Got DSL?

 

The quest for a DSL line in our apartment nears its end, but is not over yet.  Monday morning a technician from TOT (Telephone of Thailand) came to the apartment complex and switched on our home phone line.  Then on Tuesday afternoon a maintenance man from the complex came to our unit and actually activated the telephone jack itself.  Then this afternoon I attached the DSL modem/router, used the enclosed CD-ROM to format the modem and get ready to actually use the DSL line.

Everything appears to be properly installed and ready to go.  The DSL and LAN lights are on full-strength.  The connection appears live.  And yet, when I open Internet Explorer, the request to go to a particular address times out.  I think the settings (“Obtain IP Address Automatically”) are not correct.  So I’ll ask Tawn to help me sort this out, which may involve a phone call to TOT – a daunting task in and of itself.

Halfway Quiz at ULS

Today was my tenth day of Thai language instruction at Union Language School, the halfway point in Module 1.  So today each of the thirteen students had an oral examination with the khruu, or teacher. 

I selected number ten in a random draw, which may have been somewhat beneficial as khruu Lakkanah realized that she was taking too long for each student and the exams became increasingly brief.  I was in the exam for about five minutes, maybe less.  As each question was asked, if I didn’t have the answer right now then she moved on to the next question.  Kind of like being on the speed round of the $64,000 Pyramid game show.

The general areas of knowledge that we were quizzed on:

  • Being able to name yourself, ask names, and ask for clarification about names
  • Being able to describe how you are doing and ask others the same
  • Being able to ask what things are called, and to respond to the same questions
  • Being able to identify common colors, classroom objects, eating objects (bowls, plates, utensils), fruits, vegetables, and meat products.
  • Being able to request basic food and beverage items, and to say how many of something you want, using the right classifiers (“glass of water”, “cup of coffee”, “bottle of orange juice”.)

The biggest challenge for me was to remember the fruits and vegetables.  The first challenge is that the fruits and vegetables common here in Thailand are not regularly available in the United States.  Mangosteen, rambutan, and wax apples (those are just the English names – I have to remember “mangkut”, “nhoc”, and “chompuu”) are all terribly commonplace here but I rarely see them at the local Safeway in the US!

Tawn spent quite a bit of time reviewing the foods with me last night.  I drew pictures in a notebook and he quizzed me on them until I had most of them down.  Tomato (“makhuatheet”), papaya (“malahkha”) and fruits in general (“pohlaymaay”) were three of the stumbling blocks.

All in all, I think I did fine with the quiz.  The purpose of the quiz was really to make sure that students are getting the basic concepts, constructions, and pronunciations before we get too far through the class.  The last day we do have a final – oral and written – and passing is mandatory to proceed to the next module.

 

First Thanksgiving in Bangkok

Thanksgiving weekend came and went and not a single turkey was sighted in Bangkok.  In fact, Thursday was another “regular” day for me – not that I’ve been here long enough to have truly established a routine.  The good news is that I was able to get several days’ worth of work done while my colleagues in the US were busy eating and then digesting their holiday meals.

On Friday morning – Thursday dinnertime in the US – Tawn and I started two separate phone calls to the States to talk with relatives.  The day concluded with the gala 32nd birthday celebration and housewarming for Tawn’s high school friend Eddy Ritthiworachart.  Eddy and his partner, Lek, purchased a 3-bedroom house in a suburban Bangkok development almost two years ago.  Eddy’s responsibility since then has been to take it through an extensive finishing process to create a tranquil oasis for Lek, a doctor who usually works seven days a week and wants somewhere to unwind on his occasional days off.

Eddy partnered with Ble, a fairly well-known designer here in Thailand, to shop for antiques and pull together a design for the house.  The results, as you shall see below, are fantastic.

Sadly, Eddy has no experience throwing parties so he asked us to host the party for him.  His new kitchen is still unfurnished, so it really turned into a catering event of sorts for us.  Things worked out beautifully and the dozen or so guests had a wonderful time.

Image 1: Living and dining room area in Eddy’s house with a gilded Naga horn in the style seen atop temples in northern Thailand.

Image 2: Tawn with his friend and Hill & Knowlton colleague, Mon.

Image 3: Tawn looks on as Ble, the house’s designer, unveils his contribution to dinner – a variety of Thai-style appetizers very creatively presented in a huge bamboo steamer.

Image 4: Chris and Tawn in the lovely outdoor courtyard of Eddy’s house.

Image 5: Eddy figures out how to handle the trick candles we put on his birthday cake.  After blowing them out, they would relight, much to his shock and irritation.  The house ended up filled with smoke.  Finally, some water was brought in as the solution.

