September 2003 Archives

Stars and Starbucks

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I am learning to accept the fact that the Starbucks coffee chain is quickly spreading in Thailand. Still it makes me sad every time I see a new one. I wouldn't mind so much if the coffee either 1) tasted good and/or 2) had a decent price. But as it stands now, the coffee is terrible and I can buy four full meals at school for the same price of a cup of coffee (never mind the lattes!)

So two nights ago, I was a little depressed to see the Grand Opening of another Starbucks. This one is in Siam Square and is the 4th Starbucks within 500 yards of my apartment. Ridiculous huh?

But then, my disapointment turned to surprise when I had a real star sighting: Paradorn and his "new friend" (as the papers like to say) Tata Young. Paradorn is of course the Thai tennis star and Tata is a famous Thai pop star. Paradorn and Tata have now become Thailand's version of Ben and J Lo. Although the Thai tabloids have started spreading some juicy gossip about the pair, hopefully they will have better luck then Bennifer.

I didn't get a good look at Tata (I am not sure I would recognize her anyway) but I recognized Paradorn right away, thanks to the fact his face is on billboards and television commercials all over Thailand. All I could think was "Oh my god...Don't stare... He's really is tall... Don't stare... Who is the small chick... Don't stare!"

Excuses

Today's post is just a list of excuses why I haven't added anything to my website for over a week. First, my friend Giam visted BKK from LA and we headed to the beach. Then the rest of this week was spent showing him around town.

Add to that the fact that this is the first week of mid-term exams which means that I have been proctoring exams for 5 hours a day and spending the rest of my time with students who all of a sudden are worried about their grades.

In any case, Giam left yesterday (I miss him already!) and I have this morning off (no exams) so I will go back and try to fill in some stories from my last week. Maybe I can even post a picture or two later today.

Tawandaeng!

Giam has been thanking me repeatedly for showing him around Thailand. But I reply to him that I'm not being completely self-less. After all, I am taking him to all of my favorite places!

Last night was no exception. We had dinner at my one of my favorite Bangkok restaurants -- Tawan Dang. It is a brewery with great Thai food and a very entertaining band. I haven't been there since my friend Roen took me there 9 months ago. I liked it so much that I had a little birthday celebration there with a few other friends a couple of days later.

This time, it was Piyawat, Giam, Kary, Mark, Tri, and myself. The food was great (again), the band was fun (again) and the 3 liters of homebrewed Wisen beer washed it all down very well (again).

Exam Time

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So it's midterm exam time now. Not only do the students dread exams, but the teachers do as well. It's a neccessary evil, I suppose. Before the exam period begins, we are given our proctoring schedule. Mine looks fairly full: I will be proctoring for about 30 hours spread over the next 9 days.

It's not that it is a difficult job, it's just very boring. I always hope that my exams will be made up of essay questions. Since it is difficult to cheat on an essay exam, I don't have to watch the students as closely. That gives me (and the other teachers) a chance to do a little reading or just sit and relax as we watch the students. One time, I even caught one of the other teachers fall asleep in a chair in the back of the room. Oops!

When I watch the students I like to try to look for patterns. What kind of students are Communication Arts majors? Which students from what majors show up on time and are more diligent about the exams? All students wear the same uniform and at first glance, look homogenous. But are there underlying patterns among the demographics of a University classroom in Thailand?

For example, I proctored a Computer Science exam today. I noticed that, just as in America, the computer students don't care as much about appearances: messy hair and untucked unpressed shirts. Unlike America though, almost half of the students were female. This was very surprising to me, since there were hardly ever girls in my university's computer science program.

The Liberal Arts exam in the afternoon was much different. Almost everyone had perfectly coiffed hair with lots of hair gel and were wearing expensive shoes. Also, about 5% of the students taking the exam were kratoey (transgendered) students whereas there were none in the morning exam. I guess computer science is not very popular among the boys who wear skirts to school.

