Back in the Saddle

First off, thank you to everyone for their well-wishes over the past few days.  Tawn and I are both in much better shape, thanks to the miracle of pain-reducing medication and – more importantly – anitbiotics.  The illness resulted in a gap in reporting, so there is much to share over the past week:


Suvarnabhumi Opens

IMG_3785 Incredibly, despite a coup happening two weeks before, the new Bangkok International Airport opened on Thursday the 28th.  As predicted, operations were a bit messy that first day.  Markus and Tam returned from their vacation in Germany and Spain, and arrived on Lufthansa’s first flight into Suvarnabhumi.  Here is a chain of text messages I received from them.  The first message was sent just as the plane pulled into the gate.

  • 13:50 – Good afternoon.  We’re the first LH flight to land at the new airport.  Let’s see how long immigration and baggage will take…
  • 14:01 – Well, we’re at the gate but there’s noone to open up.
  • 14:03 – Actually, the jetway can’t reach the plane.
  • 14:50 – So there was some safety switch on the jehway that they had to flip before it could move.  Now we’re waiting for luggage – it’s been 45 minutes since we pulled into the gate.
  • 15:00 – Someone from Lufthansa just came by to inform us that the luggage has arrived in the terminal, but they can’t find it – “it” being some 300-odd bags.  She said all airlines have been experiencing the same problems today.  Can I be a guest contributor on your blog?  This is too good to pass up!
  • 15:11 – Luggage has been arriving very piecemeal.  About ten bags every ten minutes.
  • 15:37 – The line for the bus [you take a bus to the remote transportation terminal to pick up taxis, city busses, etc] makes the old taxi line seem tame and organized.
  • 15:48 – Looks like the taxis are actually departing directly from the terminal, but there is no effective way to queue people.  So there are 3 parallel lines, which aren’t really moving much, since people seem to enter them from various points.
  • 15:58 – Both Tam and I just got interviewed by separate camera teams.  Channels 3 and 11.
  • 16:09 – Hard to believe, but we actually got a taxi, but I think it was mostly luck.  I’m sure there are people who got in line for taxis long before us who are still waiting.
  • 16:24 – Our taxi driver just told us he waiting in the taxi queue near the bus terminal for 100 minutes.  When we drove past just now, there were at least 100 taxis waiting.  The problem is, there were not nearly enough taxis coming to pick up arriving passengers.  At the old airport, there was always a line of taxis waiting.  Here, they were trickling in way too slow.  There are cars parked along the entire length of the airport, watching the planes take off and land.
  • 17:02 – We’ve just arrived home, just over 3 hours after touchdown.  In the past, I’ve made it in less than one on a good day.

Markus’ friend Peter arrived the following day from Germany and reported that things were running quite smoothly.  Chalk these up to opening-day butterflies.  The taxi issue sounds like the most serious one.  Local media was reporting that up to an additional 10,000 taxis would be identified to work at the airport.  Previously, taxis that were old or not immaculate had been denied a permit, part of an attempt by the government to break the mafia-run taxi operations that had existed at the old airport.


Inaki Urlezaga Tango Group

Date: Friday 28 September, 2006
Performed by: Ballet Concierto, Argentina

Bangkok Fest 4Inaki Urlezaga is one of the foremost Argentine dancers and his company, Ballet Concierto, came to Khrungthep this week as part of the 8th Annual International Arts and Dance Festival.  Tawn and I were particularly looking forward to this show as we both enjoy tango performances and this intersection between ballet and tango was much talked-about.

The performance was in two acts, very different from each other.  The first, titled Pulsaciones (“pulsations”), was a ballet with music and choreography by Vittorio Biaggi, designed to showcase movement and the technical prowess of the dancers.  The second, titled Destiny Buenos Aires, was choreographed by F. Fleitas and M. Morassut and was inspired by Inaki Urlezaga’s life (a little bit of shameless tribute).  Starting with a dark stage and audio that suggested departing airplanes, suitcases rolling on the sidewalk, and traffic, it is meant to evoke the image that even through his busy travels, Inaki always return to Buenos Aires.  This second act is the showcase for the tangos.

Critiquing this performance requires me to address it at two levels:

At the first level, the technical execution and overall impact of the show, the dancers showed great skill and control and the coreography was impeccable.  Perhaps due to jet lag, but several dancers kept missing their marks.  Not in a wildly amateurish way, to be certain, but when you have three couples performing together and the coreography is meant to by synchronous, when one dancer is moving a split-second after the others, it is distracting.

