Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Pussycat, pussycat, where have you been?

Somewhere in southern Thailand to visit the princess.

Tuesday morning—yesterday, although it seems much longer ago—we left the hotel in Bangkok at 4:30 to catch a 6:00 flight. From a military base, not from an airport. We jumped a ride on a C-300 (cargo plane with a big rear door, not much in the way of passenger comfort, earplugs required) with a bunch of armed military police, to Nakhon Si Thammarat (spelling varies), in southern Thailand. Then we trailed around the territory in a military-escorted motorcade to meet HRH Princess Srirasmi, the Princess Consort to the Crown Prince of Siam.

With the birth of her child six years ago, she was recruited to lend her name and sponsorship to a program to increase breastfeeding among the Thai population. She was reviewing the troops, as it were, in one of the program’s demonstration areas.

The princess is cool. Forty, looks twenty-five, dressed in slacks and a nice top, sneakers, and a tasteful amount of jewelry; and she carried her own large purse. If it weren’t for the guy carrying the huge parasol to cover her every time she stepped out of the van, you wouldn’t have been able to pick her out as royalty. She warmly greeted her fellow graduate students (she’s working on a PhD) and engaged with many individual villagers and families. She was led down the VIP line, and my handshake was just a minor courtesy on introduction as Tina’s husband.

Most of yesterday consisted of variations on a theme as the princess first sat politely for a welcoming ceremony and a presentation about the program, then visited a family enrolled in the program, then visited a community health center. At that point our contingent peeled off, and our local hosts took us to see the sights. We visited a Buddhist temple (not our first, not necessarily the most impressive, but the biggest the local area had to offer). Then we did a drive-by of a palace built by the local province to entice the king to visit (well, that didn’t work), next to a decade-old tidal gate that does work to keep the sea from making the river too brackish, thus enabling the surrounding land to be farmed again.

From there we went off to a small town in which all the largest buildings are for the birds. The town, on the coast, is a mecca for swiftlets, which build their nests of saliva. These are the nests of Chinese bird nest soup. Swiftlets naturally congregate and nest in caves, but in this town, the caves all look like modern apartment buildings. We ate overlooking the water, watching the swiftlets returning at dusk.

The province we were touring in produces, aside from a lot of bird nests for export to China (at about $5,000 a pound), a great deal of rubber, the price of which has risen fivefold in the last few years, and palm oil, the price of which has risen because it is used for biodiesel. As a result, the province is doing pretty well financially.

Today, we toured the main hospital in Nakhon Si Thammarat and a number of related facilities before catching a commercial 737 back to Bangkok.

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