slice-of-thai.com Journal 12/2/2003-12/12/2003: Bangkok for Longer

This is an entry from my travel journals about Thailand and Laos.

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2 Dec 2003

After 5 truly hellacious days of selling my stuff, moving everything else I own into a 10x10 storage unit (curiously, about the size of my old apartment :), packing, and doing the full-on family thanksgiving, I have finally made it over here to Thailand again!

I know I'm in Thailand for sure because of the sheer number of times (more than 5) during the 3 minute ride from the airport to the Skytrain in which my Taxi driver shot out of his lane to avoid being hit by another taxi, bus, or motorcyle whose drivers decided they weren't going to worry about other vehicles which may, or may not, be in their path. Mai Bpenrai!

It's 70-75 degrees during the day, and not very humid. Totally amazing.

I am writing this email at 6pm from the 5th-floor sun/smoking deck of the Mah Boon Krong food center. Despite the occasional whiff of urine or cigarettes, this is actually one of the places with the most breathable air in Bangkok. There's a cool wind blowing, and there are (as yet) no mosquitos. At 65 degrees or so, many of the Thais have found it necessary to stuff their fists into thick hooded sweaters. A group of friendly teenagers sits huddled around one of bright yellow tables as they suck down a few drinks ordered from the matching, bright yellow beer lady. Another all-male, college-age group sips beer as one of them runs through all the custom cellphone ring tones he has accumulated, skipping right past the Bach organ and the Rick Wakeman Yes and going straight for the crowing rooster sound.

The rough, unfinished concrete floor of this improvised patio diffusely reflects the light from the bare yellow, blue and green flourescent bulbs strewn around the perimeter. Adding to the sci-fi ambiance, and woven amongst the high-power lines, antennae, and other mysterious ducts and conduits carefully zip-tied to bits of unistrut drilled into the patio ledge is a 60-foot-long animated display of christmas lights with which they have decorated the football-field-sized neon MBK building sign hanging just below our level. It wishes the 95% Buddhist Thais a merry Christmas and happy new year:

Merry Christmas: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Merry Christmas
Click here if image does not load automatically.

A clunky relay box, recently placed in the unsigned, foot-deep drainage pit that drops off at the dark outer edge of our deck, lets out a steady, repeating tick-tock-tock-tock as it cycles the 4 sets of christmas lights on and off. In a way, the cycle of christmas lights, the frog-like Mah Boon Krong cleaning employees making their rounds, the cliques of Thai customers coming and going, and the daily cycle of sunset and flourescent twilight form the four parts of a gamelan piece played out every day here on this patio!

The 'music' is interrupted only by saws. Two-thirds of the food center, and most of the deck, have been blocked off with giant temporary wooden walls and construction noises can be heard from behind. Wonder what they're building...maybe a third McDonalds?

There's a stunning view of the Bangkok skyline, with Siam Square, the Skytrain, and the perennially vacant office tower rising above Siam Center in the foreground. Things must be looking up because for the first time I can see that some small part of the office tower is actually occupied. APEC signs are still all over the place and from the crowd at my guesthouse, I'm thinking that the tourism business is also going well. The neverending noise of two-stroke Tuk-Tuk and motorcycle engines extends to the horizon. A woman comes out and dumps a bucket of dirty dishwater into the pit right next to the power relay and other electrical cabling. Yes, I'm definitely back in Thailand...

3 Dec 2003

I go to check e-mail with my laptop at a high-speed internet cafe at Mah Boon Krong shopping center. I accidentally forget to enable my computer's firewall, and after using the computer for an hour or two, I am rather surprised to find that some hacker has added an Internet Connection Sharing client session to MY computer and is funnelling all my incoming and outgoing information through their computer (as well as sucking other unknown data off my machine). The network environment in these places is truly hostile. I'm guessing that the hackers are constantly scanning the cafe's (or perhaps all of Thailand's) IP addresses and that my computer was hacked within seconds of plugging it in. I wonder what they will do with the information, and how much nasty stuff remains on my machine.

In the evening, I go to the Sukhumvit Soi 3-4 area where, in addition to a cluster of high-end, western aircon hotels and a raunchy accumulation of brothels and go-go bars, they have a lot of really interesting people and restaurants from the middle east, Africa, and the Indian subcontinent. This is the only place I've found in Thailand where it is common to see black people. Lebanese, Pakistanis, Egyptians, and folks of unknown African descent walk around at night in full-length robes which I have never seen before. Some have turbans, some women are covered in black head to toe. If I had to guess I'd say this is probably where they nabbed the Bali bomber. I hear lots of languages and almost none of them are Thai.