Ayutthaya By Car

This morning was another early start on a day trip to the ruins at Ayutthya. I had visted them just a couple of weeks ago, but I wanted to take Giam there so that he can get a little taste of Thai culture and history. Last time I visitied I went alone, taking the train and renting a motorcycle to get around. This time, Giam and I were lucky to have Piyawat drive us in his car.

We ended up spending the entire day driving around and stopping every now and then to visit a temple. The city of Ayuttaya was the capital of Thailand (which was then called Siam) but it was destroyed by an invading Burmese army in the 1700s. So, some of the temples we visted were completely destroyed by in the attack, some have been rebuilt since then, and some survived intact.

In any case, we had a very relaxing, educational trip. Perhaps the highlight for me was having lunch on a boat in the Chao Praya River. The restaurant was recommended by Piyawat and was an excellent choice. The food was delicious and cheap as always and we really enjoyed watching the life around us: a woman washing her dishes and then her clothes on the opposite bank, small narrow 2-person boats paddled by one while the other threw out fishing nets, both small river-hugging long-tail boats and big fancy ark-shaped boats carrying tourists back to Bangkok, and huge black barges with loads of rice or other agricultural products heading to the Bangkok port downstream.

Island Relaxation on Ko Samet

Yesterday started early as Giam and I headed to the Ekkami bus station at 7:30, where we met Mark and Ekk. The bus ride to Ko Samed was long (4+ hours) but uneventful and we arrived at the island a little after noon.

On the island, Tom (one of Mark's friends from the US who just moved to Jomtien) met us at our bungalow resort and the five of us spent the rest of the day relaxing and walking around the island a bit. After dinner, we headed to the Silver Sand Bar -- Samed's open-air "disco" for a little taste of nightlife on the beach.

Sometime during the night, it started to rain. Our original plan was to stay on the island until tomorrow, but the rain continued all morning and we decided to head back a day early. Of course by the time we got back to the mainland, the sun came out and the sky was clear all the way back to Bangkok. Oh well. Giam and I will take advantage of my day off tomorrow by taking a day-trip to Ayutthaya to visit the temple ruins.

The End of a Long Week

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Wow, what a rough week it has been. That's always the way it is the week before exams, but it doesn't make it any easier. For the past week, I've been struggling to make two midterm exams and grade 2000 lab assignments. (That's 10 assignments for 200 students. No joke.)

But last night marked the end of all of that and the beginning of my month o'fun, which will include a 2 week vacation soon. One of my very best friends, Gary, started it off when he arrived from Singapore yesterday afternoon. We had a great time catching up over a bottle of red wine at my place last night. After not seeing any old friends for several months, it was very refreshing to be able to reminisce about our old lives in San Francisco and the friends we left both left behind there.

Today, another very good friend, Giam, arrived from LA. Piyawat and I picked him up at the airport and took him to my house where he is currently napping. Gotta love jetlag. Tomorrow Giam, Mark, Mark's friend Tom and I will head to a nearby island for a 3-day weekend with plenty of much needed R&R. Yehaw!

Bag Boy

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peapod.jpgOne of the teachers at my school was doing a case study on Peapod.com in his Marketing class. So he points his web browser at peapod.com, and the students yell out "Ajarn (teacher) Stuart!" The teacher looked at the webpage and the picture of the bag of groceries, and said something humorous about my past experience as a bag boy.

I don't think the guy looks like me. Of course he is handsome and suave like me, but I think that's where the silimarities end. In any case, I'll let you decide for yourself. (Click on the pic for a larger version.)

Hurricane Isabel

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Another hurricane is heading towards Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Although it is a world away from where I am now, reading the news stories on Isabel reminds me of a hurricane I was closely watching about 8 years ago.

I had joined two of of my best friends from college, Andrew and Susan, and Andrew's family for a vacation to the beach at Kitty Hawk, just north of Hatteras. As we settled in to our beach rental, the hurricane was approaching us. The waves got bigger and bigger as the storm inched closer. The sheer power of nature frightened me a bit, at least enough to convince me to stay out of the water. To Andrew's college-aged brother, Adam, however, the big waves were an invitation to take part in the best body surfing ever.

