Morning Commute

After moving to conveniently located Thong Lo street, I now get the additional benefit of starting every work morning with a minor thrill. To get to my office, I take a ferryboat through a khlong (or canal) before hopping onto the MRT (subway).

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As with anything, there are advantages and drawbacks. True, it feels a bit romantic, passing by trees and other boats. But then again, the water in the khlong is nearly black, and a distinct odor lingers in the air. The smell made sense after it was pointed out to me that sewage pipes run directly into the canal. 

A tarp is strung up on either side of the ferry to keep out the canal water. This was the water, mind you, that I was warned against on two separate occasions. According to a coworker, canal splashback allegedly gave one German passenger an eye infection. “Always wear your sunglasses on the boat,” she warned me. This is all hearsay, of course. But then again, perhaps this explains why the ferry crowd is always fairly quiet, even during busy commute times.

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Assertiveness and dexterity are required to ride the ferry as well. The disembarkation procedure is such: an attendant jumps off onto the dock and lashes a rope around a pole to hold the boat steady. In the meantime, you have to grip one of the ropes running the length of the boat and then quickly step onto a narrow ledge to hop onto the dock, hopefully not while the boat is in process of drifting away from the dock.

After a few trips, the process no longer seems so thrilling, as all novelty wears off eventually. But it’s still kind of nice to have to start my mornings off this way: I never fail to be more present and somewhat more optimistic after getting off the ferry. After all, it’s all about enjoying the small moments.

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Landing

I touched down in Suvarnabhumi Airport a week ago, and each day since then has been filled with an appreciation for the worldiness of Bangkok, this cosmopolitan hub teeming with over 9 million people. Walking down the street or riding the MRT subway, I listen to a hum of different languages being spoken, a constant reminder of the incredible diversity in this region.

In fact, the landmass of SE Asia – also called Zomia by some — is one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse places in the world. According to historian James C. Scott, rugged terrain and geographic obstacles contributed to a splintering of different cultures who, pre-WWII, were not historically subjected to the yoke of centralized statehood. Tribes resisted assimilation into kingdoms and later, nation-states.

By definition, a frontier is where power looks upon the edge of its own limits. Historically in Zomia, State confronted frontier, peering into a world it did not control. And now in present day as a collection of more and less developing countries, it’s become another kind of frontier, with fortunes to be made and much else at stake.

This first week, I’ve attended a regional forum on hydropower in Cambodia, where villagers shared stories of personal devastation caused by dam projects and voiced their resistance. I observed a workshop with Burmese journalists hailing from a country where not so long ago such a profession would have carried a risk of imprisonment or worse. And at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club in Bangkok, the walls showcased an exhibit by a photojournalist tragically killed in the 2010 political unrest.

Yes, the frontier is palpable here. Everywhere people were talking about the shape of the future to come. There’s a rosiness and also a pessimism in these discussions that’s always underpinned by questions of power and control.

There’s a lot to absorb, learn and understand here, and I’m grateful to be in a position where I can spend time digging into these issues. More to follow…