Image 6: Tawn’s friend Kat, Eddy’s boyfriend Lek, Eddy, and Kat’s friend Candy have a good laugh in the foyer.

Image 7:Tawn and his friend Tao have a good laugh over an antique Chinese drum that Ble and Eddy used as a side table.

Image 8: Party-goers – from the left: Ble, Mon, Eddy, Tawn, Candy, Kat, and Lek.

Near Incursions on the Road

The first Chris vs. car near-incursion of the day occurred just before I crossed the second driveway south of my apartment complex.  Half a step into the driveway, which leads into an office tower car park, I glanced over my right shoulder and caught a black Nissan signaling the intent to turn left.  Sure enough, the driver pulled left into the very driveway that I was now two steps into.  Having improved my reaction time significantly over the past four weeks, I halted in my tracks and the Nissan’s dusty fender whizzed by two feet from my kneecaps.

This daily ritual, repeated at countless intersections and driveways, provides a satisfying theory why Buddhism, with its underlying belief in reincarnation, is so prevalent in Thailand.  With the threat of being hit by a car so very real, there is something comforting in the belief that you will be able to come back and do it all again.  If you do not get it done this life, you can get to it the next time around.


The street I live on, Sukhumvit Soi 21 (also known as Thanon Asoke), is a major artery into and out of the financial district and the Sukhumvit entertainment area.  There are four lanes: two inbound, one outbound, and another that alternates between inbound from 6:00 to 16:00 and outbound the remainder of the time.  Or whenever market forces and nerves of steel dictate.

Picture 1: Asoke intersection – my apartment is the second building on the left of the picture.  Interestingly, there is another 7-11 located directly across Asoke from the one in the picture.  Too dangerous to cross the street for a Slurpee!

Unlike in the sprawling United States, traffic is so heavy most of the day that there are rarely any stretches of time when the lanes are free enough of traffic that you can cross without fear. Instead, you have to shift your mentality and use one of (or a combination of) three strategies to get across:

  • Strategy 1: The “Frogger” Strategy – Like the video game of the same name, your objective is to focus on crossing just one lane at a time.  Once your past the first lane, you wait patiently on the line between lanes, looking for an opening across the next lane.  One thing to watch out for: the ubiquitous motorcycles that cut between lanes and slalom around pedestrians.
  • Strategy 2: The Go for the Break Strategy  –  If there is a break in traffic that is even just a few cars long, you can step into the road and fill the break with your body.  In some circumstances, the oncoming drivers will recognize your claim to the space, especially if the traffic to your left is stopped or backed up.  You can continue across using a similar ploy ?if one lane stops, the next lane will likely stop, too.  Again, watch out for motorcycles.  This strategy is especially effective for the lane closest to the curb as stopping busses and taxis cause a break in the traffic flow.
  • Strategy 3: Safety in Numbers – Usually if there are at least three or four people on the curb, you can step out together and your odds of getting hit drop dramatically.  Drivers may be willing to risk hitting one pedestrian or even two, but once the numbers get large enough, they may concede a few moments’ worth of space for you to cross.  Sometimes groups of pedestrians may even attract the attention of a police officer who is directing traffic and, on rare circumstances, the police officer may actually stop the traffic for them!

There is a special fourth strategy, but this only works for Thai people.  It is known as “Cross Behind the Farang.”  Farang is the Thai word for foreigner and it usually refers only to Western-looking foreigners.  Foreigners who are Asian or look sufficiently Asian can use this strategy sometimes because a Thai automobile driver may not have the time to judge whether you are really Thai, or are Chinese, Filipino, Lao, etc.

In this strategy for crossing, you look for a farang who is waiting to cross the street and then go stand just behind and to the left of him or her.  (Traffic comes from the right in Thailand.)  Wait for the farang to start crossing the street and then walk across closely in his or her wake.  You see, Thai drivers generally are less likely to hit a farang because if they do, they are legally obligated to stop and provide aid.  And this will mean talking with him, knowing full well that the farang likely speaks no meaningful amount of Thai.  Figuring this is just too much of a headache, most Thai drivers will come to a screeching halt just a few inches from your legs instead of endure an injured farang mumbling, or worse, yelling in English.

All this is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, of course.  The only time that I have been close to being hit was a few weeks back over on Soi 19.  The windows on the black SUV (very rare things here in Thailand) were rolled down and when I looked up at the driver, it was a farang behind the wheel.  Probably some half-drunk ex-pat who thought he was being clever and scaring a tourist.

 

 

Learning Thai

Pom rian passat Thai.

