April 2004 Archives

Violence in the South

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I hesitate a bit to make this post, for fear of overly worrying people who are important to me. But it is a very important issue here in Thailand, indeed much more important than recent news stories like SARS and Bird Flu.

As most people know by now, I'm sure, over 100 people (mostly Thai-Muslim teenagers) were killed in Southern Thailand when they attacked police stations with automatic rifles and machettes. The police apparently knew they were coming and responded with much superior firepower.

From what I can tell, this is not a Muslim vs the West, Osama Bin Laden style attack. Instead, it is a rekindling of a centuries old separatist revolution. Back in the days when Thailand (Siam) was ruled by kings, almost every king had to deal with the southern, mostly Muslim provinces who wanted to either be a part of Malaysia or wanted to be an independent country.

This most recent attack happened a couple of days ago. For this entire year, almost daily attacks have been going on against monks, temples, schools, and government buildings. I haven't written anything about it before, but now the battle has been upped a notch. A Bloomberg article today said:

"A separatist group in southern Thailand told tourists to stay away from the Patani Raya region and the neighboring provinces of Phuket, Pangnga, Krabi and Pattalung."

It's definitely a good strategy for the groups. I don't know if they actually have the means to pull off a Bali-style attack on Phuket (and even if they did have the means, I would of course hope that they never accomplished it) but there is no doubt that Tourism is the Thai governments golden goose, and therefore their soft spot.

Not surprisingly, Prime Minister Thaksin is denying everything in his typical bombastic style saying that the attackers were simply drug-addicted youth who were paid off by crime interests.

Dad's Press

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You gotta love it when your Dad gets some press!

Map of the Old Canals

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bkk_klong_map.gifOne of my favorite Thai websites is 2bangkok.com. The owner of the site is facinated with big infrastructure projects here in Bangkok -- the Skytrain, the subway, the hundreds of unfinshed skyscrapers that dot the city.

The interesting part about his site is that he (and/or his Thai friends) translate stories from the Thai press that somehow never end up in the English press. So his site is always a good read.

Last week I followed a link from 2bangkok to another site, created by a German man. It was all in German, but at least I found one very interesting image, which I have stolen and placed here. It is a drawing of Bangkok's city layout, circa 1900. Before this time, there were no roads in Bangkok, only klong (canals). The first real road (called "New Road", now called Charoen Krung) was built in 1863.

The interesting thing about this image is the fact that even though some of these klong still exist, most of them have been covered/filled in and made into driving roads. Note the ones at the lower right: Suriwong, Silom, Sathorn are all very busy, popular roads now, while Hualompong is now the 8 lane Rama 4 Road.

(Click on the image to see a bigger view.)

Rainy Season Starts

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"Did I leave the shower on all night?"

These were my first thoughts this morning when I woke up. All I could do as I laid there trying to convince myself to get out of bed was to think about what a high water bill I will have this month.

But once I finally put my feet on the floor and walked over to the bathroom to check the shower, I quickly realized that the shower was on outside.

So rainy season is here a few days early; this morning it was here with a vengence. We don't get many thunderstorms in Bangkok, but this time the thunder and lightning were going wild. So were all the dogs in the neighborhood as they howled and moaned and barked at the falling rain and flashing lights.

Language and Culture Studies

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I haven't mentioned it here in a while, but every now and then I run a Google search to try to uncover my dream grad school program. This week, I found an interesting dissertation abstract from RMIT in Melbourne, Australia that sounded right up my alley.

The program at RMIT, strangely enough, is called "Language and Cultural Studies". This sounds moderately interesting to me, but it's not exactly what I was looking for. In this case, however, the program is under the "Education, Language and Social Services" department, so at least the "Education" aspect I am looking for is covered.

Drilling down I see some topics that I have found a new interest in, since moving to Thailand and starting to teach: "Globalisation and culture, cultural technologies, e-commerce, and education; Thai cultural studies; Cross-cultural and international education; International students; Immigrant and multicultural education; Ethnic communities..."

