Suvarnabhumi: Trial Run

The boondoggle that is Suvarnabhumi, the four decades in the making new Bangkok international airport, continues its wobbly course towards its “if-and-when” opening set for September 28th of this year.  You may recall that last year at this time, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra promised that the airport would be open by September 29th (2005).  Construction delays, cracks in the runways, and other problems conspired to keep that from being a reality, although to save face the PM constructed an elaborate public relations event in which two plane loads of journalists and political luminaries were flown from the existing Don Muang airport to the new airport, where they landed, parked at a gate, and were given a tour of the facility.  Then, complete with souvenir suitcases, they were “checked in” for the return flight to show that all systems were working, then they proceeded “through security”, boarding their flights and being flow thirty minutes around Bangkok and landing back at Don Muang.

Behind the scenes, I suspect that hundreds of young army conscripts were personally running each bag to the gate and ensuring that the system was flawless.  Of course, two PR flights for the PM does not a functioning airport make.

So this year there has been our share of political intrigue and new dates have been set by different government officials for the airport’s opening: July.  No, August.  No, September for sure.  October, guaranteed. 

The airlines responded by saying something to the effect of, “Hey, how about we don’t open it until we know it is really ready and how about you give us about six months’ of advance notice so we can prepare?”

Finally, Shinawatra, who at one point supposedly stepped down and then didn’t and is supposedly a “caretaker” PM awaiting new elections in October, announced that all flights would start using Suvarnabhumi as of September 28th of this year.  Additionally, he announced that six Thai airlines would participate in various test flights in advance of that date.

Well, some details were finally set on the test flights and it turns out that on July 29th, each of the airlines (THAI, Bangkok Airways, Orient Thai, Thai Air Asia, and Nok Air) will operate two or three domestic flights out of and into the new aiport, flights that are not usually timed to carry passengers connecting to or from international flights.

One of the airlines, Orient Thai, offered a special package that includes a morning departure from Don Muang landing 30 minutes later at Suvarnabhumi, a fully airport tour from Airports of Thailand officials, and a return flight mid-afternoon.  The price is 1999 baht and all proceeds will be donated to one of the King’s projects.

So I traipsed down to the Orient Thai (also known as One-Two-Go here in Thailand) ticket office which is about a half-kilometer away from the apartment and waited patiently as an agent made all sorts of phone calls to secure a ticket for me.  Her computer was showing that the outbound flight was full, but the return flight had available seats.  However, the flights were only sold as a package so there was no way I could just buy the one-way ticket!

I would imagine that several of the seats on the outbound flight are being held for various VIP guests who don’t want to be bothered with flying back into Don Muang.

After about twenty minutes of exploring options she apologized and offered to take my name and number if anything came up.  Oh, well.  And here I was all excited at the opportunity to be one of the first to see the new airport and to get to walk around before it was fully in operations.

If any of you have connections with one of the Thai airlines, let me know!

Tomato Splits

Wednesday arrives and it is surely hump day.  My Thai class breaks down into sheer sillyness halfway through, our khruu trying to keep us together while laughing out our lame attempts at humor, mostly plays on words caused by the different tones in Thai.  Students often make silly and potentially embarassing mistakes.

For example, the word for “to ride” and the word for “excrement/dirt/ashes” is the same (khii), differentiated only by the tones.  Low tone is the first, falling tone the second.

So if you say “khii chaang” you could either be saying “to ride an elephant” or you could be talking about the elephant’s droppings… and not in a polite way, either.

Thais really like potty humor, I’ve discovered.

On an entirely unrelated note, Tawn was doing some yoga at home this evening and has discovered that he can do the splits now, but only on when side.  When he turns the other direction, he isn’t as flexible.  The benefits of yoga.

For dinner this evening I hollowed out some yellow tomatoes and stuffed them with a Thai-style chicken salad that I made a few days ago.  The flavors have intermingled very nicely.  The salad is from a recipe in the San Francisco Flavors cookbook compiled by the Junior League of San Francisco. 

It is a cold version of chicken larb that you find on many Thai restaurant menus, but minus the mint (which I was supposed to add and forgot!) and the toasted, ground rice. 

Very tasty when served on a bed of Boston lettuce with sesame dressing.


Receiving the following paragraph in an email from a friend, it set me to thinking about the nature of boredom:

“I believe our souls gets bored eventually if the situation stays the same all the time. A healthy soul should have the yearning to want to learn more and more and don’t stop until we die. That is why we are always challenging for new experiences and environments, we have to, otherwise we are dead.  Well, at least for me, if I am not excited or inspired any more at one point of my life or another, I feel that I might as well die.”

The comments about souls and boredom got me thinking and I’ve spent a bit of time the past three days digesting those ideas.  Here’s what came out the other end of that process:


Stimulation through new experinces, whether it be a travel, meeting new people, learning a language, reading a book, or whatever, is very healthy for the mind and spirit.  It keeps our synapses firing and creates new connections.  It fuels our creativity and passion and can create new inspiration in our lives, personally and professionally.