Tonight, most of the Arabic-writing-covered restaurants have huge grills out front as they cook up huge buffet feasts for their guests. Every multicolor corner and alley is filled with bars, jewely shops, and food of many varieties. Nestled amongst the brothels, giant artificial bar-restaurants ("Gulliver's Tavern," like something out of Pier 39—sigh) and Indian, Egyptian, and "Arabic" restaurants are the "barbershops." Through the barbershop window you can see the familiar long counters, chairs, and mirror-covered walls. But it's like a barbershop which has been auctioned off—there is absolutely no haircutting equipment in the whole place, except for a token electric razor, plug dragging on the floor, weilded half-heartedly by the scantily clad woman standing inches away from the window glass, beaming her practiced smile at passing farangs along with the 6 or 10 other "specimens." I get the distinct impression that hairstyling is not part of the service here. It seems much more likely that this is some pathetic attempt at passing off their erotic massage parlor as a hair-cutting establishment in order to escape some inspection requirement. But I'm not sure.

As I weave and dodge down "Middle Eastern Street" (no joke!) trying to avoid passing obstacles, I almost trip over an old lady who's sitting peacefully on the sidewalk at the very edge of one outdoor restaurant, knees hanging out over the street, as she quietly thumbs through what looks like a string of rosary beads. She's totally unaware of, or uninterested in, the crowds, taxis, scalding-hot food carts and drunk-driven delivery vans that plough by inches away from her. She's a pool of serentity so completely out of place in this chaotic scene that you can't miss her.

I eventually choose a Lebanese restaurant because, well, it had a picture menu. As I did last year at a Yemeni restaurant, I try to read the Arabic words on the menu and ask the waiter if I have pronounced them correctly. And for the second time, the waiter has no idea what information I am after and becomes very confused (why does this stupid American keep asking about the same dish over and over?). I order up a plate of delicious dolma-like appetizers and a wonderfully spiced chicken meal that came with a mayonnaise-like sauce and the "standard" set of condiments (cucumbers, pickles, fresh green onions, sliced white onions). The meal is well worth the 400 B ($10).

The place is fairly fancy, run by two well-dressed Lebanese men and one woman, with nice hardwood tables, flowers, glass partitions with inlaid birds, and actual paper napkins instead of TP. But several of the customers (including me of course) were in our standard farang getup—shorts and t shirt. The owners seem well used to it.

As I work on my dolmas, a Thai man and a woman walk in. She has a slightly Asian look about her and speaks fluent Thai, but she is uncharacteristically flamboyant and also speaks English with a clear American accent. As she switches languages once a minute, now Thai, now English, and maybe even some French, her boyfriend can't get a word in edgewise. But it's ok, he clearly knows how to attend to her proper care and feeding. He keeps reaching out to tickle her, and she feigns annoyance and accepts it playfully, attracting the critical gaze of the Thai bus-girls who stare and gossip with each other in the far corner of the room, batting an eye or two, sharing looks of disdain as they struggle to figure out her parentage. She looks like a mix but of what? Some Asian? Some middle eastern? European? She's got to be either a shameful naughty Thai or just another weird farang—you can see the Thai bus-girls' need to place her in one box or the other. The mysterious woman receives cell phone calls continuously throughout the meal. She seems bored with her date but tolerates him. I overhear some comment about having a Thai husband—or was it that she doesn't want to have a Thai husband? Eventually, their restaurant foreplay degenerates into footsie and the bus-girls lose interest. As the couple leaves, the Thai man does not hold the door for her. But they do grasp each other's waist as they walk down the street. An odd mix of customs indeed.

Adding to the entertainment, a pair of french businessmen in nice white dress shirts and slacks arrive and sit down for a meal. One of them, quiet, fat-faced, and conservative with a tiny moustache, looks like a caricature chartered accountant from Monty Python. His partner, on the other hand, is a sleek, towering figure who animates his every word with protruding eyebrows which travel literally inches across his forehead on a journey from his giant eyes to his beaver-like jet-engine gelled-back steel grey and black hair. As he bellows out each nasal french syllable, his eyebrows fly up and down like semaphores. You can be sure that this man gets his point across even in inclement weather. His tie: an oversweet neopolitan with layers of black, snowy grey, and a prowling tiger. As dinner proceeds, he uses his finger to sketch out the ethereal boxes and arrows of some grand business plan for his partner.

