April 2006 Archives

I have been spending the weekend in Nashua, New Hampshire, at a Regional Faculty meeting for the online university I have been working for. It's always great to see my work colleagues face-to-face. In fact, there were two of them who I have been emailing quite a bit, who I finally met for the first time. It's always nice to finally be able to put a face to a name.

But perhaps more importantly, as with every time I go to an academic function, I wonder if I should spend more time on my teaching career. Perhaps I should really get started on that PhD I've been threatening for years.

Oh well, we'll see where that leads once I get back to Bangkok. But on a more superficial note, after the meeting was over I did the exact same thing I did after last year's meeting: I found an Outback Steakhouse and had one of the best steaks of my life. I do miss having a truly great steak every now and then.

Lunch with a High School Friend

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I graduated from high school almost two decades ago. And, as with many people Im sure, I've changed quite a bit between my late teens to mid-thirties. Since I left my parent's home for the last time when I was 18, my life has had several main chapters: college, graduate school, working life, losing everything in the last half of 2001 and rebuilding a completely new life in the new millennium.

I bring all of this up because I am feeling a big pensive about the past two decades, simply because I just had lunch with my friend Betsy, who I haven't seen since 1988. As we shared our "powerpoint bullet points" of the last 20 years, we realized that our story arcs have been quite similar: college ending with master's degrees, riding the dot com wave, losing it all at the end of 2001, and rebuilding a new life that has some remnants of our pasts, but in other ways forays in completely new directions.

Two main themes came from our discussion over omelets and bacon this morning: angst in the past and plans for the future. In these themes, however, we were very different. Betsy claimed that she lived an angst-free past and meticulously plans her future. I on the other hand, seemed to have a relatively angst-full educational experience and have a distinct inability to make a definitive 5- 10- or 20-year plan for my life.

So, enough navel gazing for now. All I know is that my time in Thailand has been mostly angst-free. And that is why I have never left. But what about my future? I still have no concrete plans, but I just have a vague goal of wanting to look back over my life at the end and see a pattern, a path. I want all the experiences I've had to lead to something, to mean something, to create something worthwhile.

What those somethings are remain to be seen...

As I mentioned in my last entry, I spent my first night in America in Flushing, NY. Before my trip I checked out hotel room prices in New York City and was shocked at what I found. There was no way I was going to spend $250-$300 for a hotel room in Manhattan. That's the same as one month of rent in a nice apartment in Bangkok!

So I took a chance and booked a room at the Comfort Inn in Flushing. All I knew was that Orbitz said it was near LaGuardia Airport, and that the price was $120 a night. I was a little bit worried at what $120 would get me, but it has turned out to be exactly what I was looking for.

Before I left the hotel yesterday morning, I didn't get a chance to look at the neighborhood. The guys at the front desk said that I was only 5 blocks from the subway, but who knows what those five blocks held. So as I was riding the subway back out, with my new iBook in hand, I was a little bit nervous. If people get mugged in New York for their iPods, what will they do for a new iBook that's still in the box?

Well, it turns out that I had nothing to fear. In fact, I feel quite at home, for I wasn't expecting to travel all the way around the world to be surrounded by Chinese people. But judging by what I saw on those five blocks to the hotel, the population in this neighborhood much be at least 85% Chinese (With 5% white, 5% African-American, and 5% other, such as hispanic and Indian).

So... it has turned out to be a great deal: $120 for a clean room, 5 blocks from the subway (it's the last stop on the 7 Line), relatively close to both JFK and LGA, good neighborhood, free DSL in the room, free breakfast, and a super efficient front desk staff. I'll probably stay here every time I go to New York from now on.

On a warm Spring day, New York City is one of the most amazing places in the world.

That was the thought running through my head as I walked the streets of Manhattan today. New York itself is not a terribly beautiful city, but on a day like today, I was struck by the beauty of the historical buildings, and by the energy and diversity of their inhabitants.

I walked through a few different parks: Union Square, City Hall Park, and Washington Square. And every park bench in every park was full of people enjoying the warm sunny weather. I wonder how many languages I heard today. Certainly Spanish and English were the top two, but I am sure there were many others.

Thai Airways' non-stop flight from Bangkok to New York arrives before 7 AM, so after a quick taxi ride to my hotel in Flushing to drop off my bags (it was too early to check in) and a taxi over to a friend's house in Queens, and a bus and subway ride, I found myself on the streets of Manhattan.