Perhaps the best way to describe it is that the dancers’ obvious talent and the stunning coreography – and a really well thought-out use of lighting – didn’t always come together at the same time; the case of the parts not always being more than the sum of their whole.

Speaking of the lights, one of the drawbacks of these festival shows where there is only one performance is the unfamiliarity of the team with the lighting systems.  There were at least a half-dozen very noticeable mis-cues in the lighting scheme.  A bit bothersome when the wrong lights woud come on, halfway across stage from where the dancers were!

The second level of critique is of the house management of the Thailand Cultural Centre, or the event’s organisers, or both.  I’ll fully acknowledge the facts that this show was on a Friday night and about a half-hour before the show it started to rain; the cultural centre is located on Ratchadapisek Road which is both a major artery out of the city and also a hub to a lot of the entertainment venues (legitimate and less-so) that Khrungthep’s men flock to on the last Friday of the month – payday.

But the handling of late arrivals was unacceptable.  At showtime, 7:30, almost half the seats were still empty.  The house manager made the decision to begin the show on time.  The result was that for the first 22 minutes of the performance, a nearly-constant stream of people were being seated.  We were on the aisle in the front third of the main floor and the distractions were intollerable.  So much so that finally, Tawn flagged down a passing usher and ordered, “From now on, you will bring no one else in.”  The old ladies sitting behind him were impressed with this uncharacteristically, but necessary, display of anger.

Sadly, this was at 22 minutes into the first act.  The first act was only 25 minutes long.  When the act came to an end and the crowd applauded, the cutrain came down and I said to Tawn, “This is when they should have seated late-comers.”  Then the house lights came up and the intermission countdown clock came on!  The second act was only marginally longer – 30 minutes.

Overally, the evening was a bit of a let-down.  We had paid 3000 baht for our two tickets – about US$80 – for only 55 minutes of performance, which had some forgiveable technical problems as well as some really unacceptable house manageent ones.  All in all, not the best use of our money and time.

Tawn spoke with one of the event’s organizers during the intermission and she sympathised and said it had been the cultural centre’s house management that made the decision.  True or not, we’re going to send a letter to both the festival and the cultural centre, expressing our disappointment.


Bangkok Hospital

DSCF1089 It has been a while since I’ve been to a hospital in the United States – the last time was a visit to St. Luke’s hospital in Kansas City after my grandmother had some vascular-opening surgery on her legs in March. 

Most of the time when I went to see my doctor, I’d just go to his office near the medical center on upper Castro street in San Francisco. 

My impressions of hospitals in the US are shaped in largely very antiseptic, 1970’s era, flourescent dimmly-lit, images.

The hospitals here that I’ve been to – presumeably not representative of the public hospitals kingdom-wide – have been really nice.  Even some of the older ones like Bangkok Hospital look more like malls or hotels than hospitals.  A selection of experiences from our trip there on Thursday:

  • We valet-parked our car.  Not an expensive option, but a complimentary service offered free to all customers.
  • Upon arriving at the front door, one of several nicely-suited employees approached us to help point us in the right direction.  No need to feel confused or overwhelmed here.  We were walked to the main registration desk.
  • The main registration desk looks like a hotel but several employees work on the outside of the counter so that it is more personable.  Tawn has been a patient at this hospital since childhood so they just checked him in.  I filled out a brief form in my language of choice and was entered into the system and given an ID card – professionally, digitally, and instantly printed out with my name, number and a bar code on it.
  • We explained what we wanted to see the doctor about and were entered into the system and given queue numbers kind of like a visit to the DMV.  From there, we went to the appropriate department – in my case, general medicine.
  • There at a central counter a nurse approached us, already had my record pulled up, and asked me to go with her to take my vital statistics.  I needed to use the restroom, which was on the other side of the main lobby.  When I asked where it was, one gentleman walked me all the way across the lobby so I wouldn’t get lost.
  • In the main lobby, there is a stage set up with a pianist playing.  A coffee shop and small stores surround a fountain, looking like a small mall.  The main pharmacy/payment desk is located here, too.  There was also a lady with a cart, offering free bottles of water and bananas to anyone who needed a healthy snack.
  • When I returned, I was brought into a small room where weight, blood pressure and temperature were taken.  Afterwards I went back to the waiting area, which seats about 120 people and has a pair of televisions and newspapers in both Thai and English.  Les than two minutes later, my number – 110 – flashed over the door to one of the examination rooms and the nurse invited me in. 
  • Here’s where things were different than my experiences in the US.  This examination room is also the doctor’s office, so he was already there, sitting behind his desk.  There was no long period of waiting in silence, sitting on the examination table, as happens with nearly visit to a doctor in the US.
  • The doctor was very comfortable to deal with.  He spoke English well although I had Tawn clarify a few points along the way in Thai just to make sure we were all on the same page.  In about ten minutes we had discussed the symptoms, done an examination, and had a preliminary diagnosis.  He prescribed some antibiotics and asked me to have blood tests done just to rule out dengue fever.
  • I went to the lab, which was in the same waiting area, and had the blood drawn without any delay.  The technician said that preliminary results would be available in one hour.
  • Sure enough, an hour later I was able to meet with the doctor with only a few minutes’ wait, and he reviewed the results and confirmed the prescription was correct.  He asked me to call back the next day for final results of the blood work or if I had any questions.
  • We went to the pharmacy, which is where we also pay for the services.  Again, there are people working on the outside of the counter who enter your patient number in the system which then triggers the pharmacy to begin pulling together your medications. 

