Archive for July, 2010
Ao Nang- My time here in Krabi Province has been closer to Cast Away than The Beach, two movies that hit theaters a decade ago about being stranded on beaches. Rather than a sultry latin Virginie Ledoyen (né Fernandez) sauntering out of the tide with a boss techno track blasting,
it’s closer to Wilson the Volleyball. I’ve found some coconuts on the beach that I have befriended that act as a combination bowling/basket/football to play with in the surf. They also act as floatation devices when I get lazy. I’m here at the quietest time of year and was told by a Dutch bar owner who’s establishment I’ve been frequenting in the evenings that in the winter (aka high season), direct charter flights from the Nordic countries to Krabi (ie bypassing BKK) arrive here and this place becomes mobbed with Swedish and Finnish families pushing strollers and Kroner and Euros and prices skyrocket. Now it’s a bit lonely here which suits me just fine for the time being.
It’s hard to say whether the best part of being here is the food or the foot reflexology I’m undergoing. Either way it’s going to be tough to leave to Malaysia when the moment comes (when my 30 days are up on my tourist stamp). Ao Nang is being very lightly hit by the monsoon which I find refreshing. That same monsoon that has apparently killed hundreds (up to 800 at present) in flooding in the decidedly non-party zone of Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa Province. Here all it does is keep the tourists out of the bay and leaves me to swim by myself amongst the anchored long tail boats in the quiet of dusk and read a book on NATO geopolitics on a virtually deserted beach.
Bangkok- My last full day in the city was a fairly quiet one. I went out for the day and my Blackberry battery died and kept to myself by getting a rigorous Thai massage trying to exorcise the demons of some old, nagging injuries that affect my locomotion from time to time. While I was getting turned into a pretzel on Khao San road, a bomb detonated at a bus stop in front of a chain supermarket injuring eight or nine Thais and a Burmese woman. I got back to my hotel and finally plugged in my phone to charge and got a text from a friend that read; “Bomb went off, Rathcadamri. Ten injured, some serious. THEY ARE BACK.” By they, I assume my friend was referring to the claims by some violent members of the Red Shirt (Puea Thai) movement that they would bomb downtown Bangkok if the status quo remained unchanged. They made good on their threat and one of the injured died. There was an election today in Bangkok’s far flung 6th district (where I made a fruitless journey the previous day exploring the possibility of doing a story today) that pitted a Red Shirt candidate, currently imprisoned on charges of terrorism, named Korkaew Pikulthong supporting the return of the exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, versus the Yellow Shirt (People’s Alliance for Democracy) candidate Panich Vikitsreth, who supports the current pro-army, pro-business establishment PM Abhisit Vejjajiva, who subsequently won.
While all of this was going, I was buying a bus ticket to throw myself into the mellow maelstrom of the “Banana Pancake Trail,” the beyond well-trodden backpacker trail carved out of Southeast Asia by Australians and other assorted Westerners over the last 25 years, epitomized in the famous “Yellow Bible” (aka the Lonely Planet Southeast Asia on a Shoestring). The trailhead begins on the Khao San road, where I crashed in a dingy guesthouse the first few nights, and spirals out eastward into Cambodia, Laos and Viet Nam and southward into Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. I’m making my way through the latter, via Krabi. Last night, I went with my friend Patrik of visualtraveling.com to The Club on Khao San (see above photo) and the place was a madhouse with most patrons decked out in the Australian national dress (board shorts, tank top, and flip flops…sorry, thongs) and fully reveling in blasting techno not caring about red or yellow shirts. All hail the Banana Pancake Trail! For more on this subject, you can read the lyrics to the accompanying song “Banana Pancakes” by Jack Johnson.