My main task for today was to buy a new laptop to replace my Sony Vaio which seems to have permenantly died. I first visited the amazingly sleek Apple Store in Soho, which I realized was a serious mistake because when I went to Best Buy, Circuit City, Staples (3 of them), some other random computer shop, and finally J&R Electronics, every single other store made me physically ill to be inside.

Why is it so hard to create a store that provides an enjoyable shopping experience? How difficult is it to hire intelligent, knowlegable, enthusiastic staff? Is designing a store layout that allows you to easily compare and try the products a monumental task? Apparently, all of these things are next to impossible, since of the 6 chain stores I went to, only Apple pulled it off.

In some ways, I feel like I am voting with my money when I buy something. So, to make a long story short, I am now in my hotel room typing on my brand new iBook. It wasn't my cheapest option, by far, but I am so happy that I made this decision.

Mile-High Hill Tribes in Sapa

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Greetings from Mile-High Sapa in Northern Vietnam. Amazingly, even in this small town in the mountains a few kilometers from the Chinese border, there are Internet Cafes. And the connection is relatively speedy, considering where we are.

Rupert and I took the 9-hour overnight train from Hanoi last night. I love taking the train, and my favorite thing to do on the train is hang out in the dining car and chat with new friends. Last night was no exception. A Vietnamese tour guide and I chatted for a while about the Vietnamese tourism industry. Over a few Bia Ha Noi we brainstormed names for his future travel company. He said that he wanted to be a tour guide for a few years, then start his own company. I am sure that if Vietnam continues on its current path, there will be plenty of business for him in the future. It has truely been a fantastic place to visit.

This afternoon, we did a little hiking down the mountain to Cat Cat village, where some Black Hmong hiltribe people live. The mountains here are very steep and the valleys are quite small, yet hundreds of tiny rice field terraces have been carved into the hillsides. Unfortunately, being a mile high we are actually in the clouds today, so we can not see much of the view. But every now and then the sun peeks out and the mountains come into view.

We will be here a bit longer for some more trekking, then it's back to Hanoi and eventually home to Bangkok...

Halong Bay

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We are back in Hanoi after a two-day, one-night trip to Halong Bay. This seems to be the most popular trip for tourists visiting Hanoi, and with good reason. Halong Bay is full of thousands of small islands, each with impressive limestone cliffs.

We hear that it is quite difficult to get to Halong Bay by yourself, so we booked a tour that included a 4 hour minivan ride to and from the bay, a two day boat ride, food, visits to two caves, kayaking, and a small cabin on the boat to spend the night.

The kayaking was the highlight of the trip for us. We paddled across the open water over to some islands, and explored them by boat. There were a couple of places where we paddled through nature-made tunnels through the limestone rock. The two hour trip was just enough to get a taste of the beauty of the islands, yet not too tiring.

For our remaining days here, Rupert and I will visit a small town called Sapa, which is located 9 hours by train northeast of Hanoi near the Chinese border. There we will visit some hilltribe villages and soak in the atmosphere of the "Tonkinese Alps".

Arrival in Hanoi

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And I thought the streets of Bangkok were chaotic...

We arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam late last night. Luckily, we had made reservations by email with a guest house that had airport pickup. It was a 45 minute ride into the city, and it was immediately obvious that traffic laws (the few that exist) are even more ignored here than in Bangkok.

Our driver layed on the horn every few minutes to tell motorcycle drivers that we were coming. And from the looks of it, it was good to let them know. Otherwise they would just swerve and turn in front of you with no warning. Most cars on the highway had their bright lights on as well. So it was a bumpy, blinding, swerving, and loud honking ride to the guest house. We all decided that we would be doing no driving in Hanoi, in a car or a motorbike.

We are staying at the Classic Street Hotel in the old part of the city. It is a nice place - decent sized, clean rooms in a good location for US$25 including a tasty breakfast. Last night after checking in we walked around the old town a bit, and around the Hoan Kiem Lake enjoying the cool breeze. A midnight snack consisted of a US$1 big bowl of noodles and a 70 cent bottle of bia ha noi.

Today, Rupert and Piyawat are hitting the sights, while I am busy in a Internet cafe doing work. That wasn't a complaint, however. My real vacation will start on an overnight trip to Halong Bay on the coast tomorrow.

Planning for Trip to Hanoi

I've been pretty busy the last few days with work, and with my new part-time job I just took (more details on that later) and with cleaning the house now that the contractors are mostly finished with the bathroom. It has taken us several days to remove the layer of dirt and grime that the workers left behind, but now I think most of it is gone.

