The Thai guesthouse that saves a village

The Thai guesthouse that saves a village

The roads are not so bad today, but in the rainy season it can be

quite difficult,” said Glennis Setabandhu as we waited for a battered truck to slowly make its way down the steep boulderstrewn road. “Sometimes their trucks can’t make it all the way and guests have to hike down.

Once they get here, I get a cup of hot coffee and a piece of cake in them and all is well.” At just about 5ft tall, slightly stooped with age, dressed in a long navy skirt with a flowered cardigan, 81-year-old, Australian-born Setabandhu, or Pa Glen as she’s known locally (pa being Thai for ‘auntie’), is not the type of person you’d expect to find running a guesthouse deep in the wild mountain forests around Pilok in western Thailand. But she has been for almost 30 years.

The entrance to Setabandhu’s guesthouse displays stickers, banners and T-shirts of the off-road driving clubs who have stopped here over the years. Inside, a small glass chandelier hangs over dining tables set with lace doilies.

The walls are hung with old photos of Setabandhu’s family posed in their best finery, as well as snapshots of her son Narin, her grandchildren and the numerous visitors she’s welcomed over the years. Setabandhu first came to this remote place during the cold season of 1967; her trip from Bangkok was a fourday-long adventure involving trains, boats and mules. It was here that her late husband Somsak operated a tin mine. These were ‘the good old days’ Setabandhu recalled, when more than 600 people worked together to extract the metal from the Earth’s crust.

“The first time I visited the mine I was afraid of the forest and animals, but I came to love it here,” she recalled. “This was a bustling village with families and houses all along the path. Everyone was happy.” Setabandhu met Somsak while he was studying mining engineering at the Western Australian School of Mines in Kalgoorlie where she lived.

Somsak was a badminton champion who helped coach her church team. They got married, and a few years later came to live in Thailand where he would oversee the family’s mine while she taught English at Bangkok University, travelling to the mine with Narin on school holidays.

The international tin market crash of 1985 put an end to that happy existence. Worldwide tin prices plunged, and despite his best effort, Somsak was unable to keep the mine operational.

As Setabandhu tells it, her husband was heartbroken to watch the operation he had made his life’s work become defunct, which she is sure contributed to his early death by cancer in 1994.

Setabandhu made a promise to her dying husband that she would find a way to take care of his former employees and their

families. “Most of the workers were from Burma [known today as Myanmar] and had no papers,” she explained. “A lot of them eventually made their way to Bangkok and got into construction work, but some didn’t want to leave the mine and the forest life. This was when I stopped teaching and came here to stay. At first I wasn’t sure what we could do here.” One resource that could not fail was the mine’s location, set in a remote valley alongside a sparkling stream, surrounded by thick jungle and pristine forested mountains just on the border of Thailand and Myanmar. A hike along a vague trail through the scrubby jungle surrounding the guesthouse lead me to the Chet Mit waterfall, where water cascades out of the mountains so clean I didn’t think twice about drinking straight from the cold stream.

Setabandhu knew from her years of living in everexpanding Bangkok that there were people who longed for such a place to spend relaxing weekends away from the crush of modern life.

By selling her husband’s mining equipment she raised enough money to re-purpose some of the mine’s old buildings for guests, adding conveniences like flushing toilets and gas-heated showers.

She replaced the old diesel generators her husband had bought decades earlier with a small hydroelectric plant built in the stream to provide clean, silent electricity, and opened the Somsak Mine Forest Glade Home, employing the former miners who hadn’t already left for Bangkok. The guesthouse soon gained a reputation as a refuge for four-wheel drive enthusiasts and cyclists looking for some comfort in the wild.

Staying at Somsak Mine is an experience that takes you back in time and back to basics. Three decades of enduring monsoon rains and baking in the hot sun have weathered the paint so that the structures blend into the surrounding foliage. The main building, once the warehouse and company store, features a cavernous room with a soaring ceiling built of roughhewn timber, bamboo and woven rattan, with furnishings reminiscent of a Victorian-era sitting room.

Following the old mining roads around the 200-acre concession, it’s still possible to make out the cuttings where the hills were mined through thick foliage that has reclaimed the area over the last 30 or so years. Visitors who don’t have their own transportation are ferried 5km from the town of Pilok by a local policeman who grew up at the mine; the bed of his truck is outfitted with bench seats. It’s a bumpy ride that can take up to an hour and a half depending on the last time it rained.

