Sunday, August 31, 2008

New woes for Thai tourism as protests shut Phuket airport

PHUKET, Thailand (AFP) — Lugging their suitcases under the Thai sun, foreign tourists walked around cars lining the highway to Phuket's airport, hoping for an end to the protest that has shuttered the runway here.

"We don't know what happened, we don't know anything about Thai politics," said one German tourist. "They keep telling us we are on standby, but they are still not sure if our flight can take off."

He was among 15,000 passengers stranded in Phuket since anti-government protesters marched Friday on the island's airport, the nation's second-busiest, forcing a cancellation of all the nearly 120 daily flights.

Similar protests closed down the airport in nearby Krabi and the southern commercial centre of Hat Yai, cutting off air traffic to much of southern Thailand.

So far only Hat Yai has reopened, leaving air links cut to Phuket, the crown jewel of Thai tourism -- an industry that generates six percent of the economy.

The anti-government protests are centred on Bangkok, where up to 25,000 people have occupied the main government complex calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej.

The protests turned violent Friday, with skirmishes between activists and police.

Only about 35 people suffered minor injuries, but Australia, Britain and the United States have warned their nationals to exercise caution travelling here, while South Korea has urged tourists to postpone their plans.

Thai tourism has weathered political protests before, when street demonstrations led to a coup against Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006.

But travellers have so far been undeterred by the political turmoil, just as they kept coming after the Indian Ocean tsunami, deadly bombings in downtown Bangkok and a fiery plane crash in Phuket.

Despite the disasters, Thailand has posted record tourist arrivals in each of the last four years.

But the current protests come at a particularly bad time, with high global oil prices putting airlines under pressure and forcing many international travellers to rethink their plans.

"The current political stand-off will absolutely have an adverse effect on our tourism industry but the extent of the damage will depend on how long the turmoil lasts," said Prakit Chinamourphong, president of the Thai Hotel Association.

"It would be best if it ended swiftly," he told AFP.

Even before the protests broke out, tourism growth showed signs of slowing.

The Tourism Authority of Thailand expects 15.48 million arrivals this year, up slightly from 14.46 million last year.

The government agency has revised down its forecast for next year, predicting 16 million people will visit Thailand, generating 600 billion baht (17.5 billion US dollars) in revenue.

The slowdown has been largely blamed on soaring oil prices, which have taken a heavy toll on flag carrier Thai Airways, forcing it to cut its direct flight to New York while reducing other long-haul routes in a bid to rein in fuel costs.

The airline posted a 9.23 billion baht (274.3 million dollar) loss in the second quarter -- its worst quarterly showing in a decade.

But some experts predict Thailand will once again rebound, in part because political turmoil here has become seen as somewhat normal.

"We're still generally bullish on Thailand," said Oliver Martin, an associate director at industry body the Pacific Asia Travel Association.

Even if the political situation deteriorated into another coup, Martin told AFP that he did not expect many people to change their travel plans.

"If anything, the security situation with these coups is nothing new in Thailand," he said. "It's taken as fact. If you look at their history, they have coups every couple of years."

"Here, it's generally not violent and generally its looked at as a domestic issue."

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Political crisis plunges Thai transport into chaos

By St├ęphane Hanot | Aug 30, 2008
BANGKOK, Thailand (eTN) - The latent political crisis about the controversial Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, considered by many Thais as a “proxy” of previous Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, has translated for now more than 100 days by demonstrations from the political movement “People’s Alliance for Democracy” (PAD).

The demonstrations began peacefully, but have turned increasingly to confrontation with the Samak government, asking for the prime minister’s resignation. With violence spreading out in the past few days, Thailand transportation sector is now the first affected by political unrest.

The closure of the roads leading to the Southern airports of Hat yai, Krabi and Phuket forced the government to finally close the three airports to air traffic on Friday late afternoon. If flights to and out of Bangkok are not affected, the situation remains, however, confused in the Southern part of the country. According to latest news from local televisions, Phuket was still close on Saturday with over 50 flights canceled but Hat Hay and Krabi reopened to traffic.

Hundreds of passengers have been blocked on Friday and Saturday. The situation in air transport could become worst as Thai Airways International Labor Union asked its 15,000 members to launch a strike in sign of solidarity with the protesters. Despite the fact that strikes are forbidden in public companies, employees are automatically entitled to a two-day leave for illness. TG labor union already has threatened to ask to all 25,000 airline staff to stop working if the government will continue to use force against PAD protesters.

Some 250 rail workers already stopped working on Friday, paralyzing passengers’ traffic in the country. Thai Transport Minister Santi Prompat asked the SRT (Thailand’s national rails) to immediately start negotiations to restore services on rail. On Friday and Saturday close to 80 routes (with some 39 to the South)were disrupted nationwide in the rail sector with many services totally suspended under further notice to the Northern and Northeastern part of the country. SRT estimates that the two-day disruption might already cost the state-run company an estimated US$15 million in lost revenues.

PAD protesters in Northern Thailand also have threatened to shut down Lampang Mae Moh power, near Chiang Mai. More actions could follow from workers in the public sector of electricity and water supply. The situation remained however quiet in Bangkok main business and entertainment districts throughout Saturday with only a few sporadic slowdown by the BTS Skytrain.

Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej had an audience by late Saturday with the king of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej, to discuss the political situation. The king’s intervention will certainly help to resolve rapidly Thailand’s crisis.

The Thai government has since declared a state of emergency in Bangkok. As of today, the clash between pro-government and anti-government groups has caused the death of at least one person and injured dozens.

Friday, August 29, 2008

3 airports blocked as Thai protests spread

BANGKOK: Protesters in Thailand ratcheted up their campaign to oust the government of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej on Friday, occupying or blocking three provincial airports and unsuccessfully attacking the metropolitan police headquarters in the capital.

About 30,000 protesters continued to occupy the prime minister's compound in central Bangkok, forcing Samak and his advisers to work out of a military command post on the outskirts of the city.

The protests are part of efforts by an umbrella group of anti-government activists to bring three months of street demonstrations to a conclusive climax. The group, the People's Alliance for Democracy, has strong ties to members of Thailand's elite and has been holding almost daily street protests since May 25. They are demanding the government's resignation, accusing Samak and his allies of being proxies of Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire tycoon turned politician who was removed as prime minister two years ago in a military coup and who is now in Britain reportedly seeking political asylum.

Calls by the People's Alliance for wider participation in their movement bore some fruit Friday, with two major labor unions representing railroad workers and employees of Thai Airways, the national carrier, calling for partial strikes. About 35 trains between Bangkok and the provinces were canceled.

Images broadcast on Thai television showed groups of protesters raiding the tarmac of the airport on the resort island of Phuket as bewildered tourists looked on, causing the cancelation or diversion of 16 flights. Protesters also blocked the entrance of the airports in Krabi and Hat Yai, two other tourist destinations in southern Thailand.

Samak and his government have shown what many analysts say is notable restraint in dealing with the protesters. The occupation of the government compound has prevented civil servants working in the prime minister's office from coming to work since Tuesday and has shut down a number of schools and offices in the area.

"I am the one who ordered the police to step back," Samak said Friday. "I promised people in this country that I would be soft and gentle," he said. "I've been patient up until now. But others may not be as patient."