One of my favorite pictures that I ever took was snapped from the safety of the beach house balcony. On the right side of the picture is Andrew's face, with his mouth wide open laughing in disbelief at his younger brother. In the background are what must have been 15 foot waves and Adam's little small head halfway up one of them. Seconds later the wave came crashing down over him and a few seconds after that he would pop back up again and swim out for another wild ride.

Willie, not Willy

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One of the great mysteries of my web site is why do I get a lot of people coming to my site after searching for Willie Mays? I do have a picture of him on my site (well, a picture of me next to his statue at Pac Bell Park), but why would my site show up in the search results? Surely there are many other, better sites than mine to learn about Willie.

Today, I just realized why. A nice older lady left a comment on my site on the Willie Mays picture. I wondered how she found my site and so I went to Google and searched for "Willy Mays". Sure enough, my site came up first. First! And then I saw that the top of the search results page said, "Did you mean: willie mays?"

Opps. Since I mispelled Willie's name, I am the number one result for Willy not Willie. Duh. So just go ahead and add "Willie Mays" to the words that I do not know how to spell (along with the ones that Bob W was nice enough to point out recently: consonant and province.)

So, apologies to everyone who comes to my site looking for information on the greatest baseball player San Francisco has ever known (and apologies to Mr. Bonds for that last comment). Next time, try spelling his name correctly (and I promise to try to do the same!)

Steak Celebration

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The first week of serious daily Thai lessons are over now and looking back I think we did a pretty good job. The order of learning has been:

1) consonants (which I knew a lot already)
2) long and short length vowels (which I knew some already)
3) all five tones (which I knew a very little bit already)
4) three consonant classes that affect tones (which I know nothing)
5) reading mono-syllables with the correct pronounciation (#1-4 above)

Now, its time to continue practicing these three things and move on to 6) vocabulary 7) grammar and 8) conversation. Interesting that every single Thai language school we visited started with conversation first, but we are leaving it for last. I like our order better.

To celebrate a successful first pass at #1-5, Piyawat and I at dinner American-style at Outback Steakhouse at the Discovery Center. In other words, we gourged on meat and potatoes. I have avoided going to Outback for over a year now, but last night we decided to give it a try. We knew it would be (relatively) expensive (it was) but we thought it might be worth it (it was).

My sirloin steak was awesome and was cooked perfectly. Piyawat's chicken breasts were covered in real cheese (rare in Thailand) and was also delicious. Service was American style as well -- for the first time in Thailand the server asked us how our dinner was after three bites. Fantastic.

The final bill was close to 1200 baht (US$30). Not bad for a two person dinner at a steak restaurant in America, but unbelievably expensive here in Thailand. At least that was the thought on my mind today as I ate my 20 baht (50 cent) lunch at school today. But it's ok, my mouth is still watering as I think about that steak last night!

September 11 + 2

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Today is September 11, so of course none of us can escape at least a passing thought about where we were and what we experienced two years ago today.

A couple of days ago, I read an interesting article written by a woman who was at the World Trade Center two years ago. The interesting part (for me) was her reminder that sometimes we have no control over the events in our lives. But even if, at the time, an unplanned event seems life-destroying (or at the very least life-changing) the path taken after the fact is often better than the one you were on in the first place.

That's the story of my last two years as well, and I know I am not alone. I have one ex-collegue who was fired from his High-Tech Project Manager job the same day I was. Two years later, every week or so I get an email from him letting me know what dates his band will be playing in San Francisco. He's made the transition from Corporate Manager to guitar player -- a transition from a high-paying job to one where he is following his passions -- and I couldn't be happier for him.

As for me, two years later, I find myself on the other side of the world working in a completely different field than I was before. I never expected or imagined I would ever be here, but I wouldn't trade the last two years for anything.

English Problems

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Pasa Angrit yaak mak!

Or, in English, "English language is very difficult!" As I struggle most days with my new attempt to learn Thai, I am realizing that English is an extremely compilcated language. Sure it's phonetic, but the it seems to me that the phonetic rules are convoluted and full of exceptions.

