.

The Thais protesting in the streets all think this is great fun, blocking intersections, blowing whistles, and singing songs. The fact is, though, that lost tourist revenue never returns, once it’s been spent elsewhere. International investors don’t return to countries where civil disobedience and coups seem to be the order of the day.

Regardless of the relative merits of each side during the protest, it remains an indisputable fact that Thailand’s economy and prestige have suffered tremendously due to the protests. Many are hoping for cooler heads to prevail and reach a compromise. But veteran Thailand watchers aren’t holding their breaths, and instead are having that sinking feeling that the situation will become far worse before it gets better.

Why rice is fueling the latest Bangkok protest

Written By: herbrunbridge - Jan• 21•14

RiceBag1cRegarding the series of beefs the 100,000 street protestors occupying Bangkok are voicing today, perhaps the most difficult for westerners to grasp is the rice pledging fiasco.  Here are the salient issues simplified, from a WoWasis perspective.

Traditionally, Thailand has been a major world exporter of rice. Wanting to raise the price by lowering the availability of Thai rice, Prime Minster Yingluck Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai party in 2011 came up with an idea to pay rice farmers to pledge their crops to the Thai government, rather than to sell it on the open market. The Thai government would then release only what it deemed necessary to give its availability low and its price high.

Then two problems occurred. There was a glut in the world rice market, with players such as India, Vietnam, and the United States contributing significantly to what was available in the market. And te glut, inevitably, lowered prices. The world wasn’t buying expensive Thai rice. And so Thai rice sat unsold.  And with the lack of rice revenue from its warehouses, the executor of the funds, the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives (BAAC) couldn’t pay this year’s pledges. Thousands of Thai rice farmers are begging for pledge money that the government doesn’t have, funds the farmers desperately need for seed rice and fertilizer. As a solution to this mess, the Finance Ministry has just raised more than 32 billion baht by selling bonds to repay rice farmers, which many are saying violates an election law which states that caretaker governments (such as Yingluck’s) cannot create debt that will become the responsibility of the succeeding government.

The caretaker government refuses to divulge exactly how much rice it has currently stored, but some estimate that it would take two to three years to sell off what’s in storage, once the pledging program is stopped. If it ever is.  In addition, Yingluck may end up facing charges that she acted negligently as chairwoman of the National Rice Policy Committee, which oversees the program.

That, in a nutshell, is at the heart of the rice matter, along with the standard allegations of corruption part and parcel to virtually every Thai governmental program. The folks protesting on the streets want the rice pledging program to end because it’s been a failure, economically. The caretaker Pheu Thai government wants to maintain it, saying it will pay for itself in the longer term.

Two lethal bombs have been thrown into crowds of Bangkok protesters within the past three days. The Thai army is waiting in the wings for a compelling event to cause them to free the streets (the protest is now in its eight day of blocking several of Bangkok’s biggest intersections).  There are a number of issues feeding the flames of discontent with Yingluck’s caretaker government, and the rice debacle is a major ember in the tinderbox. With the elections looming closer, Thais and expats alike are wondering if and when hot tempers and burning ambitions will turn the whole thing into an urban bonfire.