At the same time, I think many of us engage in something that is akin to “experiential materialism.” 


Just in the same way that people are increasingly trying to find satisfaction through the acquisition of objects (new clothes, cars, iPods, etc.), I think there is a parallel way in which we try to avoid confronting and engaging our inner selves (our true nature) by instead acquiring experiences.  Like the child watching television who has been conditioned by jump-cuts and camera pans every three seconds to require ongoing stimulation we, too, become “bored” if there isn’t a regular stream of new sights, sounds, sensations and tastes.


Now, let me take a moment to make clear that I’m not passing judgment here on anyone: I’m as guilty of this as anyone out there, having lived in twelve different places in three countries in the twelve years since I graduated from university.


Here are two passages from the Tao Te Ching (which I spent some time contemplating in my university years – thus my email address, “christao17“, which refers to a chapter of the Tao Te Ching that is about leadership) that relate to this idea of experiential materialism and how the affect us:


Chapter 12

Colours blind the eyes.

Notes deafen the ear.

Flavours numb the taste.

Thoughts weakent the mind.

Desires wither the heart.


The Master observes the world

but trusts her inner vision.

She allows things to come and go.

Her heart is open as the sky.


Chapter 17

Without opening your door,
you can open your heart to the world.
Without looking out your window,
you can see the essence of the Tao.

The more you know,
the less you understand.

The Master arrives without leaving,
sees the light without looking,
achieves without doing a thing.


(Written by Lao-tzu, translated by S. Mitchell.  I’ve taken the liberty of changing the male pronouns to female.)


What are the reasons that we open our doors, look out our windows, and seek new flavors, sights, and sounds?  What are we escaping from?  What are we afraid we might find if we instead turn our mind inwards and reflect on ourselves?


Perhaps each person has different motivations for their experiential materialism: disatisfaction with ourselves, frustration with circumstances, challenges in relationships, unwillingness to confront negative habits.  If we confront these things, we would probably experience tremendous personal growth and also achieve some inner calmness.  But confrontation requires (or at least on the surface it appears to require) much more energy than just filling ourselves up with distractions.


So the question is, how do we distinguish stimulation that is for the sake of learning and growth, from stimulation that is just a way of avoiding confronting ourselves?

Enough philosophy for a Sunday morning.  Discuss.


I’ll conclude with two pictures of fruit (pholamai in Thai) that I’ve taken over the past week.  On the left is a truck loaded with bananas.  On the right is a truck of rambutan, which look like hairy red golf balls.



Min Buri by Bicycle

Was up quite early for a Saturday morning to prepare for a bike ride in the countryside.  This customized Spiceroads tour was 45 km starting in Min Buri, a northeast suburb of Khrungthep.  We rode with a couple we’ve recently met, Tam and Markus, and Tam’s younger sister Poun.  Coincidentally, Markus is from San Francisco, too.

Our guide was the same one I had on my last Spiceroads trip, and once again we had a fun adventure.  It was sunny most of the day and clouded up and started raining only once we were in the canal boat on the way home.

Pictures for your enjoyment – I’ll add some video clips soon as we saw a few things that really need movement to be properly conveyed.


Above left: Tam and Poun engaged in a struggle right out of a Greek myth.  Above right: Tam, Markus, Poun and Tawn pose as our bikes are assembled.  Below: The gang is ready to go: Tawn, Chris, Markus, Poun, and Tam

Left: Along the way we stopped and walked about 50m back into the jungle to see a large nest of bats.  They were everywhere and quite active, flying from tree to tree.  I shot some video and will include it in a later post.

Below left: Tawn at a rest stop, a pavillion overlooking the rice paddies.

Below right: Lunch!  We stop for traditional central Thai food at a roadside restaurant.  Dishes include an omlette, deep-fried fish, stir fried prawns, and tom yum goong soup.  Yummy.



Above and below: We arrived at one temple to find a procession of about 100 villagers including a jazz combo that would have been at home at a New Orleans funeral.  The lively procession was leading three young men through the steps to becomming monks.  The young men are wearing so-called “naga” robes, named after the nine-headed serpent that protected Buddha from evil spirits.  They will don the saffron robes in a ceremony tomorrow.  Note the shaved eyebrows.



Above: We met a long-tailed boat take us about 45 minutes back to the mosque from which we originally set out.  Below: Back at the mosque, tired and exhausted, we pose for a few more pictures.  In the final picture, our guide is on the right.


Tara’s First Birthday

Sunday afternoon Tawn and I drove up to Ayuttahya province, about an hour north of Bangkok, to the country estate of Pim’s parents.  Pim, Tawn’s friend since high school, is the mother of a adorable one-year old who serves as my surrogate niece here in Thailand since my two nieces are 8,000 miles away.

The estate, called Khum Tawan, means “Estate of the Sun” and is a very large complex with a lake, a canal, large gardens, and an entertainment villa overlooking the lake.  It is very nice.

Here are some pictures and a video segment I shot.