Bangkok- I took a very interesting meander through Bangkok’s bustling “Little Arabia” cluster today in more of my seemingly never ending investigation into the road to 9/11 and more specifically following in the footsteps of the so-called San Diego cell of Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi. Here’s why: according to the 9/11 commission section entitled Section 5.2 The “Planes” Operation:
“While in Kuala Lumpur, Khallad wanted to go to Singapore to meet Nibras and Fahd al Quso, two of the operatives in Nashiri’s ship-bombing operation. An attempt to execute that plan by attacking the USS The Sullivans had failed just a few days earlier. Nibras and Quso were bringing Khallad money from Yemen, but were stopped in Bangkok because they lacked visas to continue on to Singapore. Also unable to enter Singapore, Khallad moved the meeting to Bangkok. Hazmi and Mihdhar decided to go there as well, reportedly because they thought it would enhance their cover as tourists to have passport stamps from a popular tourist destination such as Thailand. With Hambali’s help, the three obtained tickets for a flight to Bangkok and left Kuala Lumpur together. Abu Bara did not have a visa permitting him to return to Pakistan, so he traveled to Yemen instead.
In Bangkok, Khallad took Hazmi and Mihdhar to one hotel, then went to another hotel for his meeting on the maritime attack plan. Hazmi and Mihdhar soon moved to that same hotel, but Khallad insists that the two sets of operatives never met with each other or anyone else. After conferring with the ship-bombing operatives, Khallad returned to Karachi and then to Kandahar, where he reported on his casing mission to Bin Ladin.
Bin Ladin canceled the East Asia part of the planes operation in the spring of 2000. He evidently decided it would be too difficult to coordinate this attack with the operation in the United States. As for Hazmi and Mihdhar, they had left Bangkok a few days before Khallad and arrived in Los Angeles on January 15, 2000.”
I find it quite suspect that there is so much vague detail in the 9/11 commission report looking back on it all these years later. Do they (those on the commission chaired by Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton) mean to tell us that they nor their contacts here in Thailand don’t know the names of the hotels in Bangkok? If one looks carefully, there’s an immense amount of detail missing from the finalized 9/11 report. If the people of Alec Station, the CIA’s Bin Laden unit based in Virginia, that was tracking these two and monitoring the Kuala Lumpur AQ summit at Jemmah Islamiyah operative Yazid Sufaat’s condominium, stop tracking them while in they were in Thailand before they went to Los Angeles and rendezvoused with Saudi (agent) Omar al-Bayoumi? Judging by the fact that al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi spoke (supposedly) very limited English, I am guessing that when they arrived in Bangkok, they likely headed straight for Little Arabia where Arabs from the Mashreq, the Maghreb, and the Gulf all seem to congregate here. When al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi arrived in Los Angeles on the flight from Don Mueang airport, they are believed to have immediately gone to a halal restaurant on the border of the Palms neighborhood and Culver City on Venice Boulevard where they met al-Bayoumi (the commission report is sorely lacking in detail on this very clutch episode as well). Now I have no way of proving this is where the two spent there last days before leaving for Southern California but I also don’t have any reason to believe they would have spent their time anywhere else in Bangkok. If you didn’t see Thai women in tank tops and short shorts, you could think you were in a down at the heels part of Amman or Abu Dhabi. The only person I think who would know the answer to this question is the former head of Alec Station but he thus far has not responded to my email query. There remain so many questions still to be answered about 9/11 it boggles the mind.
If I can’t know the answers, I need to at least ask the questions. How long were the hijackers in Bangkok? Who else did they meet with here? How many days were they here and what hotels did they frequent? I am I the only one who desires to know all of these minor but important details? And lastly, why is so much information left out of the 9/11 report?
Abu Dhabi- Yesterday, I appeared on Voice of America’s Russian language news service talking about my experiences and observations in southern Kyrgyzstan before and after the June 27 referendum on the country’s future. I was interviewed by my Jamestown colleague Erica Marat who works for VoA to comment on a Human Rights Watch report released yesterday entitled, “Kyrgyzstan: Torture, Detentions Escalate Tensions.” Here is the link to the VoA article (in Russian), “Kyrgyz law enforcement agencies involved in the torture of ethnic Uzbeks” and here in English using Google’s imperfect translate.