The more I struggle to learn Thai tones and vowel pronunciation, the more I realize the problem is not with the Thai language, it is with the English language. For example, just yesterday I was trying to memorize Thai vowels by thinking of English words that have the same sounds. But it quickly gets very tricky. Are "pin" and "pen" really homonyms? (I think not.) Do "fan" and "fang" have the same vowel sound or not? (Again, I think not.) What about the pronounciation of "baan" and "bon"? So they're not neccesarily English words, but how would I pronounce them if they were? I would pronounce them the same, but why does "aa" sound like "o"?

So all of this comes down to sayinbg that I have a new-found respect for people who have to learn English as a second language, as well as anyone who wants to study English linguistics. Thank goodness I am not in either category!

Karmic Justice

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It has been a sad few days for some students at my school. Over the weekend, one student was drinking and driving and hit another car killing the family inside. Then, another student died after falling asleep at the wheel.

Of course events like this happen all the time all around the world. The difference for me this time is people's reaction to the news. One person who works in my office and who was a friend of the student who fell asleep at the wheel said, "I wonder what his great sin was."

In other words, it's all about the karma. If someone dies young, everyone wonders what that person did to deserve an early death. Or even worse, they wonder what the parents did wrong to cause the child to die.

Now in some cases, I believe in Karma. I think the Christian way to say it is "You reap what you sow". But I can not believe that the reason someone dies young is because they have committed a great sin. As I told my friend in the office, I personally have lost too many friends who my age and were "good people" and there are too many evil people in the world who live full lives and die at an old age to believe that early death is some kind of karmic justice.

Ayutthaya Temple Tours

I had been to Ayutthaya one time before. I was with a group of students from my school on a day-trip to visit the old capital and the palace at Bang-Pa In.

This time, however, I was on my own (which of course, I prefer). I started early by having breakfast at the guesthouse where I was staying and then rented a motorcycle from the guesthouse across the street. The rest of the day was spent visiting many old temples, both the temple ruins in the center of town and the still-standing old temples outside of town.

The most interesting part of the trip for me was the distinct feeling that what I was looking at was not really all that exotic to me any more. This time I looked at the ruined temples and could imagine what they looked like in their past glory. Symetry and shapes and designs that once looked random or chaotic now are deliberate and ordered to my eye. Now, when I see Thai art and architecture, it is beautiful to me not because if it is different and exotic, but because it is all related to each other as each period of history has left its mark on the country.

In any case, luckily the rain held off until after I had returned the motorcycle and had made it back safely to the train station. On the way from Lopburi to Ayutthaya last night and then to Bangkok tonight, I took the 3rd class (un-air-conditioned) train for the first time. It actually wasn't that bad. Both nights the air was relatively cool and so the whole ride was quite comfortable with the "cool" air coming in through the open windows. Plus, the tickets cost 13 and 15 baht (around US$.40) respectively -- cheaper than taking the SkyTrain to work every morning.

Just Like Wal-Mart: Big C Lopburi

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After viewing the ruins I decided to check out the rest of Lopburi. The new "modern" part of Lopburi was moderately interesting with it's main feature being two huge traffic circles. I have no idea why a small town in the countryside needs such overblown monuments. Perhaps they are trying to recover a past glory, who knows.

In any case, after driving past the two circles on a city bus, I took refuge from a rain storm in a Big C supermarket. As I walked the aisles I felt like I was in the Wal-Mart back in my grandparent's hometown in a small town in Arkansas. The attire, the hairstyles, the language, the attitudes all screamed "small town". I'm not sure I would have noticed the difference when I first arrived, but the longer I stay here the more I realize that Bangkok is nothing like the rest of the country.

After exploring the modern, yet still provincial, section of Loburi, I decided not to stay the night and intead I took the train south to Ayutthaya where I am now. Tomorrow I will spend the day touring the ruins. I hope it doesn't rain!

Where are the Lopburi Monkeys?