The police responded forcefully Friday to protesters who approached the gates of the metropolitan police headquarters, firing tear gas into the crowd that marched beside a truck emblazoned with a sign in Thai saying, "This evil government must get out."

Sondhi Limthongkul, one of the leaders of the protests, vowed to continue occupying the prime minister's compound until the government stepped down.

The police issued arrest warrants for Sondhi and eight other protests leaders on charges of insurrection, conspiracy, illegal assembly and refusing orders to disperse.

Samak said Friday he would consider declaring a state of emergency but only if the situation worsened considerably.

Thailand's Army turns on Prime Minister Samak

By Wassana Nanuam

URGENT Army commander Anupong Paojinda has rejected Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej's call for a state of emergency and suggested instead the premier either resign or dissolve the House of Representatives to ease tensions, a source said. Key political partner Banharn Silpa-archa turned up the heat by demanding an urgent meeting with Premier Samak and other coalition leaders.

Gen Anupong made the recommendation in a 15-minute private meeting with Mr Samak which took place shortly after the Defence Council meeting between top military brass and Mr Samak, who is also defence minister.

Before a Defence Council meeting Gen Anupong ruled out a coup, saying he did not see how it would resolve the problem - although generals always have denied they planned a coup through all 17 previous military seizures of power.

Just minutes after he drove out of the Defence Ministry after the meeting, Gen Anupong was summoned back for the meeting with Mr Samak, to discuss escalating tensions at Government House where the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) was camping out for a fourth day.

According to the source, Mr Samak asked whether the army was ready to handle the situation if he declared a state of emergency on Friday night.

The source said Gen Anupong disagreed with invocation of the emergency law out of fear of violence.

"He refuses to mobilise troops even if the prime minister goes ahead and declares a state of emergency. He wants the prime minister to first deploy police to handle the situation," said the source.

The army chief also asked Mr Samak to consider resigning or dissolving the House of Representatives as possible options, the source said.

He also said the current situation did not warrant a state of emergency or invocation of the internal security law.

The army chief said the Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc) would not step in to take control of the situation as there were several steps to go through.

Chart Thai party leader Banharn held a Friday night press conference, demanding "an urgent meeting with coalition leaders".

He denied he was trying to pressure the prime minister, and insisted he will not withdraw from the six-party governing coalition for now. But he wants to discuss the government’s actions against supporters of the PAD at the police headquarters.

Clouds of what appeared to be CS anti-riot gas billowed over the crowd and those who inhaled it had the exact reaction of being doused with the chemical, commonly called "tear gas".

But the government including Interior Minister Kowit Wattana insisted no such agent was used by police. Mr Kowit, who is not the minister responsible for police, said that "a third hand" may have fired tear gas, but denied police had used it.

Mr Samak, who is the minister responsible for police, said authorities would not use violence against the PAD protesters.

Gen Anupong called on PAD leaders and the government to resolve the conflict through talks while expressing confidence that the police could handle the situation.

He said he had suggested national police chief Pol Gen Patcharawat Wongsuwan not use force and urged PAD demonstrators to respect court orders.

Meanwhile, First Army commander Prayuth Chan-ocha has put two battalions on security alert and instructed all units in Bangkok to go on stand-by.

A source in the army said that troops were likely to step in if there were attacks on government agencies.

The source also said if the military were to stage a coup and bring down the Samak government, it would also "take down" PAD in the process.

"The last coup is proof that the military cannot take sides with any party. A coup is to restore order," said the source.

Thailand sinks into crisis as demonstrators close airports and railways

A worker sits on a cart at Hua Lam Pong Station in Bangkok

Unions urged airline and railway workers to take "sick leave" to support the protests (Sakchai Lalit/AP)

Image :1 of 2

Thailand sank deeper into political chaos yesterday as anti-government demonstrators forced the closure of airports and railway lines, stranding foreign and domestic passengers and increasing fears of yet another military coup.

In the capital, Bangkok, a crowd of 2,000 people faced a barrage of teargas as they attempted to take over police headquarters. In other parts of the country, members of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Samak Sundaraveg shut down airports in Hat Yai and the tourist resorts of Phuket and Krabi.

“This is embarrassing in front of the world,” Mr Samak said, three days after being forced out of his office by demonstrators. “I have several tools at my disposal, but I am not using any of them because I want to keep things calm. I will not quit. If you want me out, do it by law, not by force.”

According to Thai newspaper websites, striking railway workers brought a halt to trains, and unions were urging airline and railway workers to take “sick leave” in support of the protests — the most serious political crisis since a military coup that deposed Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Prime Minister, two years ago.

The confrontation began on Tuesday when supporters of the PAD — which, despite its name, advocates an end to a democratic system — raided a state television station, government buildings and the compound containing the Prime Minister’s office. They have barricaded themselves behind razor wire and car tyres.

Their resources and the seeming reluctance of the police to act suggests that the protesters may have influential supporters in the army or the royal establishment. PAD supporters wave pictures of the King, Bhumibol Adulyadej, reading “We love the King. We love Thailand”.

“We definitely won’t leave the Government House until we can topple Samak’s administration,” the PAD leader, Sonthi Limthongkul, said. “He cannot stay on for long, I am very sure of that.”

Mr Samak was elected last December after the general election victory of his People Power Party (PPP), and made no secret of his loyalty to Mr Thaksin, the most popular, but most divisive, Prime Minister in Thailand’s history.

Mr Thaksin was deposed in the military coup in 2006 and went into exile in London, where he became proprietor of Manchester City Football Club.

This week’s demonstrations may, however, represent a last hurrah by the PAD, which has lost support among ordinary Thais for its confrontational tactics.

Thailand's political crisis deepens amid protests

By Polya Lesova, MarketWatch
Last update: 5:24 p.m. EDT Aug. 29, 2008
NEW YORK (MarketWatch) -- Thailand's political crisis deepened further Friday, as anti-government protests continued for a fourth day and the prime minister said he might impose a state of emergency.
Political turmoil is likely to weigh on investor sentiment toward Thailand's stocks and currency, which have posted declines this year.
In Bangkok on Friday, Thai police, using tear gas, dispersed several thousand anti-government protesters who were besieging city police headquarters, while Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej said he may declare a state of emergency if the crisis deteriorates further, the Associated Press reported.
The protesters, who are led by the People's Alliance for Democracy, demand the ouster of Samak and accuse him of being a puppet of Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister who was ousted in a 2006 coup and faces several corruption cases, the AP reported.
PAD supporters also staged protests outside of Bangkok, disrupting parts of the railway and airline services, according to the AP.
Friday's escalation of tensions comes after widespread anti-government protests on Tuesday, since when PAD members have occupied Government House in Bangkok.
"It is extremely difficult to predict where and how this stand-off will play out over the next few days," said Kristina Kazmi, Asia analyst at Global Insight.
Although a new coup "does not seem an imminent risk, given the low support for the PAD among the population at large, the unrest does highlight that the political crisis that emerged in 2005 is far from over," Kazmi said in a research note.
After falling earlier in the session, the benchmark Stock Exchange of Thailand (SET) index closed up 0.2% to 684.44 points on Friday.
Thai stocks down 20% this year
Like most other emerging markets, Thai stocks are deeply in the red year-to-date. The SET index has fallen 20% this year. In comparison, the MSCI Emerging Markets Index has declined 23%......