In another corner, an arab family with covered wife and rambunctious kids finishes their meal. The kids yell and scream but dad stops short of hitting them.

Next to me, a pair of pudgy, close-shaven american investment banker types compare notes, deals, and restaurant recommendations. "Looking at the initial investment, I can break even cash-flow wise. Labor's so cheap here..."

Another group of big guys walk in, the blue collar set, much fatter germanic stuff with 5 o'clock shadows (european time that is) and strange russian/german accents. One comes with a 40-something Thai woman in tow. Throughout the evening, as the fellows go on and on about karaoke bars, rounds of drinks, and having to pay $450 one time, the woman balances her chin on two joined fists to stay awake. A perfect performance of a scene from the marriage tragedy I hope I'll never play in Thailand.

Outside, a gaggle of bored "hello" girls in flowing blue dresses waits patiently outside a japanese-labeled parlor ("yazuka" or something) so they can begin their nightly chore.

4 Dec 2003

Today I eat breakfast/lunch at the yummy outdoor food stall in the soi just outside my guesthouse. I notice the peeling, dirt-lined, page-missing, no-longer-completely-laminated menus and realize these are the same menus which the cooks, Uncle Leut and Auntie Nuu, have been using for the whole period I've eaten here—at least five years. I joke about this to them and then realize that I have a. a laptop computer in my bag, and b. quite a bit of spare time. So I embark on a project to re-type and re-format their menu so that I can print out and laminate a few for them. Apparently these menus (at least, menus with half-intelligible English) are actually pretty valuable currency here because nobody who cooks (a very low-earning profession) knows enough English to describe their own dishes to farangs unfamiliar with Thai food. Uncle Leut noted that after a friend of his made the last set of menus for him, another cook friend of his "borrowed" 2 of the 4 pages (and each page had different dishes on it) and never returned them. While telling this story, he alternated between using the Thai word for "borrowed" and "stolen." He suggested that my new menu should bear his name as well as the food stall's street address in Thai and English so that wouldn't happen again. I also included his picture and that of his wife!

The process of adding new items to the menu, and categorizing all the items in some meaningful way as more and more dishes kept popping out of their head, but making it all fit on 2 sides of 1 page, turned out to be a challenge, and I would work on this project over the next couple of days. Fortunately the printing costs were negligible. Although I didn't ask for it, they have started giving me free meals there.

Later that evening, I visit Khao San road again to see how it has evolved. Yet another set of interesting, dumpy guesthouses has been razed and replaced with a boring, shining shopping complex, this one including...a McDonalds! And at the very end of Khao San, in a prime location visible from the entire strip, the shining emblem of Burger King. Sigh.

I am also very disappointed to see that the amazing Indian place I like has shut down. It took me a while to extract this information from the massage lady who took over the space. She agrees that the old Indian place was delicious and the one at the other end of the street was not so good but am I sure I wouldn't like a massage? They're really relaxing and nice for farangs... I eat at the other Khao San Indian restaurant and it's really bad. Now I'll have to seek out good Indian food at Sukhumvit or somewhere else.

After the bad meal I wander out of Banglamphu and am immediatly struck by an almost unbelievable amount of bass audio energy emanating from the distance, as if nuclear bombs are going off continuously. As I get closer, I realize the ruckus is coming from Sanam Luang, a giant open field next door to the Grand Palace. Turns out there's a sort of pre-event for the King's Birthday tomorrow. The entire field, easily 2 football stadiums in area, is full of people. I put in my earplugs and dive into the sonic mess. Giant stages with utterly excessive and gratuitous piles of speakers host neon-costumed Thai pop singers yodling out the same small set of sappy Thai "hits" I've been hearing for 5 years, and covering Western 80s pop hits with bad accents. There's also Thai-dubbed Western movies (such as the Matrix trilogy) projected for all to see on giant 20' tall screens. But, in classic Thai style, they play 6 different movies simultaneously right next to each other at a volume level so obscene that even the two most distant movies totally drown each other out, and the hapless audience member is left with a punishing sonic coctail of noise and meaningless syllables. But none of the Thais seem to mind, because it sure does look cool:

King's Birthday Fest: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
King's Birthday Fest
Click here if image does not load automatically.