While the guesthouse may be remote, with no mobile service or internet access, Setabandhu makes sure that visitors are comfortable and well fed.

Each evening she and her staff put together a meal that includes several Thai dishes, as well as what she describes as an ‘Aussie-style’ barbecue: grilled skewers of spice-rubbed pork, peppers and onions cooked outside on a grill. And Setabandhu’s cakes are legendary among Thailand’s off-road community. Chocolate cake, banana cake and the best carrot cake I’ve ever tasted are baked fresh each day and laid out as part of the banquet for guests to help themselves.

As proud as Setabandhu is of having hosted so many visitors over the years, her son Narin believes his mother’s real accomplishment was keeping the Somsak Mine intact and aiding the families who chose to stay on.

“I didn’t know what my mother was going to do when she moved up to the mine,” he told me over the phone from his office in Bangkok. “[But] the guesthouse allowed those who wanted to stay to make a living and created opportunities for those families that would have been all but impossible had it not come to be.”

Recently, Setabandhu told me, officials from the department of mining had visited to do some test drilling.

“They said, ‘Don’t you go anywhere, Pa. The market for tin is coming back’,” she recalled. “I told them my husband was the mining engineer, but they said Somsak Mine can’t exist without me.”

“Maybe the good old days are coming back,” she added, a wistful look on her face. Whatever the future holds, for now the doors of the Somsak Mine Forest Glade Home are open, and offroaders, dirt bikers, trail runners and nature lovers can be assured that Setabandhu’s cakes are waiting at the end of that old rough and rocky road.

Buhari lacks energy to solve Nigeria’s problems – US

Buhari lacks energy to solve Nigeria’s problems – US

– says Atiku to enrich himself

A victory for either of the two front runners poses risks for Nigeria, according to Eurasia Group.

Eurasia Group, a United States political risk consultancy corporation, has offered a bleak outlook over the possible electoral victory of Nigeria’s biggest presidential candidates, President Muhammadu Buhari and Atiku Abubakar.

With the 2019 presidential election just five weeks away,

one of Buhari and Atiku is expected to be elected Nigeria’s president at the polls.

However, according to Eurasia’s recent report, victory for either of the two might not best serve the country as they both have limitations that might prove troublesome in the future.

The group described Buhari, 76, as lacking energy to solve

Nigeria’s problems while Atiku is likely to enrich himself and associates if he becomes president.

The report read, “He (Buhari) is an elderly, infirm leader who lacks the energy, creativity, or political savvy to move the needle on Nigeria’s most intractable problems.

“His opponent is Atiku Abubakar, another gerontocrat who would focus on enriching himself and his cronies, avoiding the difficult and politically unpopular tasks necessary for reform.”

Buhari’s victory poses risks of political crisis – Eurasia

President Muhammadu Buhari is keen on remaining in the Presidential Villa for another four years despite concerns about his health.

The report further noted that a second term victory for Buhari would bring Nigeria little progress “on critical policy priorities like tax reform or a restructuring of the energy sector”.

“Buhari would be a lame duck from day one, with powerbrokers in his own party quickly shifting their focus to the next electoral cycle in 2023,” the report read.

The group also expressed worry that a repetition of Buhari’s mysterious health problems, like during his first term, would worse the situation.

The report concluded, “A Buhari reelection also carries tail risks. A politically weak president, for health or other reasons, would open the floodgates for political infighting, increasing the chances that his ruling All Progressives Congress implodes. “That would turn a policy slowdown into paralysis.

The risk of attacks on oil infrastructure would also rise, because the absence of strong leadership in Abuja would make it harder to negotiate with the Niger Delta’s various militant groups.”

Atiku’s policies are unclear and untested – Eurasia

Atiku Abubakar is eager to return to the Presidential Villa after serving as Vice President for eight years.

Eurasia also poured cold water on the possible victory of Atiku, a former vice president, noting that his policy priorities are unclear and untested even though he’s credited with keener intellect than Buhari. The group noted that his victory would create a brief, superfi cial boost to the country’s image, even at the risk of Nigeria returning to “an even more rent-seeking governing style”.

The report read, “Atiku’s policy priorities are unclear and untested: He had previously promised to deregulate the oil and gas sector but recently pledged to reduce gasoline prices by 50% from already below-market levels. That would swell subsidy costs and endanger long-term debt sustainability.

“He’s also unlikely to champion a tax reform that’s critical to Nigeria’s fiscal sustainability. Atiku would face significant infighting within his People’s Democratic Party as well, as leaders try to hold him to his promise to serve only one term (a pledge he’s likely to retract).”

