Journal 12/26/99: Bangkok, Family, and Kanchanaburi

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

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Dec 26-30 1999

Leave SFO for 18 hours of plane travel. Meet my girlfriend Nang and travel to the northeast of Thailand to the Khao Yai Garden Lodge, a guesthouse where Nang works as a jungle guide. Nang is fluent in English and knows a ton about the plant and animal species in Khao Yai National Forest, especially birds and wild orchids.

Dec 31 1999-Jan 1 2000

Travel to Bangkok with Nang for a New Year's eve splurge in the Oriental Hotel. The Oriental is one of the world's best hotels and certainly the fanciest in Bangkok. The place is more than 120 years old and has several times more staff members than guests.

The oldest building of the hotel complex is the "author's wing." The walls of the author's wing, where every room is named after someone like Joseph Conrad who stayed there, are lined with old pictures of royal family members and events which occurred at the Oriental. You can sit in the lobby of this wing (even without buying a room :) and have English tea at its most stuffy and formal. While we were sitting there having our 350 Baht tea and dessert from sparkling silver trays, a bunch of hard-core brits, one in an incredibly ugly bright green plaid suit, winged on about who's who (and who's still alive) in the British lordship scene, complained about this and that, and generally looked down on the local colonists. It was as if these people had been taking tea in this room for 100 years and hadn't noticed the outside world change.

We also visited the Oriental's sprawling campus across the river from the hotel. They have a Thai cooking school, a Thai cultural center where rich folk can go listen to academic lectures of various sorts, a full sports center, and a health spa. The health spa was absolutely amazing. Done up floor to ceiling in dark, beautifully stained wood in a Japanese style, the look, sound, feel, and smell of the building made you relaxed just standing in it. Much more relaxed than you would be if you actually paid for one of their outrageously priced mud baths, manicures, massages, meditation lessons, herbal treatments, .... You can also visit this place without buying a room (the drivers of the boat crossing the river do not ask if you are a guest).

The room cost $400 (and I had to convince them not to have to pay another $300 for their "compulsory" New Year's eve gala dinner). This splurge was approximately 40 times what I pay per night in Bangkok guesthouses, even more than that for places outside of Bangkok. The room was very large with lots of amenities like bathrobes, a bathroom larger than most of my guesthouse rooms, and a platter with a new tropical fruit each day! I was surprised to see that the shower hardware in my room was slightly broken (drain did not seal). This seemed pretty amazing for a $400 room. They came and "fixed" it soon enough (with a letter opener), but for $400 it seems like they could afford to check the place periodically. Especially since our room was in the newest wing with no historical excuses.

All in all I'd say this place is definitely not worth staying for more than 1 day, but maybe worth 1 day to soak up all the weird ambiance. Then again you can see most of it by just walking in. By the way, the Oriental lobby is the only place I have ever seen in Thailand which does not allow thongs (and this restriction only applies after 6pm).

Nang and I definitely avoided the dreary "New Year's Eve Gala Dinner" the Oriental was putting on, complete with a 100 foot long buffet table, painful Big Bang music, and (the most telling warning sign) a big Lawrence-Welk-esque plastic bubble in the middle of the swimming pool filled with spinning balloons. The Oriental's Concierge was also completely useless in recommending us a nice simple place to get New Year's Eve dinner. They seemed only able to recommend restaurants in their hotel (all closed tonight thanks to the gala) and other large hotels. I'm hoping that this is not the normal level of concierge service and that it was just a quirk for New Year's since most guests paid for the $300 gala dinner.

So we headed off to Silom road and wandered around. We found this really great Mediterranean place on Soi Convent that had a delicious, quiet, candle-lit 9-course prix fixe dinner. A much better deal in my opinion than being crushed in Time Square or beer-spilled in some bar, the only distraction at midnight was that one of the staff blasted Carmina Burana (sp) as a joke. It was especially funny given all the grim predictions of the millenium disaster.

The next afternoon we sat and watched fireworks and stressful Y2K missile tests on TV as midnight streaked across the United States. As far as I can tell nothing serious broke anywhere, except that everyone in the world tried to use their mobile phone at midnight and then wondered why they could not connect :)

Later on the 1st we looked around Bangkok unsuccessfully for the latest Bond Flick and ended up eating at an Indian restaurant on Khao San road. This was the first time Nang had seen this amazing travellers' ghetto (see notes on last trip). Nang returned to Khao Yai for work.