 I am learning the Thai language.  I have completed exactly six days of classes at the Union Language School and already I am able to do amazing things, which I will write about in a moment.

One of my reasons for choosing Union Language School was that its curricula was developed by Donald Larsen, a noted linguist.  My experience learning French from a speaker who was trained in linguistics was very positive and it seemed that linguistics provided a good framework around which to organize the learning.

The first school I had tried (studying briefly during previous visits) was the structure-less American University Alumni Association.  The focus there is on learning by absorption.   Sit here and listen to two instructors carry on a dialog in Thai and in a few years you will have learned it just the way a child does.  AUA graduates are acknowledged to ultimately speak Thai with near-flawless accents.  Locals regularly mistake one Japanese friend (Mitsu, shown below) who completed three years at AUA for Thai.  Albeit, usually not a Thai “from around here.”

That said, I have found the complete lack of structure a bit frustrating.  At AUA they discourage students from even attempting to speak Thai until you reach the third level of studies.  Feeling the need to get up to speed a bit more quickly, even if I require more work on the back end of things to get rid of my accent, I went knocking on the ULS door.

From the very first day, I have enjoyed the experience at ULS.  For starters, the teacher, Khru Lakhana, is incredibly enthusiastic.  She must have a dozen cups of coffee first thing in the morning.  The class is composed of thirteen students: 5 from the US, 2 from Japan, 2 from Spain, 1 Russian, 1 Israeli, 1 Brit, and 1 Bolivian.

We spent the first three and a half days learning the basic phonetic albhabet – a standardized set of letters and symbols that each have a discreet sound.  For example, in the English language, the “ou” sound in “cough”, “tough”, “though”, and “through” are different.  In order to learn a language properly, we need a standard vocabulary to use and the phonetic alphabet provides that.

An example of how the nine pure vowels (as opposed to the compound vowels like “ia”, “ua”, etc.) in Thai, each in a long and short sound.  The phonetic symbols for the nine long vowels are:

  • ii = “ee” as in “see
  • ee = “a” as in “pale”
  • oo = “o” as in “go
  • aa = “a” as in “father”
  • uu = “u” as in “ruler”
  • ¥å¥å = “a” as in “sad”
  • әә = “e” as in “teacher”
  • ɔɔ
  • = “a” as in “Tawn”
  • ʉʉ
  • = “u” at in “ruler” but with a wide smile on your face as you say it

We also spent those first three-plus days practicing the five tones in the Thai language.  Think of tones like holding a note while singing.  The vowel sound in a syllable will rise, fall, hold steady, etc. based on the particular tone.  The five tones applied to the word “mai” are as follows:

  • māi = mid tone, hold stead at a middle pitch
  • mài = low tone, start at middle pitch and drop to low pitch
  • mâi = falling tone, starting at middle pitch, rising a bit, and then dropping sharply
  • mái = high tone, starting at a mid-high pitch and rising sharply
  • măi = rising tone, starting at mid pitch, dropping a bit, and then rising sharply

These are much fewer than some languages have.  I have been told that some dialects of Chinese have up to eight or nine different tones.  The different between tones is critical because the change of a tone also changes the meaning.  The above five words mean, in order, “mile”, “new”, “no” or “not”, “right?” and “silk”.  The challenge to learners who come from a native language that does not employ tones is that we’re not used to even hearing the differences.  And believe me when I tell you that the distinctions, especially when someone is speaking at a conversational pace, are subtle.

One the tail end of the fourth day we began to practice actual words and conversations.  We learned simple things first, like how to refer to yourself, another person, and a third person in singular form.  Then we learned to identify ourselves and ask others their names.  Then we learned to ask what something is, what color it is, and how many of them there are.

What I am finding is that the structure of the material is quite brilliant because each new bit of knowledge does not just add another building block – it adds a multiplier or an exponential factor to our existing knowledge.

For example, once I learned how to ask colors in addition to asking names of items and quantities, my Thai universe expanded in size by a factor of three.  I can now ask how many items of a particular type that that other person is holding, are a particular color.  Very useful stuff.

Here is an example of a conversation I can now carry on with a native Thai speaker, assuming he has infinite patience as I mispronounce every word and tone, and also assuming he follows my practiced script to the letter.  The conversation is in English for your ease of reading.

