April 2003 Archives

On the Road Again

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My life this past week has been labouring under the shadow of the upcoming final exams. I had to make three exams this time: one each for my two classes and one for a student who missed the mid-term and got permission from the University to take the Final "double or nothing".

I have also been trying to plan a road trip with my Singaporean friend Jui. He needs to make a Visa run to the border, so I offered to take him to Vietianne. The trains are full (again) and so we are taking the overnight bus. Am I doing it out of the kindness of my heart? Sacrificing my free 3-day weekend (I get Monday off) to travel across the country?

Or is it just an excuse to get on the road again and re-visit my second favorite Asian country in the world?

Mahakan Fort

I just did some research on the Net to fill on the holes in my Lonely Planet book. The fort that I visted yesterday is one of two surving forts built to protect Bangkok during the reign of King Rama I. There were originally 14 forts along the moated and walled city.

The one I visted is called Mahakan Fort. It's larger and more well-known sister is called Fort Phrasumain and is located on the banks of the Chao Phraya River. Interestingly, it has already been turned into a park at the base of the brand new Rama VIII bridge.

Playing Bangkok Tourist

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Today I played tourist. The soi that I live on has several guesthouses, so I picked one to start my day with an American Breakfast (figuring that's the tourist thing to do). The breakfast was edible, and so that's all I have to say about that.

Walking back past my apartment, I went to the San Saep Canal where I caught the taxi boat that carries people through the heart of the city. I usually take this west to Bangkapi, but today I took it to the east, towards the Grand Palace.

The boat ride doesn't go all the way to the River, as I had hoped, but instead stops near the Democracy Monument. But I found out that there are some interesting sites to see in that area:

* First, I wandered into what looked like an old fort. It was not on my Lonely Planet map (grr) and I had no idea what it was. What I found there was quite interesting though: Inside the walls of the fort, a small village of 150 year old wooden houses exists. Apparently, next week all of the people who live here are being evicted so that the government can build a park. I agree that it would be nice to make the historical area accessible to visitors, but I think that the people who live there should be allowed to stay as well. Hopefully they can find a compromise soon.

* Across the street from the fort, Laha Prasat is a unique white, black, and red colored "temple". It had 7 levels that were reached by climbing a circular staircase in the center of the building. Each level is a little bit smaller than the one below it and many of them contain Buddha images in all positions. I really enjoyed walking through and marvelling at the interesting symetrical architecture.

* I climbed to the top of The Golden Mount, which has a golden chedi on top of a man-made hill. Even though the hill is not very tall, it is just tall enough so that you can get a good view of Bangkok. I could even see both of the two apartment buildings I have lived in from here.

* I then walked a kilometer or two down a wide tree-lined yet empty street to Wat Benchamabophit, the Marble Temple. The temple itself, made of white marble, is beautiful, but I thought the best part was its collection of Buddha images. The images are in all different poses, and are from different countries (even Japan!) and different time periods. Each has a sign in Thai and English describing the pose, where the image was found, and when it was made. Very educational!

* Most of this tour I was alone. It was very strange to walk down the big avenues and not see anyone around. That all changed when I visited the Dusit Zoo. The zoo is exactly what I would expect in Bangkok: crowded, noisy, dusty, and unorganized. But these things don't make it a bad place. It was actually kinda fun to walk around and see all of the Thai families picnicing around the big lake in the middle of the zoo, or to see small kids straining on tip-toe to peer inside an animal cage.

I finished the day getting a massage. My friend Mag took me to a new place and not only was it super-cheap (even by Bangkok standards) it was also the best massage I have ever had. One and a half hours of bliss, although I think I was only awake for an hour of it! The perfect end to a day of exploring.

Freshmen Presentations

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In my Introduction to Computers class, I had my students (mostly Freshmen) form groups of two or three, research a technology topic on the Internet, write a 10+ page report, and give a presentation in front of the class. The idea being that the students, some of whom had very little computer experience before the class, would end the semeseter having used search engines on the Internet, a word processor to write a paper, and Power Point to present it. Along the way hopefully I can impart some basic knowledge about how to write research papers and how to give presentations.

All good in theory, but I quickly realized that "use the Internet to research and write a paper" was translated into "find a website and copy and paste into Word". Even though I taught CTRL-C / CTRL-V in my other class, it became my enemy in this one.