Jan 2-4 2000

Hanging out in Bangkok. Slept a lot, visited Vimanmek Teak Mansion (a tourist attraction you get for free if you visit the Grand Palace), checked up on some local agencies for a friend.

Jan 5-7 2000

Visited Nang's family in Nang Rong (near Buriram) for the second time.

One day the family told me they were going fishing. We all piled on a pickup truck and went to the family's rice fields, one small square of which was dug deeper to form a pond. I was a little confused to see that the family brought no fishing poles or nets. Soon a guy showed up with a Kubota Mini-tractor and another guy showed up with this 20' long pipe contraption. Lashing the tractor's crankshaft to part of the pipe contraption with a makeshift structure of sticks driven into the ground, they placed the pipe into the water and proceeded to pump all of the water out of the pond into adjacent squares of the rice field! Then, they just went into the 2-4' deep mud at the bottom of the pond and caught all the squirming fish with their hands. Although I ended up ruining a pair of pants, and although it would probably make my doctor faint, I had, to their surprise, to try this particular style of fishing. It was surprisingly hard to grab the slimy fish, especially the Catfish which could cause injury if grabbed from the wrong end. Over the next days the family gave away a large portion of the fish to neighbors, and then they deep-fried and dried the remaining fish so that they would last a long time with no refrigeration.

It seems that anytime anyone harvests anything around here, they give a lot of the crop to their neighbors for free. When one farming family has hard times, the other families pitch in to help. When people need capital equipment or supplies and cannot afford them, they regularly ask family members or neighbors for large loans with unspecified payment terms. There are a number of other schemes (some illegal, though not malevolent) by which farming communities commonly pool money and spread risk around. This place would make an accountant faint, but somehow it works out.

On another day I took a several hour walk along various dirt roads in the area. I met a pack of kids just out of school, ranging from (I'm guessing) 1st grade to middle school age. They were all very excited to practice their English and we sat there trying to read and speak each other's language for at least 45 minutes. The kids were especially interested in finding out what was written on their own t-shirts.

On the last evening the whole family ate at a restaurant next to the bus station. Nang's father ordered perhaps the most dangerous dish I have tried in Thailand—raw Beef Larb. This meat and basil and mint salad was totally uncooked and floating in the original blood. But I had to try just a little. And I'm still alive, how strange. It didn't taste a lot different from normal cooked Larb, although of course the texture was quite different.

Jan 8-10 2000

More hanging out at the Khao Yai Garden Lodge while Nang works. I took several wanders a few miles out from the Garden Lodge.

One day, there was a nasty car accident right outside of the Garden Lodge involving a crushed pickup truck and a jeep that flipped 3 times. There was a huge crowd of onlookers. The police showed up in minutes to interview everyone. One car had serious injuries and the jeep passengers, one of whom was ejected to the ground as it spun, amazingly had only minor injuries. You could see that the Thai police and the various support agencies like the tow-truck folks were completely used to this daily occurrence. In fact, as soon as word came out about the accident, one enterprising vendor rolled his food stand onto the scene and started selling fruits and candies. Quite surreal. I wonder whether the vendor has a deal with the tow truck company or the police.

Jan 10-17 2000

While Nang continued to work in Khao Yai, I travelled to Kanchanaburi, a touristy town west of Bangkok which is famous for the "bridge over the river Kwai." A long stretch of guesthouses, farang restaurants, bars, and (ack) disco barges along the river bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the Khao San traveller's ghetto in Bangkok. As far as I can tell, the river area of this town has been completely spoiled. It was quite comparable to Fisherman's Wharf or the Golden Gate Bridge areas of San Francisco: large concrete observation decks surrounded by souvenir hock shops and large, low-quality restaurants offering slightly better views of the attraction for a high price.

Local attractions include the rather unimpressive bridge itself, several war cemeteries with Australian, Dutch, and British graves, some cave wats, and a very well-done, very depressing museum called the JEATH war museum (JEATH=Japan, England, Australia/America, Thailand, Holland). The museum was created by and is run by a monk who has recreated several POW huts and filled them with amazing photographs, artifacts, and news articles about the conditions the POWs faced in building this long railroad to Burma. Some of the articles also mention the almost complete historical inaccuracy of the movie that made this place famous.

I rented a bicycle and visited one cemetery. It was just me and several hundred Thai boy scouts and girl scouts on an outing. Most of them didn't really seem to understand what the cemetery was about. The scout leaders were marching them down the road from attraction to attraction in packs of about 30, complete with flags.