King's Birthday Fest: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
King's Birthday Fest
Click here if image does not load automatically.

5 Dec 2003

Today is the King's Birthday. This is a very big event in Thailand. It is a national holiday and the Thais reverently refer to it as "father's day." Even though it's about the King, fathers across the country use it as an excuse to expect extra cushy treatment from their children.

This is also the 1 day out of 365 that Uncle Leut and Auntie Nuu, the cooks at the food stall in the alley outside my guesthouse, take a vacation from their vigorous 8am-8pm work cycle. Yesterday they invited me to their house, which Uncle Leut said is "not far," so we could work on the menu. I meet Uncle Leut at 8:30 in the morning, and he's as spiffed up as a dark-skinned wiry Thai with bad teeth can possibly be. Today he retired his white undershirt and cooking bibb for a button-down dress shirt. Hair is combed and gelled to perfection.

First we take a little side trip by bus to Pahurat, an area in/near Chinatown with busy, thriving food markets. We walk down quite a few narrow side streets with interesting Chinese and Thai cooking ingredients and Uncle Leut tells me about them. Soon it becomes clear that I too am on display: Uncle Leut is bringing me by all the food vendors he knows, including some he used to work for 15 years ago, to show off his new farang friend. Everyone's stunned to see him walking around with some farang. Five, maybe six times he had to explain that it's "his friend" and he's "taking me around to see pahurat." He didn't mention the menu to them. One vendor even asked "hmm, so is this your daughter's friend?" to which he sharpy responds "no it's mine!" I wonder what kind of trouble his daughter had gotten herself into in order to elicit that comment...

We stop at one place and Uncle Leut buys some black preserved eggs. Then we march onward through clothing and jewelry districts until we meet the Chao Praya river and take the ferry across. This is Uncle's idea of "close?" But the adventure is to continue as we hop on an aircon bus and ride deep into Thonburi, past a monument to a pre-Chakri king, and into the 'burbs where department-store mega-corporations "Big C" and "Lotus" are busy converting greater Bangkok into a soulless Los Angeles-like sprawl.

Finally we arrive and take a cab into the side streets where we find his house, a pretty nice 2-story adjoining condo unit with its own fenced garden and patio out front. The place is actually quiet, a welcome change from my guesthouse where the ice shop below my room turns on its screaming saws and crushers from 4:30am till noon every day. Uncle Leut says he pays about 4000 baht ($100) a month for his place, if I remember correctly. This is the same amount he paid for a noisy, tiny apartment near his food stall in Bangkok.

He's got 3 daughters and they were on display as well. The younger daughters and his son pass through, wash the dogs, and do their other everyday tasks without seeming at all surprised that there is a farang in the house, at least not like corresponding folks I've seen outside Bangkok. Uncle's oldest daughter finally makes an appearance in the living room where I was sitting at my computer and working on the menu. In unusually slow and dramatic Thai, as if unveiling the last winning lottery number, he strains to point out "this is my oldest daughter. She graduated from Chulalungkorn," the most prestigious university in Bangkok. At this point he adds a dramatic pause and simply stares at me. I look at him, turn my head and look at her, and wonder when someone is going to say something. Very strange. I eventually break the stalemate with a somewhat enthusiastic "Ah." My impression is that she was also tired of being showcased by her father. Interestingly, after she leaves, he makes a subtly frustrated comment that the job she found after her Chula education pays very little, and that she likes to spend sooo much time doing (free) work at the local temple.

Anyway, he makes some lunch using "khao hom," a very nice smelling rice that he only uses for special occasions, along with a spicy stir fry of pork, basil leaf, and some of the black preserved egg (an ingredient which I described on the menu as "looks strange, tastes good"). It's good stuff, but the whole day I have been suffering from a day-long migraine-like mega-headache resulting from not getting any sleep the night before (maybe it was the ice crushers), and as part of that I also starting to feel nauseous. I decide that the shame of leaving a bunch of his delicious, expensive rice on the plate was better than the potential embarrasment and confusion of messing up his floor. Some guides on Thai customs even suggest that it is good to leave some food behind as it shows the extreme generosity of the host, but I'm not sure if he would think that way. I tell him it is delicious but I have run out of places in my stomach to put it.