Also, I've spent some time planning my next trip. This week is the infamous Songkran holiday (Thai New Year), and to celebrate, we are leaving town. Rupert will be flying in tomorrow from San Francisco via Taipei, and then he and Piyawat and I will head to Hanoi for a few days.

I've been wanting to go to Hanoi ever since I moved to Asia, and now I will finally have the chance. Does anyone have any recommendations of things to do and places to go? We'll definitely do an overnight trip to Halong Bay, but other than that, we don't have any plans.

Moving to Gmail


The oldest saved email in my Yahoo email account is from June, 2000. Almost two years ago I started using Gmail (Google eMail) a little bit, but recently I have found myself relying on it more and more. I orginally posted my Gmail Review on this site, but now that I am using it almost full-time now, I thought I'd give another review.

Good things about Gmail:

  • I like the "Conversations" model. It took me a while to get my head around it, but now I prefer it. Several times recently I have wished for this feature in Yahoo mail.

  • The inbox refreshes automatically. In Yahoo mail you have to poll the system by clicking "Check Mail". Ditto for receiving mail from other email addresses.

  • The Spam Filter seems to do a better job than Yahoo. (And much, much, much better than Hotmail, which I have given up on altogether.)

  • There's not a useless splash screen like there is in Yahoo and Hotmail. When you log in, you go directly to your Inbox.

  • The address auto-complete works on Safari on my Mac. Yahoo doesn't.

  • The "Web Clips" at the top of my Inbox are completely gratuitous, but I still like them and click on them every now and then, just for fun.

  • Search is much, much faster on Gmail than Yahoo Mail. I think it gives better results too.

  • You can chat in your Inbox. This is another somewhat silly feature, but I still use it every now and then. I'd use it more, if more of my friends did.

  • I think it's cool that the amount of storage space increases every day. Right now I have 2.711 GB of space, compared to Yahoo's 2 GB. Not that I will use this space any time soon, but eventually I will.

  • Gmail has hot keys. When I am reading an email, I can type "R" and the reply box shows up. This is great for me, because, quite frankly, using a mouse hurts my wrist so I try to avoid it as much as possible.

OK, what are the bad things about Gmail:

  • The "address book" (called "Contacts") is very lame. It doesn't allow me to add much information about my friends. I still use Yahoo Address Book 100% for this functionality.

Hmm. That wasn't a very long list. And that is why I find myself moving from Yahoo to Gmail. So, if you have my Yahoo email address in your address book, feel free to update it to Gmail. That's sgtowns AT gmail DOT com. Oh, and I also have a lot of invitations to Gmail. If you want to try it out, send me an email at the address above and I will be glad to give you one.

Chakri Day at Siam Paragon

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Today was a the Chakri Memorial holiday in Thailand. Schools, banks, and government offices were closed to celebrate the founding of the Chakri Dynasty in 1782. (The current King of Thailand is the ninth ruler in this dynasty.)

So what did many Thai people do with their day off? Go shopping of course! I just happened to go to Siam Paragon and was amazed at the number of people who were there. But then I realized that hardly anyone was actually shopping, at least on the first floor with all the high-class shops.

There were two customers in Hermes. There were two more in Salvatore Ferragamo. There were none in Versace. And Giorgio Armani and Dolce & Gabbana? Exactly zero and zero.

And how many were on the ground floor at the food court? I'd guess somewhere in the neighborhood of four million. Ok, so maybe there weren't that many, but there were definitley thousands of people there. MK and McDonald's were both packed, and there wasn't a table to be had in the 40 baht noodles and stir-fry area.

The owners of Paragon were smart to include eateries for us "normal" folk, because it sure seems like the ground floor food court is the only thing that is going to keep that mall in business.

After appearing on TV last night and saying, "Why should I quit?", Thaksin just announced that he will no longer be the Prime Minister of Thailand.

I will not accept post of premier in the next government : Thaksin from the Nation newspaper.

Wow. No commentary here, just surprised. Very surprised.

90-Day Tourist Visa in Penang?


On my recent post about my visa run to Penang, "Bob" left a comment asking why I don't just get a 60-day (extendable to 90-day) tourist visa in Penang. I have never heard of such a thing. Does anyone have any details on how to get it? Is there a Thai Consulate there? If so, where is it? Do I have to do anything special to receive the extra days? Where do I extend it to 90 days?

Thanks for any info anyone can share!

P.S. And no April Fool's jokes, OK? :)

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This page is an archive of entries from April 2006 listed from newest to oldest.

March 2006 is the previous archive.

May 2006 is the next archive.

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