All in all the experience was very pleasant and worthwhile.  Here were the costs as they appeared on my bill – which was printed in English since that was the language I selected as being my preferred language.

  • Medication – 7 days of antibiotics and 7 days of paracetamol – 1250 baht
  • Lab services – blood drawing – 969 baht
  • Molecular lab analyis – 2000 baht
  • Nursing charges – having vitals taken – 143 baht
  • Physician evaluation – meeting with the doctor – 600 baht

All told, only 4,961.70 (US$ 134) for the experience.  Contrasting this to the US, even with my medical coverage from my employer, if I had been ill and wanted to see the doctor I would have potentially not been able to get an appointment for that day.  If I had gone to an emergency room I would have suffered a penalty charge plus had possibly a lengthy wait.  Medications would have cost at least that much, based on what I’ve paid for antibiotics before.  Lab services would have cost much more, based on my experiences.


DSCF1111

After dinner with Markus, Tam, Pune, and Markus’ visiting friend Peter last night, Sunday morning has gotten off to a relaxing start.  Tawn has suddenly “discovered” YouTube – particularly Sukeban Deka (“Delinquent Girl Detective”), the new movie version of a a Japanese television show that Tawn watched in his youth.  The story – basically a high school coming of age story crossed with Luc Besson’s 1990 spy thriller La Femme Nikita – is based on a mangaClip from the movie.

For dinner last night, I did most of the cooking, ably assisted by Tawn and Tam.  The menu was compiled from various San Francisco cook books and included:

  • Red wine vinagrette-dressed mixed greens with breaded goat cheese cakes
  • Tamarind paste-marinated pork tenderloin with an asian pear spice sauce and mango chutney
  • Cajun spice shrimp (from the Cook Eat Cha Cha Cha cookbook from the Cuban restaurant in SF)
  • Fresh ripe mango with sabayon

 

 

 

Infectious Diseases

Both Tawn and I have managed to catch ill, both with different bacterial infections.  There was some concern on my part initially that I had malaria because of fever and aches following several mosquito bites earlier in the week.  Upon learning about my preliminary diagnosis, the doctor at Bangkok Hospital asked if I had been travelling outside of Central Thailand.  When I replied that I had not, he assured me that I did not have malaria and blood tests confirmed that diagnosis.

There is a slight possibility that it is dengue fever, although that seems unlikely, too.  For the time being, and unspecified bug is the culprit and is being treated with a course of antibiotics.  The fever and aches continue although are somewhat lessened with paracetamol (known as acetaminophen) inside North America.

The trip to Bangkok Hospital, my first experience with the Thai medical establishment, was an interesting one.  I’ll write a bit more about it in the next day or two as my strength returns.

 

Two Nights of Home Cookin’

Convenience and cost usually weigh out in the decision of what to eat for dinner: fast, inexpensive, and nutritious food is readily available at corner restaurants and food vendors throughout Khrungthep.  I’ve sat down and calculated it, and most of the time I could not make a dinner for two for the same amount (about US$ 4.00) that I can get two servings of rice and three side dishes from a local gap khao (literally, “with rice”) vendor.