We add the final items to the menu, and then he, his daughters and I use our limited English and Thai vocabularies to try and establish exactly what some of these dishes are! I eventually find a 20-question style pattern that does the trick ("does it involve noodles or rice?" "do the noodles go in the wok?" "what kind of meats can you make this with?" "what else goes in this dish?" etc.).

Finally, Auntie Nuu arrives. Uncle Leut said she was off doing something involving "get money" but I don't know what it was. It sounded like she was applying for a loan or something, but all banks would be closed today. Who knows.

Upon entering the door, of course, her first task is to feed me more food! I am not insistent enough and she ends up sending one of the daughters somewhere to buy noodle soup and a roti just for me. Hmm. I eat some of it but things are getting kind of ugly in my system.

We go out to take the photos, and fortunately Uncle and Auntie decide to put on their normal clothing for the head shots. Otherwise nobody would recognize their picture on the menus!

Finally, their son drives me on motorbike to the bus stop and I catch a 40 minute bus ride back to my guesthouse. It wasn't until this point that my headache went away.

I dump off my heavy computer gear and take another bus to sanam luang, the open field next to the Grand Palace, to see what is going on at ground zero for the King's birthday. The bus surprisingly makes it to within a few hundred yards of sanam luang, and then all traffic comes to a complete halt. A half-mile-long stretch of this main road has been completely shut down and lined on both sides with armed, sharp looking soldiers, spaced at 15 foot intervals, standing at attention at uniform angles. For 10 minutes, nothing happens. Then, finally, we watch a series of caravans go by, each consisting of 10-20 red Toyota sedans with flashing police lights carrying more soldiers, 10-20 identical mercedes Benzes with blacked windows, and 10-20 more security sedans. I would later learn that the King had just made his appearance and this was the royal train taking him and his untouchable extended family to some other unknown place where nobody was invited. The caravans keep coming, more and more, at least one a minute for at least 40 minutes. Who knew there were this many royals in Thailand? Not to mention this many Benzes—where do they park all these things? The scale of it is impressive, but also the nerve (traffic can stop when we need to go to our party), excessiveness, and pomposity of it was equally remarkable.

I hop off the bus, like most passengers, and follow the crowds the rest of the way. There are swarms of Thais, many more than the night before. It takes me 20 minutes just to find one of the places where the police are allowing people to cross the road in breaks between caravans. Being a head taller than most of the crowd really helped.

Finally I wade my way into the tens of thousands crammed into this giant field. By an extreme stroke of luck, there is a tall soft drink truck marooned near the edge of the throng and nobody has thought to climb it yet! Some other Thais and I get absolutely prime seating with an almost 180 degree view of the spectacle and just seconds later, everyone starts lighting their candle.

At one moment during the event, every Thai present lights a candle and sings a particular song to wish the King a long life, lifting the candle three times and screaming their lines at the climax of a script that they all knew by heart. It is very impressive indeed watching tens of thousands of Thais doing this in unison. Right after that point, fireworks start exploding over the Grand Palace and over the Democracy Monument. The fireworks show goes on for 15 or 20 minutes. It starts very impressively but, as with the Thai's use of shiny mirror tiles in temples or multicolor brake lights in tuk tuks, there is a certain lack of discipline about "saving the best for last" and it kind of peters out at the end. But no problem, as soon as most people have decided the fireworks are over, the dance/music stages lining the field and the new muay thai (thai boxing) ring in the center of the field come alive. They begin the muay thai with a couple rounds between foreigners and Thais, the Thai MC constantly making jabs about "let's see if those other countries understand our sport." The Thai guy kicked their ass, of course.

After hundreds have flooded past "our" soda truck and the crowd still doesn't seem to be getting any less dense, I decide it's time to go into the mess myself. The movie screens from the night before are gone, but the stages have the same kind of pop music and dance. There is a new stage with Thai classical dance and another with some kind of gymnastic show for the kids. At one corner of the field, there is a very fancily decorated, brightly lit platform with a big sign saying "barbequeued chicken for us Thais" or something like that, along with the King's portrait and "long live the King." Hundreds of people are lined up in an organized queue to get a chance to approach the center of the platform and accept a little free styrofoam box which presumably contains the royally patronized snack. What was this about? Free handouts from the King? Were the people lining up only supposed to be poor people who couldn't buy their own barbequeued chicken? Or maybe lots of Thais want to eat the auspicious food which is somehow associated with their King? Or maybe you're supposed to give the food to someone else or put it in your spirit house? Or are people just hungry and looking for some free food? I don't know. But, as with the royal auto train, they are clearly very interested in making sure this scene doesn't degenerate into the usual Thai mob—there's an organized Disneyland-like line with uniformed line guards posted every 10 feet to keep it straight and keep too many people from bunching up in one place. I'd never seen this anywhere in the country.