The interesting thing was that the dissertation I saw described an Intelligent Tutoring System, which is what I built for my Computer Science master's degree. So it looks like they take the "technology" part above fairly seriously, even thought it is an Education/Language/Cultural Studies program. Very promising!

So, I think I will do a little more research here. Does anyone have any experience they would like to share with RMIT, Melbourne, or Australia? Or any thoughts about getting a PhD at an Australian University? I can think of some pros and cons, but I am curious to know what other people think.

It's been a slow, uncomfortable, hot week in Bangkok. The combination of blazing hot weather, a stomach virus that took a week to defeat, and catching up on work after a week's vacation took it's toll.

But now the stomach bugs seem to be under control. Work seems to be under control as well, especially after spending 7 hours in a coffee shop catching up on my work today. By the way, Coffee Society on Silom Road (Sala Daeng BTS station) has been re-instated as "Stuart's Favorite Coffee Shop in Bangkok". Why? Three words: Free Wireless Internet.

Melting

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Right now as I type this, the weather meter on my site says "99 F / 37 C". Someone told me that they heard that this was the hottest summer in Bangkok in a long time.

I don't know if that's true or not, all I know is that I'm melting.....

Disconnected in Vientiane

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I noticed that I didn't post anything for the last few days and then I realized that I hadn't even been near a computer the entire time we were in Vientiane. It was nice to be disconnected for a while, but when I saw how many emails I had this morning, I knew it would take me a while to catch up.

The Lao Aviation flight south from Luang Prabang to Vientiane was as hot as it was on the way north. (It was the same plane, with the same broken air conditioner as far as I could tell.) For the next couple of days we did the usual Vientiane thing: massages, eating som tam and drinking Beer Lao on the Mekong, visiting the "steam shack", and eating at the Scandinavian Bakery every morning.

Perhaps the most special part of this trip was a motorcycle ride just outside of the city to visit a few silk weavers. A friend of Ted's designs and exports Lao weaving and he showed us some of his beautiful and highly detailed work. I learned a lot about weaving, but I think I would have to study it for quite a while to learn all of the intricacies of the art.

It was an incredible week, with only one downside. On the last night in Vientiane, I got sick (again). A trip to a Lao hospital gave me enough medicine to make the flight home. A trip to a Bangkok hospital gave me enough medicine to cure me (I hope).

But even stomach ills included, it was a wonderful trip. Now that I am back in Bangkok, I feel like I had been away forever. It was definitely a great experience.

Pak Ou Caves

Songkran Day #3 was the most relaxing so far. We spent most of the day on a boat ride up the Mekong to visit the Pak Ou caves. The caves hold hundreds (thousands?) of Buddha images that have been placed there by worshippers over the past few centuries. When Laos had a king, the king would visit Pak Ou caves on Songkran to pour water over the images.

After visiting the caves, we crossed the river to a tiny village called Baan Pak Ou, where we ate the usual Lao/Isaan snacks of som tam (spicy papaya salad), larb blaa, (spicy ground fish salad) and kao neow (sticky rice). And of course, plenty of Beer Lao to wash it all down.

On the way back down the river to Luang Prabang, we stopped by another village which is supposedly famous for making Lao Lao (Lao Whisky -- same word but different tones). Luckily our boat driver was friends with people in the village, so we were welcomed with open arms and shot glasses of Lao Lao.

New Year Parade

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It's been another exhaustingly fun day today. We started the day with breakfast at the Scandinavian Bakery. Then, we walked around town a bit, visiting the temples and again trying to avoid getting splashed by little kids. (We were only moderately successful in the latter.)

The big event in Luang Prabang today is the New Year's Parade. Luckily we saw Ted and Than just before the parade started and so we joined them for a Beer Lao at a sidewalk cafe -- front row seats for the show.

And what a show it was! I have never seen anything like it. Row after row of costumed people walked by, along with a few flat bed trucks carrying very old monks or monks beating big drums, or monks just sitting there getting soaked by the crowds.