However, sometimes I go ahead and cook at home just because I enjoy doing it and because there are some things that I can make at home less expensively than if Tawn and I went out to eat them.

DSCF1060 For example, Sunday afternoon at Central Food Hall I found a pack of two marinated New Zealand steaks for only 77 baht ($2.10).  Along with a some salad greens, I had a nice pan-fried medium-rare steak salad.  With a glass of cabranet-shiraz from Australia, it made a very satisfying dinner.

Yesterday I made use of a loaf of pugliese that had been sitting in my refrigerator for a few days and had become a brick:  it became panzanella, Italian bread salad, with tomatoes, cucumbers, grilled chicken breasts, and a red wine-balsamic vinaigrette.  Served with a side dish of garbanzo beans pan fried with rocket, it made for a simple, flavorful dinner.

But after a few days of this fancy western food, I’m craving some tom yum goong and pad khao!


This afternoon after my Thai tutor session, Tod and I met to discuss lesson plans for the classes in Bangkhonthii.  It is his idea that we should start back at the very beginning, reviewing the alphabet and the basics of phoenetics so that the children are better able to read.  While the “point” of us being there is to increase their skill and confidence with conversation, when they can’t read what’s on the board, it slows the entire process down.

Additionally, we’re in agreement that we need to find out from the principal what exactly is happening during the regular English instruction.  That way our efforts can be more complementary rather than operating off on our own tangent.

 

Public Relations Secrets Part 1

One of the things you may not know about public relations is that, often, when they are in a pinch to find photos to include with press releases, they will simply take some of the agency’s own employees and photograph them with the particular product that are publicizing.

Tawn Computer In his fifteen months with the PR agency where he works, Tawn has been in photos for several clients.  But often times these photos have not actually been selected by a media outlet for publishing.  Last week, Tawn’s photo was used by one of the Thai language news dailies in an article about Microsoft.

The background to this photos is that they were shooting in the office and using several other employees, all younger than Tawn.  Then they came over and asked Tawn to pose.  The photographer paused and asked Tawn to put on a pair of glasses and drape his sweater over his shoulders.  Tawn’s interpretation: they needed a more “mature” looking model than the other, younger ones.

Sorry about the quality of the photo – it is from a clipping service and is a copy of a fax.

The day that the article was published, I met Tawn for lunch and he was wearing his glasses (they are only reading glasses).  After he told me about the article, I put two and two together: he was wearing the glasses out and about in the hope he’d be recognized on the street!

Bicycling in Phra Padang

Saturday morning Floridan Bill, his local friend Kom and I headed out for a bicycle ride in Phra Padang.  The morning dawned wet and cool but with a look at the sky it seemed plausible that the weather would improve as the morning proceeded, so we continued with our plans.

Driving to Wat Khlong Toey Nok adjacent to the container terminals of the Port of Bangkok, we parked the car, saddled up our bicycles, and headed to the pier.  Unlike the last time I did this ride with Markus, the ferry boat we were offered was quite small: nothing more than a long-tail boat – a motorized canoe – with the water just centimeters below us.

DSCF1001 Phra Padang is a lightbulb-shaped peninsula surrounded on three sides by the Chao Praya River.  Across the river on each of those three sides is urban development.  How Phra Padang has managed to escape this development is a matter of some mystery, a mystery tied to the fact that only a narrow isthmus, wide enough for a single road, connects it to remainder of the western bank of the river.

Phra Padang is mostly coconut and banana plantations, jungle, concrete footpaths and narrow roads that would be more at home in Samut Songkhram, eighty kilometers away from the, than in the heart of Khrungthep. 

We spent more than three hours riding about, mostly on the paved roads, occasionally on the footpaths or on muddy trails, logging in a leisurely 28 kilometers by the time it was all done.

Our primary destination was the floating market, which other than a few noodle vendors still tied up along the shore is no longer floating, the other vendors having fled to stalls along two canal-side paths.  We sampled a variety of khanom – snacks – both of the sweet and savory variety, before continuing our journey.

DSCF1011 The furthest extent of our explorations was our arrival at the edge of Phra Padang, the flood control canal that cuts across the isthmus, effectively making it an island rather than a peninsula.  Soaring above the canal, a civily-engineered demarkation of jungle from civilization, is the mega bridge project, as yet unnamed.