Thailand protests shuts airports

Hundreds of Australian travellers remain in limbo in Thailand after protesters seeking to overthrow the government have forced the closure of three airports.

The resort island of Phuket was the first airport to shut its doors, followed by Krabi and Hat Yai in the country's south as protests spread across the country on Friday.

Jetstar diverted its Sydney-Phuket flight to Bangkok on Friday night.

A spokeswoman says Australian passengers booked on the return flight, from Phuket to Sydney, had been provided with accommodation as they wait for the airport to re-open.

The spokeswoman could not specify how long the 265 passengers will have to wait.

"(Passengers) in Phuket have been accommodated, if they haven't been able to remain in their hotels that they were already staying in," the spokeswoman told AAP on Saturday.

"Once we've got the advice from DFAT

(Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade) and the airport is open then we will know that we can operate out.

"That's the situation until we have advice that we can operate out."

More than 5,000 protesters invaded Phuket International Airport on Friday, storming its two runways and preventing passengers from going in or out, according to an Agence France-Presse report.

The low-cost carrier flies between Sydney and Phuket three times per week.

The airport protests came as thousands of activists have laid siege to Bangkok's Government House calling for Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej to resign.

DFAT updated its travel advice for Thailand on Friday night to highlight the risk posed by the political unrest, on top of long-standing warnings about the threat of a terrorist attack.

"There are on-going large political demonstrations in Bangkok, a number of which have been disruptive and have blocked access to key buildings and roads," the department warns.

"The demonstrations have also affected access to some airports including in Bangkok, Phuket, Hat Yai and Krabi and disrupted some rail and air services."

Thailand's southern provinces continue to have a "Do not travel" rating, while for the whole country tourists are urged to show a "High degree of caution".

© 2008 AAP

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Thai-Cambodian oil talks stall

Border dispute blocks long-sought deal


Negotiations involving overlapping claims to undersea oil and natural gas fields in the Gulf of Thailand are likely to drag on as both Thailand and Cambodia still need to seek agreement on the disputed border area, says Krairit Nilkuha, the director-general of the Department of Mineral Fuels.

The two countries had opened negotiations in 1995 in a bid to tap into potentially rich reserves.

The talks led to a memorandum of understanding signed in 2001 by the Thai and Cambodian prime ministers.

Under the pact, they agreed in principle to join in development and share profits from a total of eight blocks of petroleum fields in the overlapping claims area (OCA).

The 2001 agreement still needs approval of the Thai House of Representatives to comply with provisions in the 2007 Constitution governing international agreements and treaties.

However, the main obstacle centres on two petroleum blocks, designated Block 5 and 6, where clarification of the disputed sea border is still sought.

Since the memorandum of understanding was signed in 2001, only five meetings have been held with no real progress made, even though both sides have clearly expressed their willingness to reach a conclusion as soon as possible.

Committees and working groups are working to seek an agreeable solution for the whole 26,000-square-kilometre OCA.

Leaders from both countries last failed to hammer out a formal arrangement in 2006 during a visit to Cambodia by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

However, Mr Krairit said he was optimistic that negotiations could be concluded soon, with a goal of seeing production from the areas begin within 10 years.

''All state agencies related to the OCA are accelerating efforts to seek the best solution that could help resolve the disputed sea border between the two countries, so we could resume talks,'' he said.

Thailand first awarded exploration licences to work in the areas in 1968 to Idemitsu, Chevron, British Gas and Mitsui Oil.

However, the dispute first arose in 1972 when Cambodia claimed its overlapping sea border. The Phnom Penh government also later awarded the licences over the exact same areas in 1997 to Conoco Phillips, Shell and Idemitsu.

As the dispute remains, those licence holders are unable to gain access to the areas in question.

Mr Krairit said he believed that resources in the area were plentiful, based on results from blocks nearby in the Pattani basin in Thai territory, where there are proved reserves of 5.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas by US-based Chevron and Thailand's PTT Exploration and Production.

No data on petroleum reserves within the disputed areas have been revealed due to the extreme sensitivity of the border claims.

Mr Krairit said the talks should rely on the International Territory Law following the model of a Thai-Vietnamese sea territory clarification in 1997, or the Malaysia-Thailand Joint Development Area (JDA) in 1990.

Viraphand Vacharathit, the Thai ambassador to Cambodia, agreed that the prospects for the talks seemed brighter, adding that the two governments had agreed in principle that the benefit-sharing model of the Thailand-Malaysia JDA was the best solution.

''What has yet to be concluded is sharing ratio for the spilt of the resources,'' said the ambassador.

Authorities on both sides have discussed OCA issues occasionally. Talks have been positive so far because both parties want to reap benefits from the untapped gas deposits.

''It is believed that the OCA has more natural gas reserves than oil. However, the amount of reserves has yet to be confirmed,'' Mr Viraphand said

Thailand's trains come to a halt over political protests

Railway workers on Thursday began a sick-out to support the anti-government actions in Bangkok, and announced that all train service to the North and Northeast will halt at midnight on Friday, causing disruption to commuters and tourists.

The State Railway of Thailand (SRT) union, in an announcement late on Thursday said employees "are not ready to work," a move that will cause severe problems for workers and foreign visitors, as well as movement of goods.

Latest reports say train services from Taphan Hin in Pichit would stop at 5am on Friday.

The chairman of the SRT’s labour union in Nakhon Ratchasima province, Sathorn Sinpru, said almost 100 engine drivers, usherettes and repairmen have taken sick leave for at least two days, reasoning that they are not happy with their work.

He said if they are still not ready to work after two days, the sick-out could prolong as their performance could cause dangers.

Members of the SRT’s labour union took part in the mass rally led by the anti-government People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) at Government House. The reason behind the SRT’s halt of operation could be the government’s provision of free transport for the protesters who wish to return home.

As of Thursday evening, five scheduled trains from Bangkok to the Northeast failed to leave the station, deputy governor of the SRT Thawin Sarmnakorn said in a television interview.

Mr Thawin said he has ordered substitutes to replace the staff who have taken leave, but the number of the substitutes is inadequate for all the services to fully operate.

He added that he plans to hold talk with SRT staff on Friday to prevent the suspension of train services in other regions.

The discontinuation of rail services will first of all affect more than 1,000 Ayutthaya workers who depend on the train to get to work in Bangkok every morning.

ASEAN Secretary-General worries about political turmoil in Thailand

SINGAPORE, Aug 28 (TNA) – The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan on Thursday expressed concern that Thailand's political turmoil would affect Thailand's image as the chairman of the regional group.

Speaking of the ongoing political tension in Thailand following the occupation of the Government House compound by the anti-government demonstrators led by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), Mr. Surin said Thailand's foreign and commerce ministries needed to speed up explaining the situation to all trading partners as soon as possible.

Mr. Surin, attending the 40th ASEAN Economic Ministers' Meeting being held in this island state, said that ASEAN members are worried about what happened in Thailand although the issue was not raised for discussion at the meeting.

He said he hoped the political disturbance in Thailand would soon be settled under a legal framework .

The government should not let the situation worsen because it could affect Thailand's bargaining power and its leadership in the international arena, he said.