Interestingly, you can freely walk across the Bridge over the River Kwai even though it is a narrow, actively used railroad bridge. I was never there when a train was coming but I wonder what precautions the Thais take to prevent tourists from getting ploughed over. There were small platforms at roughly 10 foot intervals on the bridge where you could stand while a train comes by.

For a day trip I visited Erawan waterfall. I have seen many waterfalls in Thailand and Lao but this one, with seven levels of turquoise water over beautiful calcite-crusted limestone formations, really takes the prize. Each level was an amazing postcard site. It took about 2 hours to get to the highest level, stopping to swim or hang out occasionally. One site had a natural whirlpool that beat most tubs from Jacuzzi Inc. The higher you went, the fewer other tourists you had to deal with :) The more adventurous crowd at the 7th level soon discovered that the rock over which the water was flowing was as rough as sandpaper, and you could climb up the water to what might be considered an 8th and 9th level. At the 9th level, all of the water which "powers" the waterfall pours out of an incredibly narrow (but undoubtedly very deep) hole in a cave. At this point there is no whitewater and it seems impossible that all the sites you have just seen on the hike up can originate with this stream. The Erawan area also has a 1km nature walk through the forest and plenty of places to eat meals as part of a day trip. It is definitely worth catching the earliest possible bus out of Kanchanaburi for the best hike temperatures and fewest tourists.

The tourist density of Kanchanaburi, coupled with the mediocre air and disco barges, were starting to get to me. So I headed north-east to a small town called Sangkhlaburi, only about 20 minutes from the Burmese border (Three Pagodas Pass). This place is exactly what I needed. Even the bus ride to Sangkhlaburi, on a windy switchback road with views of beautiful lakes separated by tall, green, round-top pointy hills and the occasional wooden building or hut, relieved the strain of Kanchanaburi. I stayed at a simple bungalow-style guesthouse called the Burmese Inn in a quiet, green river valley. In the distance you can see a wooden bridge that leads to a Mon village which you can visit and go shopping or visit wats. Life is much more relaxed here, with no disco barges or Karaoke, no tuk-tuks, and only a handful of guesthouses. One some days I did basically nothing except sit in my hammock, which was good. One day we rented a boat and travelled around the lake to see the beautiful sights. They wanted to take us to various tourist things like a sunken temple or the Mon village but we told them to just go around in the water! There were also many beautiful and colorful birds. If Nang was there then I'd know exactly which one and their nesting habits :)

I took a short trip to the Burmese border but discovered that entry to Burma requires leaving your passport with Thai officers in Sangkhlaburi and then paying the Myanmar Government US$15, neither of which I wanted to do. But I hear there are interesting things in the market in the town just across the border.

One day I tried to get to the Burmese border but instead took the wrong bus to some other remote village in Thailand. This turned out to be more interesting because the driver, a school teacher (it seemed like everyone in the transportation industry was moonlighting from their teaching job) knew about as much English as I knew Thai and so we ended up talking about life and politics in this area. He ended up charging me nothing for the whole trip!

A couple at my guesthouse had rented a motorcycle and travelled towards a relatively new national park with no marked trails. They intended to hire a guide, but on the way to the headquarters they met these two Thai folks working on some construction project. One of them offered (with minimal English) to show them the waterfall. He proceeded to spend the entire day showing them cool stuff in the park, him driving his 4x4 truck and them driving their motorcycles behind. Again he asked for nothing. I wonder if he'll ever finish his construction project!

I also noticed that the little high school in Sangkhlaburi had a large computer room and a large, separate "audio room." Not sure what that was about, perhaps a language lab. But it was impressive to see that they were well-equipped. I wonder how the teaching was.

Jan 16-20 2000

Back in Bangkok, I wanted to find out what the Computer scene in Thailand was like. So I visited the #1 university in Thailand, which was right next to where I was staying, Chulalunkorn.

On the first day I was just pretty much wandering aimlessly until an enthusiastic PhD student flagged me down next to the language department. We ended up striking up a conversation that lasted well through dinner. He was an international business student studying Thai, English, Spanish, and Chinese! He was obviously a hardcore workaholic and as I met his friends, they confirmed this. We stopped at a little cafe run by one of his grad student friends, where I started to understand that pretty much all the grad students here lead hellishly busy lives because they must work a half-time work schedule along with a full-time class and teaching schedule in order to pay the bills. In fact, while I was talking with the workaholic grad student, he was talking about a postdoctoral candidate and then pointed out that the uniformed guy sweeping leaves in the courtyard behind us was the same person. "Yes, he studies political science starting early morning and then at night he is the gardener."