  • Chris: Hello there.
  • Thai person: Hello there.
  • Chris: My name is Chris. Excuse me, what is your name?
  • Thai person: My name is Chai.
  • Chris: I am sorry, what is your name again?
  • Thai person: My name is Chai.
  • Chris: Your name is Eric?
  • Thai person: No. My name is Chai.
  • Chris: Your name is Chai?
  • Thai person: Correct. My name is Chai.
  • Chris: Chai, what is this called?
  • Chai: That is a pencil.
  • Chris: Chai, what is that called?
  • Chai: That is a ruler.
  • Chris: Chai, that ruler is orange.
  • Chai: No, that ruler is not orange.
  • Chris: Chai, that ruler is not orange. That ruler is clear.
  • Chai: Yes, that ruler is clear.
  • Chris: (picking up a bunch of colored pencils) Chai, how many of these pencils are green?
  • Chai: What the heck are you asking me for!?

Of course, this is not based on a real conversation, but only on the types of conversations I have with my teacher and fellow students in class.  I have attempted to engage Tawn in these conversations, and while he is very supportive of my studying Thai, I think he finds the conversations with his three year old second cousin Mark to be significantly more mentally engaging.

But this is just day six.  We have a test next Wednesday and I am sure by then I will be having some truly amazing conversations!

Washing Machine Installation is Complete

With amazement, I am pleased to announce that the washing machine installation project has reached completion more than seven weeks after we leased our apartment.  The handyman, whose picture is listed in the dictionary next to the entry for “flake”, was supposed to show up today to finish the project.  Instead, he showed up unexpectedly on Thursday afternoon.

He and two assistants toiled away in our bathroom for about five hours.  The water was turned off and the bathroom was a mess of fumes, PVC pipe dust, concrete powder, etc.  Finally the washer was hooked up, Tawn started running a load, and we discovered that not only does the water back up on the balcony a bit – there’s also a leak in the ceiling space where the water line runs. 

  

Picture 1: Bedroom balcony with a water line and no power.  The washer is on the living room balcony on the other side of the wall. 

Picture 2: Construction taking place in our bathroom.  Opening in the ceiling exposes the brick and mortar that is used to seal the crawl space. 

Picture 3: Washer is installed and the first full load is drying (or not) in the rainy afternoon air.

So the handyman came back an hour later to check if the area was dry enough to make additional repairs.  And it wasn’t so he said he’d be back in another hour.  About two hours later, at 9:15 pm, he returned as Tawn and I were cleaning up and getting ready for bed. 

So his two assistants returned this afternoon about 1:30 to get the job finished.  They were much neater than the handyman and actually wrapped the project up in about 45 minutes.

So now our bedroom balcony has a washing machine that is hooked to power and water.  A second pipe runs across the edge of the balcony to the drain beneath the air conditioning compressor.  Since the water flows out of the pipe and not directly into the drain, we get a bit of a shallow lake on part of the balcony.  But it dries quickly in the warm air and, frankly, I’m just glad that we can wash clothes now instead of paying rates higher than the US to have our clothes laundered!

Loi Krathong 2548

Loi Krathong 2548 (Buddhist calendar) was a big splash, especially as it fell on my birthday this year.  This was my first Krathong festival and it is definitely one of those sights that, if you’re planning on going to Thailand, you should schedule your trip around.

My previous blog entry provides a link and some more details about the festival, but something I can add is that I read on 2Bangkok is that Loi Krathong was originally a festival in just the northern provinces of Thailand.  Sometime in the past twenty five years of so, the Tourism Authority of Thailand appropriated the festival and encouraged it as a more widespread event.  Don’t know if this is true or not, but it would be interesting.  2Bangkok has some good photos of the event, along with photos from 2004 and 2004 (or, if you prefer, 2547 and 2546).

Here’s are some of mine to add to the experience:

 

Above – our two Krathong.  We received these at the Metro Mall (small underground shopping area at our local Metro station) for each spending more than 50 baht.  Basically, buy a smoothie, get a Krathong.  Not bad for US$1.25.

Above right – after years of environmental degradation caused by literally hundreds of thousands of Krathong made of foam and other non-biodegradable materials clogging the rivers, canals and waterways of the Kingdom, the government started a campaign a few years ago to encourage (and eventually mandated!) the use of environmentally-friendly materials.  Tawn shows that our Krathong are made from a slice of palm trunk.  They are further decorated with banana leaves, flowers, incense, and candles.  Some can be quite elaborate.

For dinner we walked to Sukhumvit Soi 12, about 15 minutes from the house and hiked far back into the soi (alley) to Crepes & Company.  This is a widely known “family” restaurant that serves, obviously, crepes as well as a wide variety of Mediterranean foods.  Every few months they set up a special menu featuring the cuisine of a particular country.  Right now it is Morocco, so we had a lovely red snapper tajine – sort of a clay pot stew.  We also enjoyed a Massaman curry chicken crepe and a nice salad with eggplant, roasted red peppers and olives served on leaf lettuce.