As ASEAN chairman, he suggested, Thailand should spend its remaining term of one year and a half showing efficient leadership to make its image distinguished in the international venue. (TNA)

Thailand's international airline/airport ranking dropping

The latest results of an independent global survey of airlines and airports which involved 15 million travellers reflect disappointingly on Thailand's two key players _ Thai Airways International (THAI) and Suvarnabhumi Airport. THAI has dropped in the latest rankings of the world's preferred carriers in 2008, slipping from second place last year to fourth, and falling further behind repeated winner Singapore Airlines.

Our national carrier was overtaken by Cathay Pacific, which moved up to second place in the Skytrax survey from third last year, while Qantas moved up to rank third from its previous fifth.

The rankings of others in the 2008 top-ten list, with last year's ratings in brackets, include: 5 Asiana Airlines (12), 6 Malaysia Airlines (6), 7 Qatar Airways (4), 8 Air New Zealand (7), 9 Emirates (9) and 10 Etihad Airways (23).

Meanwhile, Suvarnabhumi Airport remained unmentioned in Skytrax's top-ten best airports list, with competing airports like Hong Kong International Airport, Singapore's Changi Airport and Kuala Lumpur International continuing to retain their top-end rankings in the 2008 ratings.

Hong Kong continues at the top as the world's best airport, while Singapore remains firmly in second position. Seoul's Incheon International Airport was third, down from second rank last year (which it shared with Singapore), while Kuala Lumpur moved up to fourth from fifth position last year.

Other top airports in the 2008 top-ten ratings, with last year's positions in brackets, are: 5 Munich (4), 6 Kansai (9), 7 Copenhagen (11), 8 Zurich (6), 9 Helsinki (12) and 10 Cape Town (13).

The only consolation we can find from the latest rating is that Bangkok Airways continues to be Asia's best regional airline, for the fifth consecutive year.

The latest Skytrax ranking should particularly sound the alarm for THAI as it indicates a downgrade in services and quality as perceived by international travellers, while its rivals were either maintaining or improving their performance to impress travellers.

It sends a clear message to THAI's management and its 26,000 employees of the need to shape up or lose out in the highly competitive world of aviation business.

THAI should not take comfort in the knowledge that it remains in the 2008 top-ten rankings, but should take its slide as a warning to resolutely do better, with a concerted effort and revived aspirations to bring back the glory days when it enjoyed a reputation as one of the world's most admired carriers.

In order to achieve that, the powers that be at THAI need to work earnestly and sincerely to tackle chronic issues that have plagued the 48-year-old airline, such as mismanagement, internal conflict, the feeling of growing mistrust within the airline and eroding professionalism.

Obviously there is still a lot more work to be done at the gleaming Suvarnabhumi, which despite its advantage as one of the world's newest airports, continues to attract harsh criticism from international passengers since its inception in 2006.

Bangkok's new gateway airport remains a three-star airport, being defined as ''fair'' in the 2008 Skytrax rating, compared to five-star marks (excellent) achieved by Hong Kong, Singapore's Changi and Seoul's Incheon, and four-star (good) Kuala Lumpur.

There has been some effort to improve the overall quality standard at Suvarnabhumi over the past year. But the results have not really been seen or appreciated by many international travellers.

From the recent survey reviews posted by passengers, it becomes clear that numerous problematic issues remain largely unresolved.

One traveller wrote: ''Just about everything that can be wrong is wrong! Horrendous Immigration lines (inbound and outbound) _ average time over 40 minutes while Thai passport desks are manned but devoid of passengers after 5/6 minutes.

''What should have been Thailand's showpiece has turned into a laughing stock, with corruption and touts everywhere. I have used this airport 10/12 times in the past year and I still see no sign or hope of improvement.''

Some of the criticisms are indeed harsh, but they point out time and again the flaws which the Airports of Thailand Plc (AOT) and parties involved have not really attended to as promised.

Both THAI and the AOT need to listen to and read what international travellers say and write about them, and react to the views with prompt and necessary action. These organisations are in the front line as to how the world views us.

Boonsong Kositchotethana is Deputy

Assignment Editor (Business), Bangkok Post

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Protesters face police in Thailand

By Seth Mydans

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

BANGKOK: Surrounded by thousands of supporters who blockaded the prime minister's office Wednesday, leaders of a long-running anti-government protest challenged the police to enter and arrest them.

After a clash early in the morning that left several people injured, nearly 2,000 police officers with helmets and riot shields pressed in around the demonstrators, who were inside the gated compound but had not entered the building, called Government House.

The police said that a court had issued warrants for the arrests of nine protest leaders.

The protesters had stormed the office, as well as several other government buildings, on Tuesday as part of what the protesters called a final push after three months of demonstrations aimed at unseating the government of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej.

"This government has to resign," said one of the protest leaders, Chamlong Srimuang, speaking in the broad courtyard of Government House. "If we leave before this government resigns it means we are defeated."

Chamlong, 72, a former governor of Bangkok, led similar demonstrations that succeeded in ousting a government in 1992. That uprising ended in bloodshed when soldiers fired into the crowds, killing about 50 people.

"I'm ready to be arrested," Chamlong said. "If they come, we will let them arrest us. If they want to put us in jail, we'll go to jail. We will be here. We aren't going anywhere."

He drew laughter from his supporters when he said, "If we were afraid we would flee abroad" - a reference to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who has sought political asylum in Britain, charging that he is being victimized by a series of politically driven corruption cases against him.

Thaksin was ousted in a coup in September 2006 while he was traveling abroad. He returned to Thailand early this year but chose not to come back 11 days ago from a trip to Beijing as court dates approached.

Calling themselves the People's Alliance for Democracy, or PAD, the protesters held large demonstrations in 2006 that weakened Thaksin and set the political atmosphere for the coup.

They accuse Samak, the current prime minister, of corruption and of being a puppet of Thaksin.

But apart from calling for the downfall of the government, they are not offering a political program or a solution to the country's divisions.

On Tuesday they blockaded several government ministries and briefly forced a pro-government television station off the air.

Their continuing protest, even after Thaksin fled into exile, has wearied many in Bangkok's middle class who had also opposed Thaksin. The newspapers on Wednesday expressed exasperation with the continuing turmoil.

Calling the protests "unjustified, unnecessary, provocative and illegal," the English-language daily The Bangkok Post said, "If the PAD really wants to bring down the government it should do so through the parliament. That is the proper, democratic place to do it."

The country's other major English-language daily, The Nation, said the protesters' motives "have gone from clear-cut to incomprehensible."

It added, "With most, if not all, key contentious political issues now in the hands of the courts, the PAD's highly provocative action yesterday was completely uncalled-for."

The People's Alliance, which is has ties to the country's conservative elite and to elements of the military, draws much of its public support with assertions that it is protecting the monarchy.

Fanning themselves vigorously with small straw fans, its supporters sat under makeshift awnings Wednesday, many of them dressed in bright yellow, the color of the monarchy.

Various speakers took turns addressing the crowd, mixing denunciations of the government with complaints that the city was not providing them with enough portable toilets. In interviews protesters asserted, like Chamlong, that they would stay as long as they had to. But some said they would soon run out of food.

It was not clear who was financing the prolonged demonstrations, many of whose participants had traveled from the countryside, but important business interests in the country oppose Thaksin and the people who surrounded him.

Chamlong said Wednesday that over the past six days he had received more than $250,000 worth of contributions in cash and gold to pay for the demonstrations. He did not name the donors.