Unfortunately, I think this is just an example of a deeper issue in Thai society. At times I am amazed at the creativity of Thai people, at others I am surprised at the flagrant abuse of copyrights and trademarks.

For example, sometimes I look at various websites to find travel information about various places in Thailand. I am shocked to see the EXACT SAME text on three or four websites. Not only does it show a lack of pride and ethics on the part of the web site creators, it is also very annoying and time-wasting for me.

Another example is in the software industry. Anyone can go to very well-known malls in Bangkok and buy Microsoft Office (yes, the entire suite) for 150 baht (US$3.50). And no, I did not make a typo there. Ditto for Adobe Photoshop, or any other commercial software.

Obviously, these are pirated copies. The Thai government (under pressure from Microsoft et al, I'm sure) is trying to crack down by threatening fines and jail terms for offending shops and malls, but so far there has been no change.

So it's a serious problem that will take a long time and a lot of effort to eradicate. Of course America isn't immune to this problem either -- every now and then we hear stories of plagerism or theft. In any case, after preaching to my students about using copy and paste for good and not evil, most of them took heed and turned in some impressive reports. Hopefully they learned more than just the information in the paper.

Swimming Again

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The last week or so has been a pretty good one for me. I am settling in to my new apartment in the middle of town and I am really starting to like living there. I've been spending a lot of time lately unpacking and getting organized

Part of the reason I like my new place is that it is very close to my new gym. I got a membership at the Olympic Club at the Patumwan Princess Hotel and, so far, I love it. The gym has good equipment, it is not too crowded, and has an excellent outdoor 25 meter salt-water swimming pool. After a week of swimming I have worked my way up to 1200 meters in about 40 minutes. My goal is to reach 2500 meters in an hour as soon as possible.

I've also been able to dive more deeply into the excellent book: Founding Brothers, which is about early American history. Now, if only I can find some time to study Thai language I'll be all set.

Hall of Fame Photos

Over the past 8 months I have taken thousands of pictures in SE Asia and have posted exactly 377 of them at this point. The ones I posted I liked for one reason or another, but some stand out above and beyond the rest.

So I have created another category to house the top 10% HALL OF FAME photos -- my all-time favorites. Some are a basic postcard shots, some show some interesting aspect of Asian culture, and some just make me laugh.

Last Week of Class

Today I started my last week of lectures for this semester. I think that the semester went pretty well. Hopefully my students agree.

I am not necessarily looking forward to the end though, because that means I have exams to create and grade and final grades to compile. I enjoy the lecturing and the teaching, but I guess the grading part is a necessary evil.

Street Food

The longer I stay here, the more I get used to being in Bangkok. Looking back now, I can see that when I first arrived I spent a lot of time in places that were somewhat familiar to me such as shopping malls that had American businesses like McDonalds and Starbucks. But at the time, even those places seemed very foreign and strange (and therefore exciting) to me.

Now, those places seem very normal. I still go, but these days I really enjoy finding the out-of-the-way Thai places; places that seem different from what I am used to. Last night, I found one of those places.

My friend Mag helped me bring the last bit of my stuff to my new apartment (I had left some of it as his apartment temporarily) and I asked him if he knew of any good restaurants in my new neighborhood. A few minutes later (after he made one phone call to remind himself of the location of the restaurant) we found ourselves sitting at a table two feet from a very busy road in front of a non-descript chinese shop-house.

The food was Isaan-style (in other words, spicy and flavorful) and was wonderful. We had pork and duck and a very tasty herbal pork soup. But the fact that we were sitting there, sweating profusely from the heat of both the air and the food, just two feet from a 5 lane road with buses and taxis whizzing by on one side and many Thai people strolling along the other made it a very special (to me) experience.

First Songkran Pics

The first set of pictures from my Songkran holiday have been posted. So far I have added the pictures from the Water Pouring ceremony, the Mr. Songkran contest, and pictures from the first day around the village of Ban Nong Pho.

You can view them in the Photo Section.

My Songkran Story

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For the last three days I have been in a tiny village in the Buriram province in NE Thailand. There was no Internet connection in the village, so I wrote down my thoughts instead of typing them. Now that I am back in Bangkok I can post them all.