Opened just two weeks ago, this marvelous combination of two dual-tower suspension bridges high enough to allow ocean-going ships to pass underneath, and a curlicue of ramps in the middle, allows traffic from three directions to converge and interchange, heading smoothly in any of the directions.  Below it is the flood control canal and beside that, a small and poor neighborhood of happy children riding their bicycles and running in the street, practicing their English (“hellogoodbye”) with passing farang cyclists who stop to photograph the bridge.


After an afternoon of rest, Tawn and I picked up Bill and Kom from their hotel around 7:00.  Accommodating Bill, a vegetarian, and Kom, who doesn’t stray far from the food genre of Thai, Tawn selected the very nice restaurant Anotai, tucked beside Rama 9 Hospital.

The Thai restaurant, also serving a few mostly-Italian dishes, is strictly vegetarian and largely emphasizes organic food.  While the main courses are good, the appetizers and desserts are the stand-outs.  Appetizers are meticulously prepared with special attention paid to the sauces.  We enjoyed Seaweed-wrapped Japanese tofu with wasabi mayonaise; soft tofu fried with spicy lemongrass dressing; tofu-chili-and cilantro dip served with fresh vegetables; rice paper wrapped with enoki, tofu, and apples. 

The fried foods were notable because the chef pays special attention to the oils she uses: they are of the highest quality and the temperature is carefully controlled so the end result is something light, crispy, and not in the least bit oily.

Desserts swing in a wildly different direction as they are all western, the result of a on-site bakery and ice cream shop.  We enjoyed an apricot claufoutis and a dark chocolate and cherry cake with homemade ice cream.


DSCF1022 DSCF1030 After dropping Bill and Kom back off at their hotel, as they had an early morning trip to Ayutthaya for some photography prior to Bill’s evening flight back to the United States, Tawn and I stopped by the Suan Lumpini Night Bazaar.  A cooler (literally and figuratively), less crowded, and more upscale alternative to the overheated Chatuchak Weekend Market, the Night Bazaar is slated for closing next year as its lease ends and the land owner decides to seek more profitable ways to use the land.  Maybe another mega-mall?  We certainly have plenty of those!

DSCF1054 The feature right now is la Grande Rue de Paris, a 60-meter tall Ferris Wheel that has made its way from Paris to Birmingham to Manchester to Amsterdam before settling in for a year or two here in the City of Angels.  Lighting up the night sky and referred to by some locals as the “Bangkok Eye,” passengers are entitled to a expansive view of the surrounding corner of the city, most of which is quite dark at night.  But it is a nice treat nonetheless and so we’ve finally checked off another one of our to-do items from our mysteriously invisible to-do list.

 

Announcement: The Excitement is Over

Please be advised that the excitement related to our recent coup d’etat is officially over.  Unless you are a junkie for Thai political news, there really isn’t much more to see or talk about.  So unless we have any developments, I think I’ll just move on to other stories.

Thursday evening, we joined Jack, David, Prince, Eddy, Ble, and Jack’s friend Tui for dinner at Rakhanthong, a seafood restaurant across the river from Thammasat University, which is upriver from the Grand Palace.  The occassion was the early celebration of Jack’s birthday, which isn’t for three weeks but David will be out of town by then.

DSCF0990 The river-front restaurant has a deck that offers a view of the Grand Palace and Wat Pho (reclining Buddha) as well as Wat Arun.  Less spectacular than The Deck, as they are further away, but nice nonetheless.  The real attraction is the food: very good seafood along with the lightest, most flavourfull fried chicken (marinated in fish sauce) I’ve had.  The total bill for eight of us was something like 2700 baht – maybe US$70.  Really quite spectacular.

Right: Jack blows out candles on not one but two cakes, as David looks on.

Jack’s friend Tui had studied in Brisbane, OZ and has been back in Thailand for a few years now.  It turns out that Tawn introduced me to him once when we were out on Soi 2, but that was many years ago and I didn’t specifically recall.  Anyhow, he was a nice enough person.  The real attraction, though, was seeing Prince.  This francophone friend of Tawn’s is a really delightful individual and offers a lot of substance in addition to his light-hearted gossiping and cattiness (which is de rigeur with that group).  He’s one of Tawn’s friends with whom I can have a serious conversation.

Unfortunately we don’t see Prince very often – this is the second time since I moved here.  He lives on the outskirts of the city, Nonthanburi, and teaches up at Rangsit University – closer to Ayutthaya than to Khrungthep.