On Tuesday, Samak said he had ordered the police to act gently and not to be provoked by the crowds with violence. "They want bloodshed in the country," he said, speaking in English. "They want the military to come out and do the coup again."

The army chief, Anupong Paochinda, who had been among the leaders of the 2006 coup, asserted that the military would stand aside this time and would not be involved in politics.

The coup scenario, which has been common over the past half century, lost much of its appeal after the ouster of Thaksin, when the military-led government that succeeded him was widely seen as incompetent and ineffectual.

When it stepped aside for new elections last December, Thaksin's supporters, led by Samak, filled the vacuum.

Thailand's Phuket

General Information
Located approximately 862 kilometers south of Bangkok is Phuket, Thailand’s largest island, which is often dubbed as “the pearl of the Andaman, or the pearl of the south”. Its natural resources- rocky peninsular, limestone cliffs, white powdery beaches, tranquil broad bays and tropical in-land forests contribute to making it the South’s wealthiest, busiest, most visited and most popular island and province.Nestled in the tropical zone off the west coast of the southern part of Thailand in the Andaman Sea and the Indian Ocean, the province covers an area of approximately 543 square kilometers (excluding small islets). It is estimated that Phuket Province covers an area of approximately 590 square kilometers if it’s 39 other small islands are included. The island’s total length, from north to south, is estimated at 48.7 kilometers and approximately 21.3 kilometers wide.

Phuket borders on Phang-nga Province to the north. The other 3 sides are encircled by the Andaman Sea - the place where many of the best diving sites are located. The island is connected to Phang-nga Province by Sarasin Bridge and Thep Krasattri Bridge.
Staying on the island is easy, as there are only two seasons in a year - the rainy season (May to October) and the hot season (November to April). Visitors are not recommended to travel to Phuket between September and October as they are the wettest months. The best period for a visit, however, is from November to February, when it is possible to see the clear blue sky, feel the fresh sea breeze and marvel at the crystal clear water while lying on powdery, palm-fringed beaches. Average temperatures ranges between 23?C and 33?C.

Phuket’s topology is exceptional with 70 percent of its area covered with mountains which stretch from north to south and the remaining 30 percent being plains located in the central and eastern parts of the island. The island does not have any major rivers except for a total of 9 brooks and creeks.

Phuket is divided into 3 administrative counties namely Amphoe Mueang, Amphoe Thalang and Amphoe Kathu.

Phuket has a lot more to offer its visitors other than its natural heritage - sea, sand, sky, beach, forest, and world renowned diving sites. Sino-Portuguese architecture casts its spell delighting travelers to the city, while Phuket-style hospitality has never failed to impress visitors from all walks of life. In addition, accommodations ranging from world-class resorts to tropical-style bungalows have warmly catered to the different needs of travelers. For seafood lovers, there is a lot more to sample than just Phuket’s famous lobster. Altogether, these characteristics have made Phuket a truly unique destination.
History of Phuket

Most geologists believe that the area known as Phuket today was once a cape that extended into the Andaman Sea. Geographical formations gradually changed the cape’s location, finally detaching it from the mainland.
A famous Greek philosopher, Claudius Ptolemy, was the first person who mentioned the cape in his book written in the year 157. The cape was locally referred to as Jung Ceylon, which was located between latitudes 6 N and 8 N (the present site of Phuket Island). Natives called the place “Cha Lang”, which evolved to “Tha Lang” - the name of the main town to the north of the island.
As a perfect stopover sheltering traders from monsoons, Jung Ceylon welcomed merchants from India, Persia, Arabia, Burma, China and also Siam. During the 16th century, the island was also a popular trading port for tin with Portuguese, Dutch, English and French traders flocking to the island. This contributed to making the development of mining so unprecedented. Chinese businessmen and miners later migrated to Phuket and soon enjoyed thriving business wealth.

Apart from serving as a meeting point for traders from Europe, Central Asia and China, Phuket also attracted ambitious immigrants, especially those from Portugal and China, to work in the tin mines. With its colorful history, visitors admire the Sino-Portuguese style architecture in the city especially those buildings located along the Thalang and Yaowarat Roads.

Thalang town was surrounded by Burmese troops who invaded the coastal area in 1785. It was under the leadership of Chan, the widow of the governor, and her sister, Muk, who united local residents and successfully fought and drove the invaders out of Phuket. It took over 30 days for the defending troops of Phuket, under the command of Chan and Muk, to claim their victory. As a result of such heroic deeds, noble titles were granted to Chan and Muk as Thao Thep Krasattri and Thao Si Sunthon respectively. To honor them, a monument was established at Tha Ruea Intersection, 12 kilometers to the north of Phuket City in 1966. They are still highly respected by Phuket residents even today.

However, 24 years later, the Burmese succeeded in seizing Thalang causing many local residents to flee to Phang-nga and Krabi. In 1825, some of them returned to re-establish a town and established a rice farming community. On the other hand, the area to the south of the island (Phuket City today) was developed and became a tin trading center.
When Phuket was elevated to a town in 1850, it attracted more immigrants from Thalang and nearby communities. In 1894, Phuket was promoted to be a Monthon administrative unit under the supervision of the central administrative body (located in Bangkok).
In 1902, Phraya Ratsada Korsimbi, a Sino-Thai businessman who contributed to developing the modern city of Phuket was appointed Governor of Phuket. He also helped to improve the welfare of local residents and set up the market system in the countryside. In 1916, Phuket became a province.
The tin mining industry has gradually failed to generate economic growth in Phuket, especially after 1985 when the price of tin fell by half. However, with its natural resources, Phuket later emerged as a tourist destination with great potential. This polished pearl of the Andaman is truly a destination that provides visitors with memorable experiences.
The island’s long history has shaped the distinctive Phuket of the present with its diverse ethnic groups, culture, architectural influence, and fine cuisine. With approximately 35 percent of the population being comprised of Thai-Muslims, it is possible to see an equal number of Wats (Thai temples) located next to Mosques.
By air
This is perhaps the easiest way to get to Phuket. Domestic airlines operate several flights daily between Bangkok and Phuket. Some flights go to Phuket via Samui Island with a 40-minute stopover. List of operators are as follows:
Phuket Air offers daily flights to Phuket and the journey takes only 1.20 hours. Call 02 6798999 or visit for more details on flights.
Bangkok Airways has daily flights connecting Phuket with Pattaya and Samui. For more information, contact their Bangkok office at tel. 66 2265 5678. Reservations can be made at tel. 66 2265 5555. Alternatively, browse its website at for more flight details.
Thai Airways International has numerous daily flights servicing the Bangkok-Phuket route. In addition, they have regular flights connecting Phuket with Hat Yai, Surat Thani, and Narathiwat Provinces. For more information, contact their Bangkok office at tel. 02 628 2000 or book your seat online at
One-to-Go by Orient Thai operates a daily flight between Bangkok and Phuket. The flight time is 1.20 hours. Call 1126 or visit for more information.
Air Asia also offers several daily flights connecting Bangkok and Phuket. The flight time is 1.20 hours. Visit or call 02 5159999 for reservations.
Nok Air has several daily flights between Bangkok and Phuket with a flight time of 1.20 hours. Visit or call 1318 to make your reservation.
Getting to Phuket from abroad
There are several direct flights between Phuket and international destinations, e.g. Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Penang, Singapore, and Sydney.
Dragon Air, Malaysia Airlines, Silk Airand Singapore Airlines also operate international flights connecting Phuket with other destinations. Please call airline offices for more details.
Transportation to and from the airport
Phuket International Airport is located approximately 30 kilometers north of the city, tel. 076 327230. Taxis between Phuket City and the airport costs approximately 400 bahts but the fare to the beach ranges between 500 bahts and 600 bahts (The rate may decline now). Minivans charge approximately 80 bahts /person to town, but 120 bahts/person to Patong, Kata and Karon Beaches. Phuket Limousine (tel. 076 248596), located approximately 1 kilometer west of the city, operates hourly shuttles to the airport from 6.30 a.m. to 7.30 p.m.
By bus