After typing everything in just now, I realize that I wrote a lot! I guess that I felt things very strongly this weekend. It was exactly the type of weekend that I wanted to experience when I came to Thailand in the first place. I learned so much about other ways of life and in turn it taught me and challenged my own views of the world.

I hope I have done a good job of explaining what I saw and felt on these pages.

Back to Bangkok

We had another early start today as we headed back to Bangkok. On the way, we stopped by the beautiful ruins at Phi Mai (which I had also been to last month).

This car trip was a little different than the way up: Pae's mother and a niece and nephew joined us. The ride was a little cramped, but luckily traffic was light and we made it back home after a few hours.

Songkran was still in full-force in Bangkok when we returned, and as I walked back to my house from Nat's I was quickly soaked and powdered. I knew how to play the game now, and not a single little kid bearing water and shouting "Farang! (Foreigner!)" was safe from my full bottle of ice cold water. Ha!

In any case, I am back home now after a wonderful New Year's trip to a tiny village that seemed a million miles from Bangkok. I am very glad I was able to get out of the big city and experience very traditional celebrations with the locals.

Ruins and Songkran

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We got an early start this morning with the four of us (Nat, Pae, Richard, and myself) piling into the rental car and heading south to Panom Rung. I had been to the Khmer temples just a month ago, but this time promised to be different because of Songkran and because I was traveling with friends in a car instead of being alone on a motorbike.

As I walked around the ruins, I was still amazed at what I saw. I studied them closely, looking for camera angles and details that I might have missed the first time. Of course, taking pictures of myself and my friends were a new activity that I missed on my first trip.

The ride through the countryside was fun. All along the road, young people stood by the side with water guns and buckets and hoses. We were protected this time in our rental car, but it was still very entertaining to watch the less fortunate motorcycle riders (who, by the way, were also having a great time).

We returned to the village about an hour before sunset, and Nat and I (and later Pae and Richard) joined the kids on the road outside Nat's house for some wet fun. It is surprising how much fun it is to throw water at cars and bikes and open bed trucks that pass by. Of course we were soaked in minutes. As the sun set we headed back to the house and I actually looked forward to the "shower" that seemed so foreign to me just two days ago.

Dinner at Nat's house tonight was very special. His brother and family who live in the next village came over, which brought the total to about 7 adults and 10 children. Before we ate, Nat's 70 year old father sat in a chair, clothed in a sarong around his waist. Each of the children and grandchildren (young and old) one by one would approach him on their knees, bow three times and then anoint his hands and feet with leaves dipped in a herbal mixture. They then picked up a string that had been soaking in the mixture and tied it around his wrist, finishing by bowing three times again. Even I was able to participate in the Songkran ceremony, and I felt very lucky and honored to do so.

Dinner was again, of course, awesome. We grilled meat over an open fire. I am not sure what to call the procedure, but everyone sits around the grill cooking the meat and drinking the noodle and vegetable soup that is cooking around the base of the grill. Delicious!

Playing Songkran

So far, we haven't experienced anything special due to Songkran. But that all changed this afternoon. Nat and I took one motorbike and Pae and Richard took another, and we headed to the river about 10 KM away to celebrate. On the way there, groups of children waited on the side of the road armed with water buckets and baby powder. They would stand out in the road as we approached, signaling for us to slow down. When we did, water was immediately poured over our heads and baby powder was liberally applied to our faces. They all would then laugh and smile and point as they admired their work and we would go on our way towards the next group of kids where the scene repeated itself.

There really is no way to avoid this activity, unless you stay inside all day. If you didn't stop, you get splashed with the water anyway. Besides, as Nat told me, it was a bit rude to just drive by and not "Play Songkran". Needless to say, by the time we reached our destination our clothes were very wet and very white.

The river was fun. Hundreds of young people were out swimming and playing with intertubes. There was a big dam across the river that was about 10 feet tall, and many kids were sitting on top and jumping off every now and then. We swam for a while, and ate pork on a stick and ice cream and had our faces powdered over and over and over.

Tonight, after another cold water "shower" back at Nat's house, we walked down the street to Pae's house for a party. For hours, about 10 of us sat around outside on straw mats on the ground and drank homemade whisky and ate snacks: watermelon and sunflower seeds, dried fish and squid chips, and popcorn. At one point I was very tired from the day's activities so I lay down and stared up at the moon -- the one thing that I recognized in this world.