I ate Sukiyaki at Mah Boon Krong with the 4 students. The conversation occasionally became political. One thing I discovered is that nearly every Chula student I met, in both the Political Science and Engineering departments, is really angry at the US in particular for its "imperialistic" behavior regarding the WTO elections and the IMF. Thais always try to be courteous and non-confrontational but you can tell that these students are really pissed off about the USA's recent actions. The students became very uncomfortable whenever our conversation moved in a political direction. I think maybe it's because they were worried about offending me. They were not worried that others in the room could hear them (I asked), so it wasn't a Malaysia-like concern over government persecution. One of the guys at the table told me about a really good Thai-language political newsletter, critical of the US, that recently disappeared from the shelves. This guy was 100% convinced that the CIA purchased all of the copies of this newsletter in order to gag it. Never ones to offend, the other three at the table looked at me, said "uh, yes, SOME Thais believe that," and smiled.

I learned that some Thai university students in previous decades were shot and killed during protests, and that students all around the country rally around this event to form a kind of movement that may one day be very powerful in Thailand. That is, assuming the students stop worrying about whether they have the latest fashionable color and style for their mobile phone. I read a modern article about the demise of university political activists (who, strangely enough, were referred to as "flower people" in the era of the university shootings). Supposedly they have been replaced by indifferent, materialistic students.

The next day, I actually found the Faculty (department) of engineering. In this case the first person to grab me was a freshman kid. I discovered that at Chulalunkorn University, like many US universities, there is a slang English word for first year students. The thing is, nobody on campus quite seems to know what it is. Some people said "Froshies," others said "Freshies," and others said something like "frish...fresh...eshman" but never really completed the word.

Anyway, this Frosh, Khett, was still trying to decide what to major in and seemed interested in finding out what I was looking for. He took me to the computer science department, a very sleek modern place occupying 5 floors of a new high-rise on campus, equipped with relatively modern machines (some Suns but mostly modern PCs). There was a modern logic design lab and lots of nice other labs and offices. Khett asked around and brought me to a professor who teaches Data Structures.

We talked for quite some time about the Thai scene of companies and opportunities. The CS professor explained that there were a lot of computer software companies in Thailand, but the vast majority of them were medium to large companies on contract with the Thai government or Thai banks to do boring, large-scale database maintenance and administration (ok, he didn't say boring). There were a few small companies doing educational software (and I later talked to one of these companies at a technology fair). The Thai government is attempting to stimulate small software company creation with some kind of subsidized office space and capital program called "Software Park." But the CS professor says it has been a total failure, probably due to corruption or just total incompetence about what it takes to make small software companies. The other rub, of course, is that Thai people almost never buy software (or music) because piracy is the norm. So there is little or no motivation for companies to develop software that is not customized to each customer. I found that everyone I met in Thailand in the software business had a firmly implanted sense of denial about the magnitude of piracy in Thailand and the effectiveness of recent anti-piracy government programs.

The professor was fluent in English and Khett was barely understanding, but it seemed that Khett was fascinated anyway. I thanked Khett as soon as he introduced me to the CS professor, but to my surprise he stayed around the whole time! Later he said that he wanted to listen because he had never been any of the places that we went, had no idea that they even existed, and thought they were neat (whatever they were)! Who knows, maybe Khett will choose Computer Science now.

From the CS professor I found out about various other groups doing work in Thai speech and text recognition and generation, areas which I am interested in. Khett helped me go to 2 other buildings in the Electrical Engineering department to visit professors and grad students in these areas. These folks were at the same time pleased and confused that a farang would visit who was interested in Thai language applications of computer science. I talked with one grad student about speech recognition for about an hour, and got a long list of email addresses to contact. He had built a complete list of vowel-consonant combinations that occur in Thai, which when printed is little more than kindling for most people but is quite interesting for language nerds like me.

When I left Khett he was headed to one of these "education booster" schools that have cropped up like bamboo around Chulalunkorn. I still don't quite understand whether Khett was a student or a teacher at this school. It seems that parents can send their kids to these private night schools as a supplement to high school and/or college so that they can have an advantage over other students. These booster schools all have super-expensive modern decor with TVs and shiny curved plastic everywhere, very similar to the movie theaters and sticker shops in the trendy upmarket shopping malls nearby. Somehow it seemed very Bangkok: rich parents will use any means to overdrive their kids to success, and the trait they look for in night- schools is an expensive look. Judging by the crowd around the schools, these seem to be the same kids (and parents) who walk around Bangkok wearing custom-styled pagers and mobile phones and dress in the latest bulimic fashions when not in their undergraduate uniforms.