Air-conditionedditioned and non air-conditioned buses leave Bangkok’s Southern Bus Terminal for Phuket several times daily. Trips by air-conditioned bus, which normally leaves in the evening, take about 13 hours.
Call 0 2434 7192, 0 2435 1199 or visit for more information.
By car
From Bangkok, take Highway No.4 (Phetchakasem Road) through Phetchaburi, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Chumphon, Surat Thani and Phang-nga Provinces, then cross the Thep Krasattri Bridge or Sarasin Bridge to Phuket Island. The total distance is 862 kilometers and the travel time is approximately 12 hours.
By rail
There is no direct train service to Phuket. Travelers arriving by train must get off at Phun Phin Railway Station in Surat Thani Province and continue by regular bus to Phuket. For more information, call the State Railway of Thailand, 1690, 0 2223 7010, or 0 2223 7020.
By Ferry
During the high season, travelers may opt to get to Phuket from Ko Phi Phi and Ko Lanta (both are in Krabi Province). Few ports in Phuket provide this service with fares ranging between 300 bahts and 500bahts. The trip may take 1.5 to 2 hours, depending on weather conditions.
Getting around Phuket
Car Rental Service
Avis Car Rent Airport Tel: 0-7635-1243, Kata Beach Resort Tel : 0-7638-1530-3
- Boomerang Travel & Tour 71/13 Patak Road, Chalong Bay Tel: 0-7638-1690
- Dusit Laguna Hotel Bang Thao Beach Tel: 0-7632-4322-9
- Hertz Car Rent Thawon Palm Beach Hotel, Karon Beach Tel: 0- 7638-1034-7
- Holiday Inn Patong Beach Tel: 0-7634-0608
- K.M. Travel Phangnga Road Tel: 0-7621-0893
- Le Meridian Karon Noi Beach Tel: 0-7634-0480-5
- The Metropol Hotel Montri Road Tel: 0-7621-5050
- Pansea Surin Beach Tel: 0-7632-4017-20
- Patong Merlin Patong Beach Tel: 0-7634-0037-41
- Pearl Village Nai Yang Beach Tel: 0-7632-7006
- Phuket Arcadia Karon Beach Tel: 0-7638-1038-40
- Phuket Airport Tel: 0-7632-7258
- Phuket Cabana Patong Beach Tel: 0-7634-0138-4
- Phuket Car Center Takua Pa Road Tel: 0-7621-2671-3
- Phuket Island Tel: 0-7638-1010
- Phuket Yacht Charter 5/3 Chao Fa Road Tel: 0-7621-6556
- Phuket Horizon Car Rent 235/4 Yaowarat Road, Tambon Talat Nua, Muang
District Tel: 0-7621-5200
- Pure Car Rent Opposite Thavorn Hotel, Ratsada Road, Tel: 0- 7621-1002
- Via Rent A Car 70/85 Rat U-Thit, Patong Beach Tel: 0-7634-0160
Motorcycle taxis
It costs approximately 20 bahts / person / trip to travel around Phuket City. Alternatively, motorcycles can be rented from rental agencies located on Rasada Road or from several operators along beaches. The cost may vary from 150 bahts 300 bahts / day, depending on the number of cylinders.
Songthaeo and Tuk-Tuk
Songthaeos are operated along Ranong Road to several destinations on the beaches. The cost varies from approximately 20 bahts to 25 bahts / person / trip. Normally the service is provided from 7.00 a.m. until 5.00 p.m.
Tuk-Tuks can be chartered to the beach however, the rates which can be negotiated are higher at 200 bahts to Patong Beach, 230 bahts to Karon and Kata Beaches and 300 bahts to Nai Han and Kamala Beaches. However, Tuk-Tuks drive around the town at the rate of 20 bahts.
Taxi Meter
Visitors can call 076 232157-8 to get a metered taxi that will take them anywhere in Phuket. The metered fare will include a 20 bahts surcharge.

Getting to nearby provinces
By bus
There are regular bus services (VIP, air-conditioned and non-air-conditioned) to neighboring provinces such as Krabi, Phang-nga, Chumphon, Ko Samui (bus/boat), Nakhon Si Thammarat, Ranong, Surat Thani, Satun, Hat Yai, Takua-Pa and Trang. Departures are from the Phuket Bus Terminal off Phang-nga Road. For more up-to-date schedules and fares, call Phuket Air-conditioned Bus Station, tel. 0 7621 1977.
Taxis & Vans
There are shared taxi and van services between Phuket and other nearby provinces. Fares of both are generally around double the fare of an ordinary bus. The stations of both taxis and minivans are also on Phang-nga Road.
By air
Some domestic airlines operate flights from Phuket to Surat Thani, Nakhon Si Thammarat, Trang, Hat Yai and Samui. For more details, check with your travel agent or the TAT office.
Getting to nearby islands from Phuket
Boats to nearby islands can be found at the following ports:
Rawai Beach
An old local port, it is from here that long-tail boats depart for nearby islands such as Ko He, Ko Racha Yai, Ko Mai Thon, Ko Lon, etc. The chartered price depends on the distance.

Ao Chalong
The largest port of Phuket that has all kinds of boats, including cruisers of tour companies which organize package tours to other islands.
Ao Makham
Located near Phanwa Cape, the port is only for cruisers and container ships.
Boat Lagoon Port (Ao Sapam) The port is for traveling boats of tour companies.
Chao Le (Sea Gypsy) Boat Floating Festival
Chao Le (Sea Gypsy) Boat Floating Festival falls during the middle of the sixth and eleventh lunar months yearly. The sea gypsy villages at Rawai and Sapam hold their ceremonies on the 13th; Ko Si-re celebrates on the 14th; and Laem La (east of the bridge on Phuket’s northerntip) on the 15th. Ceremonies, which centre around the setting adrift of small boats similar to the Thai festival of Loi Krathong, are held at night and their purpose is to drive away evil and bring good luck.

Laguna Phuket Triathlon
Laguna Phuket Triathlon is held in each December. The triathlon (a 1,000-metre swim, a 5-kilometre bike race and a 12-kilometre run) attracts world-class athletes from all over the world.
Phuket King ’s Cup Regatta
Phuket King ’s Cup Regatta is held in December. The Phuket Yacht Club hosts international yachtsmen, largely from neighbouring countries who compete in the Nai Han Beach area for royal trophies.
Phuket Travel Fair
Phuket Travel Fair , held on November 1, was first initiated in 1985 at Patong to welcome in the tourist season and designed to foster co-operation among tourism-related operators both in the private and public sectors. Many colourful and interesting activities are organised, such as merit-making in the morning, water sports contests, a Miss Visitor Contest, among others.
Seafood Festival
Seafood Festival, held around May yearly, is designed to publicise the delicious seafood of Phuket and attract visitors during the rainy season. Activities include a Marine Tourism Resources Parade, seafood stalls, demonstrations of regional cuisines and cultural shows.
Thao Thep Kasattri and Thao Sisunthon Fair
Thao Thep Kasattri and Thao Sisunthon Fair is held on March 13 every year to commemorate the two great heroines who rallied the Thalang people to repel Burmese invaders. Many activities and celebrations are organised.