Amazing Lunch

This morning, while it was still (surprisingly) cool, Nat and I walked out behind his house. After about 50 meters, past the duck pen and around a small pond we came to the rice fields. In a few months these fields will be full of water and growing rice, but for now cattle graze on the dry grass.

The air quickly heated up, and we spent time sitting under a his sister's house next door. The house, copied a thousand times throughout SE Asia is a simple wooden affair raised off the ground on stilts. Underneath the house is the "living area" where people rest and sit and chat and eat and play games. So we sat shoeless with his family on a straw mat on a wooden platform about one foot off the ground. Nat's family (as well as everyone in the village) actually speaks Lao instead of Thai, so of course I didn't understand any of the conversation, but I listened anyway.

Then all of a sudden out of nowhere it seemed, breakfast appeared. Or was it lunch? I lost all track of time in the village and the fact that every meal is the same didn't help me keep track of the hours. The menu was three pork dishes: mu tod (fried pork), mu graprow (pork with basil and green beans) and mu nam man hoy (pork with oyster sauce and vegetables). Again, words can not describe how good this food tasted. It probably cost less than 100 baht (US$2.50) to feed 3 children and Nat and myself, but in a Thai restaurant in the US the exact same dishes would have been at least 1200 baht (US$30). In any case, whatever the price, the food was absolutely amazing.

Making Lists

It is 6:30 AM as I write this and everyone and everything in the village is awake it seems. After all, how can one sleep with dogs barking, roosters crowing, motorbikes speeding, kids yelling, babies crying, birds chirping...

Part of the struggle to put words to my observations is that so many of the words that come to mind are loaded with negative connotations to my urban American ears: wood hut, sleeping on the floor, chicken pen under the house, eating rice with fingers, naked children, breast feeding at dinner, dirt roads...

Nat has caught me several times shaking my head no as I am deep in thought. "Kit arai? (What are you thinking?)" he asks, wondering if I do not like what I see or wondering if something is wrong. But instead I have been lost, trying to make sense of what I see and how to describe it in words that are not warped by my bias.

Apparently the only thing I can do at this point is make lists.

Ban Nong Po

Sometimes I have trouble giving words to what I see. This is one of those times. We are at Nat's village of Ban Nong Po, in Buriram province, population 500. I have passed through villiages like this in a bus or on a motorcycle, but I have never stopped to stay, and I have certainly never been a guest of a good friend at one of the village houses.

Everything here is foreign to me. I try to put myself in Nat's shoes; try to imagine what life was like for him growing up in this small town with no stores -- just a temple and a few houses along the road. But it doesn't compute. I see it all, but I don't understand it. My mind has trouble grasping what it is like to live in Ban Nong Po.

Nat has been telling me "I don't think you can stay at my house." At first I thought that he meant "not allowed", but instead he thought that I would be too uncomfortable there. Understandable, I suppose, since it is true that I am not used to sleeping on the floor with other family members and I am not used to "showering" by pouring cold water over myself with a bucket. But mai bpen rai; to me it is actually not as bad as one (as I) might think. But it is different and it is strange to me.

Mr. Songkran

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Pom chue Stuart. Pom yu wittiyalai nanacha. Pom mah jak America.

When I arrived at the office this morning at 9:00, I was given the red silk jacket that I was fitted for yesterday. Then, one of the Thai teachers rolled up a silk scarf and tied it to my head and then wrapped a gold-weave cloth around that. I was then drapped with a long gold chain over one shoulder, had golden leaves placed in my hair and given touch of stage makeup. What an emsemble!

All 21 participants were assembled and we walked onto the stage one-by-one as we were introduced. Then, each of us had to take the microphone and introduce ourselves. I gave the speech above, which means "My name is Stuart. I am from the International College. I come from America."

No, I didn't win Mr. Songkran... but I did make it to the second round where they asked each participant one question. I'm terrible of thinking up stuff on the spot (especially in front of a crowd) but I guess I did well enough to get the second runner-up award. (Woohoo!)