Khett was very interested in exchanging e-mail and in a few days I received this [reformatted to fit margin]:

   This is my first letter that I send to foreigner friend.So,if
   there are something wrong,such as words or grammar,
   I hope you don't care about these.
   I forget to tell you something,too. Something in Thailand that I
   tell you,education system in its weak point,these are my 
   attitude.It is the attitude that one student in Thailand look.
   But in my country, It still have many things that look very good.

I have to go now,don't forget to send me your letter back.

This follows a pattern I have seen from many Thai students. If they have something critical to say about Thailand, they will always wrap it in a nice little package like the paragraph above. And they will always say "this is my opinion" as if they are a spokesman from some company and are worried about making a statement representing someone else :) And there will always be a bright side included.

The next day, I went wandering around the Computer Science building. I came across a lab with some interesting projects on the wall. The first thing I noticed was that about half of the grad students in this lab were female, amazing for a country where nearly every job listing in the English-language Bangkok Post (technical or otherwise) specifies "Male" as a prerequisite. I don't think that this lab was representative of the whole department, but at any rate it was promising. I asked the women grad students what they thought about the job listings. They definitely did not approve, but they pretty much assumed (perhaps idealistically) that if a job opportunity came up, and they were qualified, the hiring manager would overlook their gender. At the same time, they firmly believed that certain jobs should still be the exclusive domain of men. This included traveling salesman and marketing jobs. I never really figured out why they believed this because it was slightly difficult to get them to discuss it. I also noticed that in this group of people, the women had much better English.

I talked to many of the grad students and one professor there for about 3 hours. They seemed to welcome the opportunity not to work for a whole afternoon :) We talked some about their projects but mostly about my experiences with Thailand as compared with the US. As on the day before, the students here were very confused why a US-educated computer science student would have any interest in Thailand. Most of them said they would rather work outside of Thailand when their school was complete, or become professors.

The only thing which interrupted our conversation was the very important, nightly, scheduled, multiplayer starcraft game. The lab I was in and the adjacent lab have been playing a 2-team, 8-person game per night for many months. Good to see that some aspects of university computer science education are universal :)

Jan 20-23 2000

Mostly hung out in Bangkok with Nang preparing for a trip to the south. Had a cool seafood dinner on the Chao Praya riverside (Yok Yor seafood resto) with Doug, a US expat friend of Nang's who really made me understand that the longer you stay in this country, the weirder things get. Doug teaches (psychology? Thai history?) at a very expensive university in Bangkok. He reports some amazing stories of who-you-know and corruption at these exclusive universities. On several occasions, after Doug gave failing grades to completely incompetent students (who are apparently quite common at these places; sometimes they never even come to class), his supervisors threatened him with "do you know who his/her father is?" Then Doug received similar phone calls from his/her father (General this or Vice President that or Minister other), and when he still refused to play the game, the university simply changed the student's grade from the one Doug chose to a passing grade. It seems that if there is going to be any organized youth revolution in Thailand, it's definitely not coming from today's rich kids!

Interestingly, Doug was not penalized for refusing to lie about his students' performance. The university even gave him a big raise to keep him from switching to another university! Seems to be another case where the truth is not so important as saving face for the rich parents, and the university can do that just fine without Doug's cooperation.

We watched the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra play western show tunes in Lumpini park and checked out Doug's cushy apartment (complete with daily linen service!). Apparently you can live pretty well on a university teaching salary, though Doug did say both the search for the good apartment and the teaching job were very difficult.

I also ate at one of a strip of good Indian restaurants on a Soi of Sukhumvit road adjacent to the Nana elevated train station. During dinner, an understated Thai businessman and his loud Indian partner traded veiled threats across an adjacent table. Like a scene out of the Godfather, the Indian man referred to their long business partnership, his connections with the influential Kun so-and-so, and continued to ask "how could you do this?", "I have other sources you know.", "I don't need you but I've been very generous." Clearly he wanted to scream at the man and stomp on the table but was summoning all his self-restraint to maintain the calm demeanor needed for success in Thai negotiations.

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