Left: Tawn and Pim   Right: Tawn and Chris   Below: Tara and her nanny play with her mobile phone

Above: Mom, Grandpa, Grandma, Tara, and Dad.  Below Left: Tara and her cake  Below Right: Tawn, Tara and Pim with Tara’s birthday present from us.


The video is quite large, about 13mb.

Making Friends in a Foreign Land

(With all due respect to the Thais, who don’t consider Thailand a “foreign” land.)

Over the past seven months of living in Thailand, one of the biggest challenges and one that I haven’t always consciously acknowledged, is that of not really having many friends here.

To be certain, I’ve been very fortunate to have Tod as someone who not only makes a good Thai tutor, but has also been a fun companion and good listener, being able to provide me with the balanced perspective of a Thai who has lived overseas for a decade.

Then there’s Masakazu and Mitsu, but they seem to always be unavailable as Masa flies for United and is away for twenty or more days a month.

And Tawn is certainly not without friends, all of whom have been kind and hospitable towards me.

But it is different than having a full set of friends here.  While I’ve never been the type of person who is in regular contact with all my friends – undoubtedly they are nodding their head as they read this – knowing they’re there has always been a source of comfort and support.

So in the past few months, since returning from the United States in March, I’ve been actively looking for more opportunities to make new friends.  The time spent is starting to pay off.  I’ve made friends with a fellow student at Union Language School, a Japanese guy named Kaz who has a Thai partner.  Also, I’ve met a Thai guy name Tam whose partner, Markus, is from San Francisco. 

Slowly, the connections are being made.  These things take time, right?

Today Kaz and I ate lunch at a small Thai restaurant (outdoor place) whose proprietor was the poor Issan version of the character Beverly Leslie (played by Leslie Jordan) on Will & Grace.   Funny audio clip from the character.  If you know the series and the character, you’ll know what I mean.  Otherwise, the reference will be lost on you and it isn’t worth explaining in any detail.

The Yellow Shirts Wane

Mission: Impossible

For the next eight weeks or so, our 36-story building will be undergoing exterior painting.  We’ve been informed that painters will be working on our balconies through a one-month period on our side of the building, so the balconies are to be cleared off.

The problem is, this is where I wash and dry my laundry!  I can’t very well go a month without doing laundry.

So I’ve been trying to wash in small batches, looking above and below the balcony to guage whether the workers will be in our vicinity on any given afternoon.

The odd thing is, these guys aren’t using a traditional scaffolding: they’re just on a wooden seat dangling over the side of the building.

End of the Party

The tide of yellow shirts (worn because yellow is the color associated with Monday, the day of the week on which His Majesty the King of Thailand was born) has started to thin.  They are here and there, maybe ten percent of the people are still wearing them, but it is no longer the nearly one-hundred percent of people that we saw last weekend.

There is still a warm afterglow here in the Kingdom.  Thais are very proud of the coverage this event received around the world.  Most of it was quite positive, although I did run across a very disturbing message board on ( first highlighted this to bring it to people’s attention) in which people, mostly farang, are discussing the anniversary celebrations.  The following comment, from “Nickthegun” in Oxford, England, pretty effectively illustrates some of the ignorance that was posted there:

“So, yeah, they love their king. Although it is kind of sickening to see some of the shiat the thai people have to live in and yet they still worship some guy in a golden palace who never wears the a pair of socks more than once….”

And an equally ignorant comment from “Hercules,” location not identified:

“I hate anyone being deified like the Thai people and their royal family.
I don’t care two hoots for the king. You can’t force me to respect him, you silly people.”

What is it with these people?  How about you at least get some accurate information before you start bad-mouthing a nation of 60 million people?

Fortunately, there were several responses from farang who had lived (or are still living) in Thailand, who provided some much needed balance to the messages, pointing out that the King has earned the respect and admiration of his people through sixty years of working hard on their behalf, putting his education and knowledge to work through a wide variety of agricultural, social, and scientific programs.

Being here has really allowed me to see something that I can say is certainly missing in the United States: a national leader who works selflesssly on behalf of the citizens and exhibits true moral leadership.  There’s not a single politican in the United States who I can think of at the moment who would fall into that category.  As for other countries in the world, I’d love to hear your nominations for moral leaders.  Anyone?

Rain and More Rain

This rainy season has been quite warm, but the past few days we’ve been having afternoon showers.  Today, in fact, the rain dropped the temperature a full six degrees, bringing it from a uncomfortable 34 C (93.4 F) to a more reasonable 28 C (82.4 F) by the time we arrived home about six o’clock. 

Rain clouds move fast here.  It doesn’t just start to lightly rain; it just cuts loose all of the sudden like the crumbling of a dam.  Here’s a short video showing how in the course of just two minutes, the sky gets much, much darker and visibility goes from about 1-2 km to being able to only see the next building over.


Added Coverage

If you’d like to see some good pictures (better than I could take) of the barge procession, here’s a link to the Daily News website.

Included are some pictures of the light and sound show that was held on Saturday night.  The royal guests were able to see this but largely it was not visible from most points along the river.