So now, my Songkran holiday is here. I am heading to Buriram to the home of my friend Nat. We will be joined by his boyhood friend Pae and Pae's friend from Australia named Richard. We are renting a car for what should be a 5 hour drive, but it will probably take us all night. We are expecting unbelieveably terrible traffic as we join everyone else in getting the heck out of the Big City.

Happy New Year!

Water Pouring Ceremony

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The traditional way to celebrate Songkran is to pour water over the hands of those people in a higher position than you (e.g., your boss or your grandmother). It has evolved into a 4-day free-for-all water-fight on the streets of Thailand. I will get to experience that part of the festivities this weekend I'm sure.

I saw the older traditional part today at the University. The "water pouring" ceremony took place in a big auditorium on campus. Everyone in the audience was wearing traditional costumes (even I had on a silk jacket and woven scarf).

The ceremony was started when the Board of Trustees entered the auditorium. Everyone stood and gave a wai to them as they passed. The President of the Board then took the stage, and placed some lit candles and incense at the Buddha altar. Then, the rest of the Trustees joined him on stage, sitting in big chairs in a row.

Then, eveyone in the audience got in line and when they reached the stage they were given a small cup of water with rose petals to pour over the Buddha image. After pouring the water each person kneeled and was given another small cup of water. Then, on their knees, each person went to each Board Member and gave the wai, poured a little water on their hands, and gave the wai again. In return the Board Member said something like, "May you be prosperous." Or, "I wish you good health." One even told me, "Handsome outfit!"

After everyone had their turn, the President made some remarks (in Thai). Then, each Board Member was given flowers and a wrapped present. The Board Members then left the auditorium thus marking the end of the ceremony.

New Apartment and Songkran

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Last night was my first night in the new apartment. Once I get find a place for everything and figure out where everything is (i.e., when I don't have to run around searching for electric sockets or dishrags) I think I will really enjoy living there.

Everyone in Bangkok is getting geared up for Songkran -- Thai New Year's -- this weekend. It's by far the biggest Thai holiday, which is saying a lot because every holiday is a big celebration here. Everyone is asking "Where are you going / what are you doing for Songkran?" Today at school there is a traditional "water pouring" ceremony and tommorrow is another traditional ceremony.

The one tomorrow should be interesting. Last week I was asked to participate and was told that I will be wearing a traditional Thai costume. I agreed, even though it means that I won't be going to Laos this weekend. This morning I was fitted for a red silk jacket and was told that I will actually be taking part in a Mr. Songkran Competition(!) "They will ask you a few questions in front of everyone," my boss told me. "But don't worry, it's all good fun."

What?! Mr. Songkran? Me? In a Beauty Pagent?! I better start practicing my baton twirling. ha. I am sure I will be terrible at the Pagent, but I am hopeful that my boss is right and it is all "good fun".

Making Travel Plans

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Things always take longer to do in Bangkok than what I am used to. If I think a task will take 1 day, it's bound to take 3. So today when I went add more pages for my passport at the American Embassy, I was shocked that the process was efficiently completed in 10 minutes.

By the way, I noticed that there were no more protesters in front of the embassy, as there were before the war started. I guess that people here realize that those with power do what they want to do, regardless of what anyone else thinks.

I also started to make travel arrangements for my Songkran trip to Laos, but quickly realized that I waited too long. Apparently, the entire country is travelling this weekend and everything is booked. So, I guess I will wait for some other time to make the trip.

Work Permit

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After a quick run to the Thai Labor Department (and 3000 baht -- US$70), I am now the proud owner of a one-year Work Permit. I'm glad that's all over with. Now I just have to change my Visa to a multiple entry and get more pages for my passport at the American Embassy and I'll be all set.

Does it seem like I spend a lot of time doing paperwork? I think so.

In other news, Thailand is still, for the most part, unaffected by SARS. Of course everyone is talking about it all the time, but so far there have been no outbreaks here. The government is seemingly proactive -- every single passenger coming from other coutnries has to have a health checkup at the airport.

There hasn't been a run on face masks yet, like there has been in Hong Kong. Just this weekend at the Jutujuk Market I noticed for the first time a small percentage of people wearing them. At this point I think people are a little worried, but not panicked. Life goes on.