Finally, the highlight of the parade was a big float carrying a huge (fake) boar with a beautiful costumed Lao girl lounging on top of it. After the boar passed, the crowd followed in the streets, splashing water, throwing flour, and laughing and talking and having the best time. I think I took about 50 pictures during the 30 minute parade alone.

After the parade, the four of us walked around visiting more temples and doing a very bad job of staying dry. After a little snack back at our guesthouse we just had to take a nap. It's amazing how tiring it is to walk around laughing all day...

Playing Songkran

It has been an amazingly fun and exhausting day today. We started our New Year by eating breakfast at our guesthouse's restaurant on the river. After walking around town a bit (and dodging kids throwing water) we headed up the hill to where Ted and Than were staying at the Pan Sea hotel.

The Pan Sea Hotel sits on a beautiful location overlooking the back side of Luang Prabang (if you consider the Mekong to be the "front side"). The infinity pool and the rooms are beautiful as well. But are they worth the US$200 price? I don't think so. I'll take my US$15 guesthouse on the river, thank you. Not to mention, the hotel charged Piyawat and me US$10 for laying out at their pool with registered guests. Just plain tacky, in my opinion.

In any case, we eventually headed back to the downtown area to "Play Songkran". Basically the idea is to splash everyone who walks by or drives by with ice cold water. When no one is driving by, then you just turn to your friend next to you and pour a big bucket of water over his head. Add freely flowing Beer Lao and you have perfect low-tech fun. Needless to say, you get very wet, very quickly.

After a few hours, we needed to take a break, so the four of us took a boat across the river. We wandered through the small village watching the festivities. At one point we sat down on a tiny bench underneath a wooden house to eat fresh spring rolls and a solid dried rice pudding inside lettuce leaves.

Eventually we made it back over the river to our guesthouse where the party was still going strong. Only the setting sun slowed down the revelers. At dinner (on the river again) we sat and relaxed and watched lightning from an approaching storm light up the mountains across the river. From the sounds of it, nature will have her own "water splashing" festival tonight.

Sunset Arrival

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The four of us, Ted, Than, Piyawat and I, have made it safely to Luang Prabang, Laos. We flew Lao Aviation from Bangkok with a transfer in Vientiane. I knew from my past experiences that I shouldn't expect much from this airline (just get me there in one piece, please!) but the plane from Bangkok to Vientiane was brand new and quite nice.

However, when we arrived in Vientiane, the real fun started. We had a 45-minute layover that ended up being 45 minutes of chaos. First, we had to get our visa-on-arrival. Then, we were rushed through the 4-gate International Terminal over to the no-gate Domestic Terminal. We scanned our check-in bags and had to go to a third building to get our boarding pass. Of course this office had no computers, just reams of paper with passenger lists and handwritten tickets.

Once we got our boarding pass, we crossed to the opposite side of the terminal to go through security. Or should I say "security"? When Ted went through the metal detector, the alarms sounded. But there was no one working there and since Ted knew that he was not carrying any weapons, he just walked right through.

The air conditioner on the second plane wasn't working, but thankfully the flight was very quick. We then took a taxi to my friend Noy's guesthouse on the river, arriving just as the sun was setting over the mountains on the other side of the Mekong. Beautiful!

The four of us had dinner at one of Luang Prabang's nicest restaurants. The food was good, but I am so used to Thai prices that now paying US$8 for a plate of pasta seems outrageously expensive to me. On the other hand, I have to admit that it was the best cream sauce I have had in Asia.

After dinner we walked through the night market and to a big fair. One of the highlights was seeing the motorcyle show. (I'm not really sure what to call what I saw, so "motorcyle show" will have to do.) Basically, the show took place in a big circular enclosure. (Imagine a 30 foot tall wooden bucket.) We climbed to the top of the circular wall and looked inside where teenagers would take turns riding the motorcycle around the walls, perfectly horizontal to the ground.

It is the Songkran holiday, so everyone is in a very festive mood. Luckily, the water splashing hasn't begun yet, but Than made a super-soaker water gun purchase at the fair in preparation for New Year's Day tomorrow.

