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DISASTER ZONE
In the Bleak Mid-Winter

Thailand has been through so much lately that you would have been forgiven for thinking we’d seen it all and weathered the storm. But just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water, a new danger has reared its ugly head. There is a silent killer stalking this fair land and he has seven victims to his name already. The governor of Tak in the country’s hilly north has gone so far as to declare 9 districts in his province as official danger zones. The Interior Ministry has gone one step further and listed 41 provinces as emergency areas. So just what exactly has forced such drastic measures?

The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind. An icy fear has gripped the nation as a cold front sweeping down from China has sent the mercury plummeting - sometimes even into single figures!!! In England, we'd call this summer; in Thailand it's major news and has even overshadowed the politics and financial crisis in many media. Now is indeed the winter of our discontent.

While this is traditionally the cool season in Thailand and it is even occasionally referred to as winter, this year has been particularly bitter, at least by Thai standards.

Hardest hit have been the rolling hills of the north and the Korat Plateau in the north east. In Tak, where the emergency has been declared, the mercury dropped to 12C while on higher ground, the temperatures have plunged even further. Bangkok is even experiencing the coolest winter that I remember in my 10 years here. It still regularly hits 30C during the day, but it’s at least 10C lower at night with the wind whipping up a fair old chill. The lowest recorded night temperature in the capital has been 15C.

While it may not be a patch on what many farangs are used to, it’s certainly got the Thais all excited. I was watching the Thai news the other day and couldn’t figure out why they were showing close ups of some grass. It wasn’t until my wife pointed out that there was almost a frost that it made any semblance of sense. Thais up and down the country have been fervently adding a few more layers to fend off this unknown enemy, but for some this has not been enough.

Seven deaths have been attributed to the “big freeze” so far. First to succumb was an elderly monk in Ayutthaya. A 41-year-old Lopburi man was the second casualty and the third to go was a 37-year-old Chiang Rai native. The latter was suspected of having got drunk and fallen asleep in just his underwear with no blanket for protection. The Bangkok Post translated a police quote as saying that the man was exposed to “the harsh winter elements”.

Others have followed, and the toll could yet rise with the cold spell expected to continue over the next few days. Indeed, the current forecast is of worse to come with drops of a further 1 to 3 Celsius predicted.

I usually spend the New Year in Surin visiting the in-laws, but we gave it a miss this year. It’s maybe just as well. High on the Korat Plateau, it’s certainly cooler than down here in Bangkok. A typical evening from one of those previous visits is outlined in this excerpt from my one-day-to-be-released book, Four Weddings and a Coup:

That evening after dinner, I joined Nid and Chum on the terrace, sitting around a fire in a small clay oven and drinking a few beers to ward off the chilly night air. The conversations were pretty limited:

Nid: “Nao mai?” (Are you cold?)
Me: “Nao” (Yes, I’m cold)
Chum: “Nao maak!” (Yes, it certainly is rather chilly weather we are experiencing and no mistake)

Once enough beer had been consumed to fend off the chills, we retired to bed.

On a personal note, this year’s chilly weather simply means that I haven’t been able to use the swimming pool for a couple of months, I use warm water to get a shower, and I don’t need to turn on the air-conditioning. To the shivering people of Thailand, however, it’s of much more significant import.

It could just be that the unusually cold winter is playing a paradoxical role in the political thaw that Thailand is currently experiencing. Sworn foes, previously polarised by politics, now find themselves united against a common enemy. Whether their shirts are red or yellow, Thais are unanimous in their opinion that it is indeed nao maak.

Paul Snowdon – January 14, 2009

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