The music pounds on for hours. In another corner, I believe in the place where the King must have made his appearance, is the muckety-muck stage. I seem to have made it in time for the also-rans. Well-dressed steering committees, organizing committees, uniformed military authorities, and politicians come up making hugely boring speeches where every 10th word is 'krap', a polite particle used to formalize speech. I am surprised that hundreds of Thais are standing watching. One committee is introduced to the crowd as the one which organized the events at sanam luang. A General makes a long speech and then the band starts playing some sappy Kenny-G-style light jazz with a clarinet solo. I sincerely hope they are not playing this music because it's one of the compositions attributed to the King, but I think not because the King is famous for being a saxaphone player.

6 Dec 2003

I have been carrying a package from my Thai teacher in Fremont, a birthday present for her niece Num. I finally get around to delivering the package when I visit my Thai teacher's parents in outer Bangkok. The couple, both around seventy-five, still take a long busride and exercise for several hours every morning! Although the mother is starting to forget things, I can only hope that I will have as much energy and good spirit in me when I am their age. They truly expemplify the idea of making life 'sanuk' (fun) for which Thailand is so famous. Despite resistance from some of their children, this couple is even going to travel to India in a month or two in order to visit several sacred Buddhist sights!

I visit Chatuchak market with my Thai teacher's niece Num and her friend, and despite there being tens or perhaps hundreds of shops selling flip-flops, I am unable to find any that are big enough for my feet! Oh well, the usual!

Not feeling so hot this evening (sleep schedule keeps flipping around) so I reture early.

7 Dec 2003

On this lazy Sunday, I lay out the menu for Uncle Leut and Auntie Nuu on my computer. Maybe someday when I run out of money, I can make a business out of this and go around Thailand with a laptop and an inkjet printer, exchanging English signs and menus for room and board.

I realize the heavy wall-wart power supply for my Palm, which I have lugged across the ocean, only works at 110V. So I make a quick trip to Panthip Plaza to get another one. I have this idea to bring my video processing program (which I had brought to Burning Man several times) to Pai, the relaxing hippie town in the north, and I shop around for a suitable video camera and USB/1394 video capture device. Alas, everything is really expensive and they won't let you try any of the video interfaces without buying them first. Hm.

Outside Panthip, I meet an aussie who's just come back from 3 months exploring China. He's about like me—works during a bunch of the year, then takes of travelling for the rest. But he's got a kid back home, I'm not sure what age. He says the kid thinks it's great that he travels around all the time and wishes he could follow.

I walk from Panthip in some random direction and end up in front of the World Trade Center, a huge shopping mall which, oddly enough, has been renamed the Central World Plaza :) But everyone still calls it the WTC. Outside the mall there are four or five bright, elaborate stages with pop music, loud speakers, and large audience areas with 50-100 tables for each stage. Each stage is sponsored by a different beer company and their corporate logos appear in giant letters everywhere, from the sheer walls bordering each company's territory to the skimpy outfits of the ladies they've hired to attract customers into their beer garden. Everything about the presentation is modern and spotless—the decor is top notch with the best sign printing, there's theater lights and custom neon signs set up in impressive arrangements, and usually there's a large rear-projection video screen showing a sporting event for added "entertainment." On one stage, a group of twenty-something Thais belts out covers of "Wham" and Kate Moss. There's food stalls with a variety of foods (mostly salty, dry foods—can't imagine why), and a horde of waiters who would be happy to ask you what you'd like to drink. In one booth, they have a whole pig on a barbeque spit and I order some pork over rice. The waiter is very confused that I don't want anything to drink. Another booth proudly claims "We have the best Philly cheesesteaks!" and their touts busily target every farang who walks by. They have trouble pronouncing their product though, and I'm sure my friends from the East Coast would not approve of the ingredients or preparation.

These elaborate beer gardens are springing up all over Bangkok. Carlsberg, Beer Chang, and the other giant companies apparently think they are a great way to promote the product, though I rarely see even a tiny fraction of the tables occupied.