Tourist Season Opening Festival
Tourist Season Opening Festival , starting from November 1, is usually called the Patong Carnival, from the place where celebrations occur. Colourful parades, sports events, and a beauty competition for foreign tourists are major activities.
Turtle Release Fair
Turtle Release Fair is held on Songkran, the nationwide Thai water festival, on April 13 which is also National Fisherman’s Day. Baby turtles are released into the sea at various locations.
Vegetarian Festival
Vegetarian Festival is held on the first day of the 9th lunar month (usually October). Phuket islanders of Chinese ancestry commit themselves to a 9-day vegetarian diet, a form of purification believed to help make the forthcoming year “trouble-free”. The festival is marked by several ascetic displays, including fire-walking and ascending sharp-bladed ladders.

Tourist Season Opening Festival
Tourist Season Opening Festival , starting from November 1, is usually called the Patong Carnival, from the place where celebrations occur. Colourful parades, sports events, and a beauty competition for foreign tourists are major activities.
Turtle Release Fair
Turtle Release Fair is held on Songkran, the nationwide Thai water festival, on April 13 which is also National Fisherman’s Day. Baby turtles are released into the sea at various locations.
Vegetarian Festival
Vegetarian Festival is held on the first day of the 9th lunar month (usually October). Phuket islanders of Chinese ancestry commit themselves to a 9-day vegetarian diet, a form of purification believed to help make the forthcoming year “trouble-free”. The festival is marked by several ascetic displays, including fire-walking and ascending sharp-bladed ladders.

Thailand's central bank raises interest rates

Last update: 9:23 a.m. EDT Aug. 27, 2008 By Polya Lesova NEW YORK (MarketWatch) -- Thailand's central bank raised its key interest rate by 25 basis points to 3.75% on Wednesday to curb inflationary pressures. The move was in line with market expectations. "Given the elevated level of inflation and inflation expectations, as well as uncertainty of oil prices in the periods ahead, the MPC [monetary policy committee] assessed that the risks to inflation remained an important issue of concern," the Bank of Thailand said in a statement. July's consumer price inflation surged to 9.2% year-on-year, up from 8.9% year-on-year. Wednesday's rate hike was the "second straight monthly hike after maintaining the rate steady since August 2007," said analysts at Action Economics. "While balancing risks of higher inflation against slower growth, it [the central bank] saw the need to tighten in order to contain inflation expectations." In Bangkok, the SET stock index closed up 1.1%

Rifts behind Thailand's political crisis

By Jonathan Head
BBC News, Bangkok

A protester waves a Thai flag in the compound of Government House in Bangkok
The protests are fuelling a sense of political instability in Thailand

It has been nearly two years since an unexpected military coup deposed then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and appeared to freeze Thailand's democratic evolution in its tracks.

The country has experienced 15 months of benign military rule, the drafting of a new constitution, and a general election which returned a party run by Mr Thaksin's allies to office.

Yet there is still a sense of unending crisis, of a country still deeply polarised over the former prime minister and his attempts to transform Thailand.

The occupation of the main government offices in central Bangkok this week by protesters from the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) has underscored just how difficult it is to end this turbulence.

Thaksin's critics

The PAD first emerged in September 2005. At the time it was a largely personal crusade by maverick media mogul Sondhi Limtongkul, once a passionate Thaksin supporter who turned on his former mentor after feeling abandoned when his business went bankrupt.

But it picked up momentum at the end of that year as public unease grew over the tax-free sale of the Shinawatra family telecoms business for an estimated $2bn (£1bn) and escalated into a movement that helped bring the seemingly impregnable Thaksin administration down.

Most Thais probably thought that was the last they would see of the PAD.

A tank on a highway in Bangkok, on 25 September 2006
The PAD was behind the street protests that preceded the coup in 2006

But in May this year the movement reformed, starting a series of boisterous demonstrations that have periodically brought central Bangkok to a halt.

There are a number of factors that explain why this happened.

Firstly, the key PAD leaders, in particular Sondhi Limthongkul and Chamlong Srimuang, an ascetic former military general and mayor of Bangkok who played a key role in the anti-government protests back in 1992, remained virulently opposed to allowing any of Mr Thaksin's associates a role in government.

They rejected last December's election victory by the pro-Thaksin People's Power Party (PPP), arguing it was achieved by vote-buying (the impartial Election Commission contradicts this view).

Samak Sundaravej has proved surprisingly skilful in handling the challenge from the PAD, despite a series of verbal gaffes early on in his term

They have now refined their argument to propose rural voters in Thailand are too poorly educated to be allowed to elect a parliament, and that it should be a largely appointed body instead.

The PAD has also ridden a national wave of anxiety over the future of the monarchy, once 80-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej is no longer on the scene.

Its supporters believe Mr Thaksin and the PPP have a republican agenda - hence the sea of yellow shirts seen at PAD rallies, yellow being the colour associated with the king.

Government bungles

Secondly, Thaksin Shinawatra made a triumphant return to Thailand in February. He insisted he had abandoned any political ambition, but few believed him, and he was widely assumed to be funding and influencing the governing party.

Although banned from holding political office for five years, with his own party in government many Thais assumed he would find a way to overturn the ban, and dismiss various charges of corruption and abuse of power that were pending against him.

File image of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej
The PAD accuse Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej of incompetence

Thirdly, the government of Samak Sundaravej bungled its first months in office, and provoked fears that it was more concerned with helping Mr Thaksin than sorting out the country's other problems.

Its attempt to revise the military-drafted constitution was the spark that brought the PAD out on the streets in May. They feared constitutional amendments might offer a legal justification for throwing out the charges against Mr Thaksin.

The PAD also accused the government of being corrupt, incompetent and authoritarian.

When the government agreed to support Cambodia's bid to have a disputed temple on their common border listed as a World Heritage Site, the PAD saw this as selling out Thai sovereignty for Mr Thaksin's business interests in Cambodia. The resulting row forced the foreign minister, who had once been Mr Thaksin's lawyer, to resign.

Skillful handling

However developments in recent weeks have undermined the PAD's claims.

The government backed away from changing the constitution, although it still says it wants to do this. It allowed a no-confidence debate in parliament.

Then the legal cases against Mr Thaksin started moving with surprising speed and vigour. His lawyers were jailed for contempt of court. His wife was sentenced to three years in prison for tax evasion. Reading the signs, the family moved back into exile in Britain.

Samak Sundaravej has proved surprisingly skilful in handling the challenge from the PAD, despite a series of verbal gaffes early on in his term.

He has built a close relationship with the military, in particular with army commander General Anupong Paochinda and General Prayuth Chanocha, the commander of the crucial First Amy Division, based in Bangkok.

The support of these two men would be crucial for any military challenge to the government.