Abu Dhabi- To get from Tajikistan to Abu Dhabi was a bit of an arduous trip via Kabul and Dubai and no sleep. Here are a few random shots from the Blackberry from 24 hours in my often bizarre life.
Dushanbe- I took a quiet stroll through Tajikistan’s Museum of National Antiquities this morning after a friend here told me about a giant sleeping Buddha there in what I guessed would be the incredible Hellenic-Buddhist fusion of the now long gone Bamiyan Buddhas that once stood in the wind swept Hazarajat. So for 15 Somoni (just above $3) and covering my filthy New Balance’s with those surgical cover things, I toured the museum which had everything on display from neolithic adze’s to Tajikistan’s Persian-Islamic period. But it was all about the giant Buddha. What we mostly know about Tajikistan is some of its Soviet-period history and maybe a little about its five-year long devastating civil war (1992-1997). I want to get a little more insight into the country’s pre-Islamic history to get a better picture of where it fits into regional history and present day geopolitics. Ancient trade and cultural links have tendency to mirror post-Soviet revived present day ones and for this reasoning, a quick study of the museum’s pieces was in order. On the second floor, the Buddha lay in nirvana in his “sleeping lion” position in all of his reconstructed glory. This hulking 13 metre-long sculpture was discovered near Qurgonteppa in the country’s south, wedged in between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan (see map).
Seeing this made me think of the legend of the mega sleeping Buddha believed to be hidden somewhere in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan described by Xuanzang, the first Chinese backpacker, in 630 AD. In September, 2008 a 19 metre Buddha was discovered near where the two standing ones were demo’ed in March 2001. Not quite 300 metres, but still, not too shabby. Large parts of the Tajik Buddha did not survive the centuries but were artfully reconstructed to give one a good idea of the ancient sculptor’s original vision. The museum had a lot of interesting pieces to say the least. Here’s another one, a scabbard of a griffin that looks to be of ivory.
The labels in the museum were mostly in Russian and Tajik and not extensive to say the least. But I had much better luck than Asia Times columnist Pepe Escobar in 2001 who was in Dushanbe just before the museum opened and was unable to see this piece of nirvana.
On a totally unrelated note, I have a new piece in today’s Asia Times:
Dushanbe- I got the boot from the local police in Osh for taking an undesirable photo of ethnic cleansing graffiti being whitewashed over in time for UNHCR head Antonio Guterres’ visit to the wrecked city. The official reasoning was that I did not have a Kyrgyz press accreditation. While the Osh police did their best to give me the bum’s rush out of town, there was no indication upon my departure at Manas airport en route to Dushanbe that I was no longer welcome in the Kyrgyz Republic. I heard from a World Food Programme official on the flight back to Bishkek that the one and only Frederick Rousseau, the French Khan of ACTED in Central Asia with a Napoleon complex on steroids, made a scene when Guterres held a press conference at the Osh airport.
I’ve returned to Dushanbe for the first time since my whirlwind visit in October of 2001 after the United States air force began launching air strikes across northern Afghanistan and this town was, for a very brief period, the place to be in the international scene. I’m sitting typing this post in the once dilapidated Soviet hulk known as the Hotel Tajikistan. In the fall of 2001, it was the center of the action, really buzzing with journos and NGOs trying to figure out how to get in Afghanistan on clap trap Mi-8s who’s price for a seat was going up by the day. A few things have changed since then. This hotel was renovated a few years ago with a serious facelift, the room price more than tripled, and it’s eerily quiet. Tajikistan now mans its own southern border and the Russian 201st Motor Rifle Division is long gone from the Afghan border, and French forces who arrived in December 2001-January 2002 at that critical juncture are now entrenched at the airport here with their Transall C-160’s parked comfortably there from where they supply their contingents in Kabul and Kapisa Province.