Post-election crisis is possible – Eurasia

Eurasia also expressed worry over a possible crisis that’ll trail the results of the election which it noted will be close and might be challenged or inconclusive. The report read, “Then there’s a dangerous wildcard outcome. The election will be close, and a challenged or inconclusive result is possible.

“That, in turn, could trigger a political crisis in which neither candidate has a legitimate claim to power.

“If the vote is close enough to trigger a runoff , Nigeria’s constitution requires the second round of voting to occur within seven days of the first, a tough timeline to meet given the complexity of organising national elections in the country.”

Other presidential candidates

A former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria

(CBN), Prof. Kingsley Moghalu, is one of the outsiders to contest for the presidency in next month’s election.

Even though the February 16, 2019 election is expected to be keenly-contested between Atiku and Buhari, they face competition from other candidates including Kingsley Moghalu of the Young Progressive Party (YPP), Obiageli Ezekwesili of the Allied Congress Party of Nigeria (ACPN), Fela Durotoye of the Alliance for New Nigeria (ANN), and Omoyele Sowore of the African Action Congress (AAC).

Others are Tope Fasua of the Abundance Nigeria Renewal Party (ANRP), Eunice Atuejide of the National Interest Party (NIP), Adesina Fagbenro- Byron of the Kowa Party (KP), Chike Ukaegbu of the Advanced Allied Party (AAP), Hamza Al-Mustapha of the People’s Party of Nigeria (PPN), Obadiah Mailafi a of the African Democratic Congress (ADC), and many more. 79 candidates will contest in the election, the highest number ever in Nigeria’s electoral history.

 

Turkish, Iranian leaders meet ahead of Syria summit with Russia

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani held talks in Ankara on Wednesday with his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan ahead of a three-way summit with Russia on the Syrian conflict.

The three countries are working together to try to reduce the violence in Syria despite supporting opposing sides in the war. Russia and Iran are Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s strongest backers, while Turkey supports anti-Assad insurgents.

Rouhani said before leaving Iran that foreign forces operating in Syria without approval from the Damascus government should leave – a reference to Turkey and the United States.

Turkey is waging an offensive in northwestern Syria against the Kurdish YPG militia and has pledged to extend its campaign to the country’s northeast. Damascus has described the offensive as an illegal invasion.

“Iran believes that the presence of foreign forces in Syria without authorization of the Syrian government is illegal and must be halted,” Iranian state television quoted Rouhani as saying in Tehran on Tuesday night.

He said Wednesday’s meeting with Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin would discuss reconstruction in Syria as well as work on a new constitution, part of a plan for a political solution to end the seven-year-old war.

Despite their differences Iran, Russia and Turkey are three of the major powers involved in a conflict whose course has been largely defined by foreign interventions, and their influence could increase further if the United States pulls out.

President Donald Trump said on Tuesday he wanted to get US forces out of Syria but offered no timetable, as his advisers warned of the hard work left to defeat Islamic State and stabilise areas recaptured from the hardline militant group.

Trump told a news conference the United States would “not rest until ISIS is gone”, but he also suggested that victory was imminent.

“It’s time,” Trump told reporters, when asked if he was inclined to withdraw U.S. forces.

Austrian govt bans headscarf for girls

Girls attending Austrian day care centres and elementary schools should no longer be wearing headscarves, the right-wing government said, on Wednesday, announcing a plan to draft a new bill.

“The veiling of small children should definitely have no place in our country,” conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told reporters after a meeting.

He said that the step would curb gender discrimination against girls and prevent the development of marginalised “parallel societies” within Austria.

“It’s important to take a stance against political Islam. We want to make sure that children grow up free and that they are not pulled into these [Islamic] mechanisms,” added Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache of the far-right Freedom Party.

Small girls with headscarves are not a large-scale phenomenon in Austria.

When a reporter asked for statistics that underpin the new policy, Kurz was not able to provide numbers but said that “it is a growing problem.”

Half a year ago, a ban on face veils came into effect in Austria – a policy that likewise affects only a small number of people.

So far, police have cited only 50 transgressors.

To pass the new headscarf ban for girls, the two right-wing government parties need the support of one opposition party in parliament, to secure a necessary two-thirds majority.

Social Democrats and Liberals signalled Wednesday that would consider the bill, while calling for a package of integration policies rather than symbolic steps like a ban.