8 Dec 2003

A professor from Rajabhat Suan Dusit had contacted me via e-mail about maybe doing a large order of my Palm OS Thai-English dictionary, so today I go to visit him. It's a skytrain and 20 minute busride away, near a former King's palace and the Bangkok Zoo. The Rajabhats are entirely government-owned Universities in Thailand with fairly high entrance criteria and some association with the royal family. They have fairly high prestige, not as high as private Chulalungkorn or Thammasat university, but not bad either. Suan Dusit is sort of the premiere one in the country, sort of like the UC Berkeley is to the entire UC system in California.

They give me the grand tour of the place. On this small campus, there is a program in hotel management and tourism (in which my hosts teach), another one in cooking, a program in management, and more traditional "Thai" programs. The campus is unbelievably well-equipped. In the brand-new library building, there are hundreds of modern computers on every floor, available for anyone to use, as well as a huge book collection. There's an elaborate audio/video section with video editing rooms and they apparently produce some programs that go on air. There is an operating hotel on campus, complete with several hundred rooms, a restaurant, a swimming pool, meeting rooms, and other facilities, which the students of the hotel management program operate in order to gain practical experience. I'm not sure they even tell the guests that this is a teaching hotel! The cooking school was started by some very well-connected lady and serves some Suan Dusit students, but mostly rich, bored housewives and others in multi-thousand-baht cooking programs. The shining "kitchen laboratory" is equipped with all the latest stuff for making food from around the world and there is a "kitchen classroom" wired with video cameras and high-end plasma displays. Apparently, famous chefs from Thailand arnd around the world also come here to compete! I wonder if Chairman Kaga (sp) has been there. There is an operating bakery on campus, the "Home" bakery, and its products are shipped all across the country every day. In fact, the hotel, cooking school, and bakery are highly profitable for the University! My hosts tell me that the Thais see no problem with this at all, no conflict of interest between good education and profitability—in fact, the school administrator has been known to chastise the other departments, asking why they don't have a profit center like the hotel or bakery!

The prospect for selling dictionaries is distant but interesting. The professors, two Americans, one of whom grew up in the same city as me, have been teaching about hospitality, hotel management, and tourism in Thailand for a while but are somewhat frustrated that no school they work for ever seems to come up with any kind of organized curriculum! This school, though it does not pay as well as the others, is letting them design a complete 4-year program from scratch, including all the course subjects, choice of textbooks, and teaching materials. As part of their new program, they want to equip each student with a Palm PDA loaded with various organizing and teaching tools. It's apparently an easy sell to the school administration as it makes their program have an uncommon luster of being "high-technology" and using the latest tools, something which is extremely trendy in funding circles right now. My hosts are busy courting the government as well as companies like Palm and Microsoft for seed funding. They even think they can get grants from American investment banks who want to be seen as "supporting new technology" in Thailand. I wish them luck, not only with the funding but with their quest to try and bring clarity in any form to a large Thai institution.

9 Dec 2003

Lastnight and all today, I work on the menu and putz around with other nerd stuff on my computer some more, making occasional trips to the fast internet connection at Mah Boon Krong.

This trip is different from the last trips; I moved out of my apartment at home and sold my car. This trip is partly about exploring more of Thailand for fun, but also partly about working and living. I am doing some touring and working, but I'm still not used to the "living" idea. The fact that I am not sinking huge amounts of cash into rent back home still hasn't sunk into my thick skull. I am constantly catching myself falling back into the "standard" idea that I need to move on quickly like a tourist, not wasting precious days in any one place, because my trip will be over soon. It will take me many months to really adjust to the idea that I may be here for a longer time. The only major factor that may stand in the way of this plan is the hot season; so far, I have not been able to find a place in the country where I can stay in April-July without melting. But I think it's worth looking some more.

At some point, after I'm touristed out, I will need to pick a place and actually get some housing for a longer term than one day! Right now I am paying the equivalent of $375/mo for daily rent of a dumpy aircon+1bath room in a noisy but centrally located guesthouse. But if you pay by the month, you can find a quieter, larger (non-serviced) aircon apartment for more like $140-$250/month depending on location, and much cheaper outside Bangkok.

As for work, I am doing more technical and promotion work on my dictionary, and I am working on other products and projects which I hope will eventually allow me to support my tourism habit.

10 Dec 2003

Today, I met up with Tom, who used to work with me at Generic Media in Menlo Park before our dot com poofed out with the rest of them. Tom is now doing sysadmin work for EGV, a big movie theater chain. The good part is that he gets all the free movies he wants. The bad part is that he is technical support for the entire organization. His cellphone rings off the hook at all hours of the day, including weekends.