In addition, both are known as staunchly loyal to the monarchy, helping burnish Mr Samak's own royalist credentials. Mr Samak has listened to the police, the army, and most importantly, the king, and handled the protests with restraint.

By contrast the PAD now appears to have overplayed its hand. Mr Sondhi and Mr Chamlong have both called this a last-ditch attempt to overthrow the government, and their actions smack of desperation. Many Thais who once sympathised with the PAD have now turned against it.

The atmosphere in Bangkok, though, remains charged and volatile. The PAD is well-funded, and is believed to have support in some very high circles, including factions of the military.

The rifts which opened up at the start of this decade, when Thaksin Shinawatra worked out how to win unbeatable parliamentary majorities, and then used them to drive through his ambitious and controversial policies, are still wide open.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Luang Prabang: A Calm River Town With Lao Taste

Apsara restaurant
Michael Sullivan/NPR

Apsara is a boutique restaurant with outside seating by the Nam Khan River. The desserts are delectable. The poached pears and bananas flambe should not be missed.

Lunch at Three Elephant Cafe
Michael Sullivan/NPR

The Three Elephant Cafe serves authentic Lao cuisine with kaipan (Mekong River plant covered with sesame seeds), spicy garlic and chili chutney, with a cold Lao beer., August 25, 2008 · While Luang Prabang, on the river in Laos, isn't quite as sleepy as it used to be, it's still a delightful throwback and a welcome antidote to the frenetic pace of the rest of Southeast Asia.

A mere 45-minute flight from Vietnam's increasingly chaotic capital, Hanoi, which is rushing headlong into the future, sits this town where time almost stands still. In Luang Prabang, even the mighty Mekong seems to flow just a little bit slower.

My advice would be to visit soon. The Lao government is trying to preserve the character of this World Heritage Site at the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Khan. But there's already talk of lengthening the runway at its tiny airport to allow wide body jets instead of the small propeller planes that are now the norm. If this happens, it runs the risk of being overrun and overbuilt — like Siem Reap in neighboring Cambodia, home to Angkor Wat.

But for now, Luang Prabang, Laos' ancient royal capital, is still lovely. It's Vietnam's Hoi An without the hype.

And while there's a faint whiff of colonial Williamsburg in Southeast Asia, it's only a whiff. Otherwise, it's languid and low key, marked by beautifully — and often lovingly — restored colonial villas and an impressive array of temples. There's a lack of hard-core hawkers pushing t-shirts or other tchotchkes. It can be a good place to unwind for a couple of days, or the jumping-off point for jungle treks, elephant rides or lazy trips down the Mekong.

Eat At The Apsara

The Apsara is a boutique restaurant and small hotel on Kingkitsarath Road, overlooking the Nam Khan River. The food is first-rate. It's best to sit outside.

Start with the red curry and lentil soup, which is thick, yet delicate, fragrant and surprisingly sweet.

The lemongrass and coriander fish cakes are a delight as well. I was expecting a Lao version of the Thai tod mun pla, but got something more akin to a fish latke — and I mean this in the nicest way. It was served with a basil and tomato sauce and was, in a word, delectable.

Even an ostensibly ordinary Greek salad managed to surprise, with a black olive tapenade and coriander dressing with a hint of mint that lent it a Southeast Asian twist.

The Luang Prabang buffalo sausages, however, were a mistake, despite the fresh ginger, peanuts and garlic. The dish was too heavy and too pungent, too overpowering and too — buffalo.

It was a minor setback, however, which was quickly made right by the arrival of the main course, tagine of young goat. I'm not a big goat fan, but something told me to try this one, and I was hugely rewarded. Tender bits of goat braised in prunes served with couscous and an Asian citrus salad — again flavored with mint — on the side.

The desserts may be even better.

The poached nashi pear in lime and ginger syrup, served with homemade coconut ice cream and a crispy (sweet) Lao papadam are worth ordering. The dish sounds too busy, but it's not. The pear and the ice cream bind to form a perfect combination of flavors.

Ditto for the bananas flambe, done in rum and honey and citrus, but with the added flavor boost of ginger ice cream, with chunks of ginger so big you could chew on them. It couldn't have been more perfect. My wife, who actually knows something about desserts, was even more impressed.

For the traditionalist, the homemade profiteroles with vanilla ice cream topped with chocolate sauce provide a sugar rush. Perfectly acceptable but, frankly, more girl-next-door than the two heart-stopping items that preceded it.

Authentic Lao Taste

For more authentic Lao food, both the Three Nagas and the Three Elephants Cafe came highly recommended. The latter has a popular cooking school for tourists, as well. I had dinner outside at the Three Nagas, a tastefully restored villa, and lunch at the Three Elephants Cafe.

Of the two, I found the food at the Three Elephants slightly better. The green papaya salad — shaved green papaya with chilis — is far spicier than its Vietnamese cousin. The kaipan, too, is worth ordeing. The crisp, dried green Mekong River plant is covered with sesame seeds and Luang Prabang Jeobang chutney — a spicy chili, garlic and buffalo skin paste. The sindad diow — dried beef marinated in garlic, ginger and chili, is also very good, and best eaten with sticky rice.

The gaeng phet — chicken in coconut sauce with Lao basil, green beans and tiny, round eggplants — seemed very Thai, but very good. It should be washed down with a bottle of very cold, very good Lao beer (there is a new Lao dark, as well).

Another restuarant, L'Elephant, also gets high marks for food.

Where To Stay

The rooms above the Apsara restaurant are all lovely, though slightly funky, with thick wooden beamed floors, high ceilings and views of the river. These are nicer than the rooms that have been added in the building next door.

Three Nagas is another crowd favorite for rooms, as well as food. Both it and the Apsara are in the lower — and quieter — end of town, near the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Khan. Both are booked months in advance.

Slightly farther out from the center, but still an easy walk, is the recently renovated Maison Souvannaphoum, the former home of the Lao prince Souvannaphouma. Of the hotel's 26 rooms, a handful are in the original residence and larger than the rest. The Lao Room, in particular, is lovely and, according to the owners, formerly the queen's bedroom.

There are more expensive resorts outside of town, too, like the Pansea, but you can't walk to town. And for me, staying in town is part of the attraction. There are also plenty of clean, charming and cheap guesthouses in town, some along the rivers.

Have A Drink, Take A Trip

Beyond the places to stay and eat, there are a few musts. Have a drink in town at one of the riverside (Mekong) cafes around sunset. And take a trip to some of the nearby waterfalls, either by boat along the river, by car or a combination of both. And don't miss the night market. You will find the usual silk wall hangings, bed covers, table runners and more at prices far better than those charged in the trendy tourist shops — where you'll see $800 scarves and $400 wooden salad bowls.

Again — come soon, even if you don't have a lot of time. Vietnam Airlines is pushing it's new trifecta trip of Hanoi/Hailong Bay, Angkor and Luang Prabang. The airline has new routes and better connections that make all three doable in a week.

If all you've got is a week — and you fancy a Southeast Asian sojourn — better quickly than not at all, yes?

The Apsara Kingkitsarath Road/ (856) 71 254 670/

Three Nagas Ban Vatnong Sakkaline Road/ (856) 71 253 888/

Maison Souvannaphoum Rue Chao Fa Ngum/ (856) 71 254 609/

Three Elephant Cafe Sakkaline Road/ (856) 71 252 525/