Shopping and Shopping

My friend Kelvin from Singapore arrived in Bangkok today. He is here to help another Singaporian friend (named Jui) find a place to live in Bangkok. It was interesting to hear his stories about the flight over: everyone had to wear face masks on the plane (but they could take them off to eat) and every single person had their temperature taken by a doctor before they went through Immigration.

We spent this morning at the Juktujak Market. It was hot and crowded as usual, but still kinda fun. Kelvin bought a bunch of stuff to take back to sell in Singapore and I had a great time helping him pick things out and thinking about the huge mark-up he can get by importing from here. I also bought some small flags that Sone wanted me to bring to him for his restaurant in Luang Prabang.

The afternoon was spent walking around with Kelvin and Jui looking for apartments. My legs are aching now, but it was fun exploring Bangkok and using my limited Thai (mee hong mai krab -- "Do you have a room?") to find a place for Jui to live.

I just finished grading 160 tests, so I celebrated by uploading new pictures from my one-day field trip to Ayutthaya and the King's Summer Palace at Bang Pa-In a week or so ago.

They can be found in the Pictures of Bangkok Day Trips Photo Album.

Dentist #2

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My second trip to the dentist this week occurred yesterday. Unfortunately, this time wasn't as pleasant as the first time. The first time, an older gentleman quickly and quietly filled my new cavity. This time, a young girl (his daughter?) tackled the older, bigger cavity in the back.

As she started working she was chatting a lot to the assistant (it sounded to me like she was training her. Definitely not a confidence builder!) and because of the pain she was inflicting, I immediately asked for novocaine. The shot numbed the entire side of my face including my ear. The worst part of it was that the cavity filling procedure still hurt.

She also suggested that I PULL two teeth instead of filling the cavities in them. I'm not looking forward to that at all but unfortunately, I think she is probably correct in her diagnosis.

SARS

This week I am practicing my ability to fight irrational fear. For me, it pops up every now and then, such as worrying about a plane crash the night before a big trip. After September 11, 2001, it was a fear of driving over the Golden Gate Bridge. This week, however, it is fear of the SARS virus that is spreading around the world. (Not to say my life is ruled by fear and worry, but it does pop up every now and then.)

One way to fight it is to stay ignorant. If I don't read any news reports then I don't know it's out there, I don't know that the numbers are increasing even in Thailand, and I don't know there is no cure.

But forces are conspiring against me, making the topic impossible to ignore. Yesterday, a sign went up on the University office's door saying that if any students, faculty, or staff visit "infected" countries, they must stay home for 10 days upon return. Luckily, my upcoming trip to Laos for Songkran is still on... for now.

Dentist Trip

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The trip to the dentist went fine yesterday. I walked in, asked to see a doctor, and five minutes later I was in the chair with sharp metal objects in my mouth. Sure enough, what I thought was a cavity, was. Of course you always find more things wrong when you actually get in there and look. This time the dentist suggested that I repair the cavities in my four (!) wisdom teeth in the very back (top and bottom, left and right) that I have been ignoring for a while.

In any case, the dentist started filling the new cavity right away. The procedure was painless (except for the first shot of novacaine) and seemed to be very modern and western. The only difference was that he put a green cloth over face with a hole in the middle for my mouth. I'm not sure what that was for -- so that I couldn't see all of the shiny sharp metal things? So I wouldn't see the blood spurting? So he wouldn't have to look at me wincing in pain? Perhaps doctors in the US do this as well, but I don't ever remember it.

After a half hour or so I walked out with one filled tooth and an appointment for tomorrow to fix two more. Total price for today's visit: 800 baht (US$20).

I'm a April Fool

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What a bummer of a day this has turned out to be! First, I spent several hours last night and this morning filling out my income tax online. It was a strange year for me with contracting (self-employment), coaching the swim team, and collecting unemployment. Unfortunately, last year I miscalculated how much I would owe and now I have to pay a lot. I feel like an April Fool.

I am not sure my day is going to get much better: I'm making a trip to the dentist to fill a cavity this afternoon...

In happier news, I picked up the key to my new apartment last night. Of course the door and the fan that they said would be fixed and the couch they said would be delivered, weren't.

Oh well. If it sounds like I am in a bad mood, I'm not really. I am starting to get the hang of the mai bpen rai ("no worries") Thai attitude :)

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This page is an archive of entries from April 2003 listed from newest to oldest.

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