We go to a noodle place and thanks to Tom I finally understand, after years of confusion and laughs at my orders, that there are two kinds of noodle shops in Thailand, "Thai" ones that serve noodles with fish balls, and "Chinese" ones that serve noodles with red-spiced roast pork/duck and won-ton like thingies. This is one of those things that's just "obvious" to any Thai, like the seasons or the bus fares, but which there is no way on earth a visitor could know without being told.

In one corner of Siam Square, Tom points out a new marketing concept being tried out in Bangkok, "Coffee Banking:"

Coffee Banking: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Coffee Banking
Click here if image does not load automatically.

Here we see a branch of Kasikorn Bank (Thai Farmer's Bank) which shares their property with none other than Starbucks. Local Thais here joke that the combination works because the lines for the ATMs and tellers are so long that you have plenty of time for a coffee and snacks while you wait.

Starbucks is making appearances all over the country. Many Starbucks branches in Bangkok are bringing another inevitable bit of technology to Thailand—802.11 "WiFi" technology. This is the wireless network that lets you browse the 'net from your laptop anywhere in (or around!) the shop. But they don't just offer a free and clear net connection as a loss leader like Starbucks and other companies in the US. You have to purchase a card with a PIN and enter it into your laptop to connect, after "configuring" your laptop, and you pay by the minute. For now, Starbucks and other companies are giving away the cards for free, but in my opinion, they have completely missed the point—WiFi attracts customers because they can just walk up, buy a coffee, and start browsing. Once it becomes a matter of "configuring" and dealing with inconvenient cards, it's a technocratic joke.

Tom says that ADSL is also making inroads. You can get it in most places in Bangkok, and some places in other big cities (including Ko Samui, the tiny, distant, tourist-infested island in the south where they recently built an airstrip!). But it is still very expensive. A 128-256kps line might cost several hundred dollars per month, making it laughable for the majority of Thais (and most Americans for that matter). But some companies are starting to offer low-speed ADSL (e.g. ISDN speeds like 64kbps with ADSL technology) for much less. We'll see. I am paying close attention to this because it will be one of the key things that determines when/if I can settle down in Thailand. I depend on net access for living like other people might depend on nearby nightlife or family.

Tom and I head over to Lumpini Park, a big open green area with paths and lagoons. Some of it has been renovated since my last visit 2-3 years ago. There's still piles of Thais accumulating for the evening Aerobics session, something I don't understand in any country—why do you need a leader and an official sanctioned event to just move your body around a lot?

We eat yummy garlic-ful Korean BBQ at a place on Silom road and check out the mixed-up markets around there. It is so very relaxing walking around Bangkok with a Thai person. Without needing to do any work, they literally act as a human spam filter. Not once did any tuk tuk driver say "hello! my friend! where you go today? want sex-ee mov-ee?," something that happens at least twice per minute when I am walking alone and which, along with the exhaust fumes and mosquitos, forms part of the background noise that farangs take for granted as part of the Thailand experience. We walk through Patpong and try to evade touts luring us into the "ping pong show" and "lovely ladies" in the go-go bars. This place hasn't changed one tiny bit.

Today I also finally finished, printed, and laminated the menus for Uncle Leut and Auntie Nuu:

Menu for Uncle and Auntie: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Menu for Uncle and Auntie
Click here if image does not load automatically.

Menu for Uncle and Auntie: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Menu for Uncle and Auntie
Click here if image does not load automatically.

I also made them a laminated eye-catching sign to bring in the farangs:

Sign for Uncle and Auntie: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Sign for Uncle and Auntie
Click here if image does not load automatically.

They seemed to like them.

2/2005 Update: sadly, or perhaps fortunately for them, Uncle Leut and Auntie Nuu have retired after decades of making food in the Soi and are now back in Si Saket.

11-12 Dec 2003

Slept in late and putzed around with more computer stuff. Wrote these journal entries (lots of work you know?). Had lunch with a friend of another Thai teacher, a Chulalungkorn student who is about as close as you're going to get to a social rebel in Thai culture, who gave me some interesting perspectives on how Thai culture has changed since my Thai teachers lived in Thailand!

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My English-fluent Thai friend Jeed is a freelance illustrator who is available for hire.
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