Walking Through Bang Na

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I spent most of the day today walking through Bang Na: walking through the Index furniture store looking for goodies for my new apartment, walking through Central Bang Na mall looking for shorts for my trip to Laos tomorrow, walking through Rama IX park as I enjoyed the sunset.

So tomorrow I will be in Luang Prabang to celebrate the Songkran Holiday. I've been wanting to make this trip for over a year, so I'm definitely excited!

Flying April

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Wow, where is April going? I can't believe that this is only the third post in the last 9 days. I guess that I have been swamped with settling into the new apartment and catching up on the work I missed while I was in America. Plus, it always seems like I have a few projects running along in the background: studying Thai, writing a short story about Thailand, and getting my finances in order which includes filing my 2003 income tax.

I have also been spending some time trying to figure out what is wrong with my picture pages on this website. Someone told me that they weren't rendering properly in IE, so I made a few changes to the CSS and HTML and now they are not rendering correctly in Mozilla. Sigh.

I definitely hope to solve the website problem before my trip to Laos next week. Yup, you heard correctly: it's time to hit the road again. This time I will be heading to Luang Prabang for the Songkran (New Year) holiday. I can hardly wait!

Full Moon Hinduism

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We were sitting in the outdoor jacuzzi at the gym, under the light of a huge orange full moon just over Ekk's shoulder. I was telling him about what I had witnessed earlier this evening and was hoping he could explain what I had seen.

I was strolling along Rama I Road, under the Skytrain, from the MBK shopping chenter, past Siam (shopping) Center and the new hotel/shopping center being built, past the Central World Plaza skyscraper that was just re-started, to the Ratchaprasong Intersection. On one corner is the Central shopping center, on another, the Gaysorn shopping center, on a third, the Erawan shopping center.

As I stood on Central's corner I noticed that the usually empty shrine was full of people. I sat and watched for a while, trying to figure out what they were doing. They all carried red roses and slips of red paper, and bundles of red incense sticks. They would light the incense, kneel and wai the standing, five-headed gold statue, and pray. When they were finished, they would leave the burning sticks in the golden pots full of ash and place their red roses on top of the pile of roses that had already been left.

Behind the statue was an explanation of what the image means. It's not Buddhist, but instead it is a Hindu image, representing the three-in-one god: Bhramin the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer. By paying respects to this image, one meditates on the fact that all life has these three features: birth, life, and death. No one can escape.

But why the red flowers and the red slips of paper? Ekk just passed that off by telling me that this particular god likes red. So those who come to ask for something can appease the god by bringing red flowers. The fact that it was late at night with a full moon overhead made the requests even more auspicious.

So there you have it, an interesting little view into the religious life of Thailand. I am sure that if you asked every person at the shrine what religion they were, they would answer "Buddhism". But here they were, praying to a Hindu god with a good dash of red-colored superstition thrown in for good measure.

New Apartment

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It's no April Fool's: I am now officially living in my 4th residence in Thailand. My one-year lease near MBK ended yesterday so I took the opportunity to find something cheaper and, hopefully more convenient. Even though I loved the location of my last apartment, I want to save as much money as possible. Who knows, perhaps buying a (relatively inexpensive) condo in Bangkok will be possible for me soon.

What I found was a studio apartment near Thong Lo. It's a few minutes from the Skytrain and about a 20 minute walk from work (as opposed to the 40 minute Skytrain+Walk commute before). But the biggest change is the price: about 7,500 baht (under US$200). It's exactly half of what I was paying for my first real apartment over a year ago.

The other big difference is the noise. I was in the heart of Bangkok before, but now I am on a quiet rarely used soi. Whereas in the last apartment the din of motorcycles racing past 24 hours a day kept me from ever opening the sliding glass door, I actually slept with the windows open last night, only to be awakened this morning by crowing roosters. Ahhh... Thailand!

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This page is an archive of entries from April 2004 listed from newest to oldest.

March 2004 is the previous archive.

May 2004 is the next archive.

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