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Early this morning I took the train 150 KM north from Bangkok to the small town of Lopburi. Lopburi has been around over 1000 years, first as a Djavarti settlement, then a Khmer city, and in the 1700s was Thailand's second capital (the first being Ayutthaya). So there are a lot of old ruins and interesting history to explore, including an old temple that is supposedly overrun by wild monkeys.

Well, 3 hours after arriving, I have seen all of the sites. I had fun climbing around the ruins as usual, and the museum at the old Palace was informative (although I wish more of the exhibits were written in English). The monkey temple didn't have a single monkey in it when I was there, although I did spot a few across the street at another Khmer temple.

So now I am not sure what I will do. The original plan was to stay here tonight and take the train to Ayutthaya in the morning and spend the day at the ruins there. But for now I am taking refuge in a air-conditioned internet cafe and thnking about where I should go from here.

Thai Language Lessons, Take Four

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All my life I have wanted to be able to communicate in foreign language. But I have never found the time or energy to dedicate myself to the task. I know it is do-able, but it takes work. I have never been able to make myself do it (even when I took French in high school and college).

Being in Thailand makes me want to learn Thai. Trying to learn Thai makes me want to go back and take the "much easier" French. But I am here and I still have the desire to speak. But do I have enough desire to actually accomplish it?

I took Thai lessons in California before I moved to Bangkok, but the students didn't allow for much learning because they were always asking questions that had nothing to do with the lesson. I took a Thai class at the school where I am teaching, but there were 30 students in the class and it was therefore impossible to practice enough to learn anything. I have lived in Thailand a year and I'm always asking "How do you say ____ in Thai language?" but it goes in one ear and out the other. I had a friend come over to my house 3 times a week to teach me, but his lack of English skills meant that he couldn't explain the meanings of words or the tricky tone rules.

After all of that, I have only picked up a few words and phrases. I can order my favorite Thai dishes and can say "This is delicious!" or ask "Are you cold?" but I quickly run out of words to say.

This week I started on my latest attempts to learn. On Monday, Piyawat and I visited a few Thai language schools. Prices ranged from 89 baht (US $2) per hour for conversation at AUA to 650 baht (US $15) for private lessons at Berlitz. None of the programs had the content I wanted for the price I was willing to pay.

So I have now convinced Piyawat to take me on as a student. He was confident that he could do it (he's a native speaker, after all) but after our first lesson last night, he realized it was harder than he expected. But we are committed -- one hour at the end of every work day in the library on campus. He will teach me to read and write and speak, and I will teach him how to teach me.

Wish us luck!

Baht to Dollars

I am finally making money in Bangkok (i.e., I have finally lowered my expenses enough so that I am able to save money on my paycheck). So the money started to accumulate in my bank account here and I thought I'd transfer it to my account in America.

I did... and I am not sure exactly where all of the money went. Transferring money to another currency is a slippery transaction. The bank here took their 400 baht commision. My US bank took their $10 commission. Someone (not sure who) took the commission from charging me a high exchange rate.

All in all, from withdrawal to final deposit it looks like my exchange rate was 41.95 baht/dollar. Not terribly good, but at least the dollar is low these days. Otherwise it would have been worse.

Piyawat and I are back safely in Bangkok after a very fun, very relaxing trip to Kao Yai. Last night we camped in a rented tent and listened to the rain pouring over our heads all night.

Lots of rain means big beautiful waterfalls. Luckily, the rain had stopped by morning and so our exploration of the national park was mostly dry. We visited a few lookout points, hiked through the woods, and visited 2 other waterfalls. One was very tall and impressive the other was smaller but more unique with several cascades and levels flowing through, under, and around the rocks and jungle plant life.

Not only did we see a lot of beautiful scenery, cool waterfalls and dark green jungle plant life, we also saw a lot of animals. My favorites were the herds of monkeys and one 5-foot long monitor lizard. Of course the leeches were always a part of our time here. Counting now in the safety of my apartment in Bangkok I see 10 different holes where a leech had attached to my body -- mostly around my ankles and my waist.

But even with the leeches, it was a wonderful trip. Now, back to the "real" world...

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

August 2003 is the previous archive.

October 2003 is the next archive.

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