With the dinner we had a For desert we had a wonderful Australian Cab-Shiraz-Malbec blend that complemented everything nicely.  For dessert we had fried almond and honey pastries that were similar to baklava except that instead of using filo dough they actually had a pastry crust. Then I was surprised by the arrival of pancakes (not crepes – pancakes!) with bananas, chocolate sauce, whipped cream, two scoops of ice cream, and a birthday candle!

After dinner we took a cab to Chulalongkorn University – where Tawn received his Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science.  “Chula,” as it is affectionately known, is the Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Yale of Thailand.  It is not the Berkeley of Thailand.  That honor (notoriety?) is bestowed on crosstown rival Thammasat University where the student riots of October 6, 1976 occurred.. 

There were literally tens of thousands of students and other young people gathered on the campus for the festivities.  It was a bit of a cross between homecoming and a religious event.  Every faculty (school) at the university had an entry in the “best Krathong” competition, performed a staged event along a set theme including floats and costumes, and most groups also had food or beverage booths set up as fund-raisers.

Everyone made a stop by the lagoon, which is next to the marching field and the huge statue of King Rama IV and King Rama V.  The university was named after King Rama V.  The lagoon is perhaps two or three acres in size and already there were thousands or Krathong floating in it. 

It had rained while we were at dinner, so the air was cooler but spirits were not dampened at all.  We took our Krathong from their bags and prepared them.  First, we placed a coin on each for charity.  Later on, the coins would be collected from all the Krathong and donated to various social service groups.  Then, we plucked a hair and put it on the Krathong, so that a part of us would go with it.

Walking the water’s edge (Tawn being especially careful not to slip in since he was wearing stylish sandals) and lit the candles and incense.  All around use were hundreds of other people doing the same thing. 

Finally, we said a short blessing, thanking nature for its bounty and asking for good fortune in the season to come.  Then we set our Krathong into the water.  Since there was no current, a little light splashing helped get them on their way.  One important part of the customs surrounding the festival is that couples are supposed to launch their Krathong at the same time.  It the rafts follow and bump into each other, that is an auspicious sign for the relationship.  This is supposed to be especially true if you launch the Krathong at Chula – but that may be since it is a lagoon the odds of them bumping into each other increase!

From there we took a taxi home and called it a night, thoroughly exhausted after all our walking and excitement.  Plus, I started my Thai language classes this morning at 8:00 and needed all the sleep I could get.  More about that tomorrow.

 

My 35th Birthday

The morning of my 35th birthday got off to an early start as my parents called to wake me up at 6:30 and wish me a happy birthday.  It was nice to hear from them.  I think my father was a bit impressed that he had successfully dialed international long distance (“so many numbers!”) and we had a nice conversation.

We had originally planned to get up a bit earlier and after the phone call we rose, got cleaned up, and headed to a local wat or temple.  Actually, it wasn’t all that local.  We took the Skytrain to the other side of town, to a wat located behind the Century Park Hotel (Paul will remember this hotel). 

Part of Thai Buddhist tradition is the concept of “making merit“.  This can be done anytime, but it is customary to do it on your birthday and on other significant occassions.  

So we went to the wat and I donated a bucket full of possessions that the monks can use such as toothpaste, soap, rice, water, etc.  Then I receive a lengthy blessing (in Pali, the Sanskrit-derived language used by monks for religious ceremonies, complete with a spashing with holy water.

This particular wat is located in the midst of a community market and, despite being located almost smack-dab beneath an expressway, is still an example of the central role the temple plays in the community’s life.  In another hall at the temple, preparations were being made for a funeral.  Another area holds a school.  And another is where young men prepare to enter the monkhood as novices, for a day, several weeks, months, or even a lifetime – as all Thai Buddhist men are expected to do at some point.

My 35th birthday falls at an especially auspicioius time: last night was the full moon and today is the final day of the Loy Krathong festival.  Quoting from the Tourism Authority website:

“Loi Krathong” is traditionally performed on the full moon night of the twelfth lunar month, which usually falls on some day in November. The floating of a ‘Krathong’ – a banana–leaf cup – is intended to float away ill fortune as well as to express apologies to Khongkha or Ganga, the River Goddess. Some believe that the ritual is meant to worship the Buddha’s footprint on the bank of the Narmada River, while others say that it is to pay respect to Phra Uppakhut, one of the Lord Buddha’s great disciples.

We’ll go down to Chulalangkorn University (Tawn’s alma matta) this evening, where there is a large lake on the campus, to place our own krathong in the water and cleanse ourselves of any ill fortune.  This is as big a celebration as New Year’s Eve is in the States, so I’ll try to get some pictures of it.