Another step…

Why no pictures?  I need to get some pictures to share with you since I’ve had several consecutive entries with no pictures.  With the cloudy, rainy, humid weather there just hasn’t been nice light with which to take photos.

This week, Tawn and I are taking the next big step towards owning the condo: placing a first installment down in the amount of a one million baht (about $27,000) payment to the owner.  We will have 30 subsequent days to get the remainder of the amount from a bank loan.  This week we’ll also begin the process of applying for these loans, to see whether or not we can get a joint loan.  This is technically not-doable because I don’t have a work permit here.  But as with all things in Thailand, we’ll see.  The process of putting an installment down to the current owner to ensure that you will buy help to eliminate people buying with nothing down – a questionable practice that helps push more people to the edge of fiscal disaster.

Sunday morning we met with our designer, Ble*, to review the architectural plans, which he has had drawn up.  It reignites the flow of juices that have lain largely dormant since Mr. Geraci’s architectural drafting class in high school.  I’m done the basic design work for the kitchen, having some specific ideas how I’d like the space arranged.  These plans and notes have been handed over to Ble for his inclusion in to the master plans.

In the afternoon, Tawn and I did an hour of yoga at home.  Very good exercise and I’m getting back into the habit of yoga three times a week, which was interrupted in December when we had all our guests.  I don’t take yoga nearly to the extent he does, but I find it to be an incredibly dynamic way to exercise both my mind and my body at the same time.  Additionally, I like that it gives me a very good sense of appreciation for my body and its own unique abilities and limitations.  Unlike a lot of exercise (going to the gym, for example) where there seems to be a lot of implicit (or sometimes, explicit) competition, yoga is uniquely your own thing and it is non-competitive.

We went upstairs to our neighbor Vic’s apartment and had afternoon coffee, chatted for about an hour trying to understand how Thai politicians have co-opted the King’s “Sufficiency Economy” philosophy for their own political ends.  The engaging conversation eventually moved on to whether materialism and consumerism are the direct descendants of capitalism or not. 

Did you know that Tawn is running his own blog now?  His username is TawnBino.

*Ble, pronounced “bun”… as in the Thai way of pronouncing the English word “apple”: “ap-bun” 

 

It isn’t supposed to be rainy season, yet.

While rainy season doesn’t start for another month, we’ve had two consecutive days that have concluded with rain and brilliant thunderstorms.  On Thursday around sunset there was a storm cell perched right over our neighborhood and I was standing near the window watching bolts exploding all around.  Last night there was another storm but thankfully it didn’t start until about ten, just after we had returned home from Tao’s brother’s wedding.

This wedding, like the engagement party we attended a few weeks ago, was held at the Grand Hyatt Erawan, in “The Residence” – the swanky conference / function rooms that are laid out more like a large Martha Stewart-designed loft than a typical hotel facility.  This was another hiso event; I’m not sure how Tawn manages to know so many of these people but we’re regularly at wedding attended by various prominent members of society.  Talk about feeling out of place!

All Thai wedding receptions seem to follow the same pattern: they are held at 7:00 pm, feature food usually in a buffet setting or, less commonly, in a sit-down arrangement.  After people have eaten the emcee comes on stage, introduces the bride and groom who usually come in as part of a large procession, and a short video clip is played, invariably including childhood pictures of the bride and groom and sometimes – if they have the resources – some talented friend has created an animated version of how they met.

Then various “Puu Yai” (respected elders) will speak.  All this time, people continue to talk, chatting amongst themselves, nibbling food, and generally not paying attention.  Eventually, the Puu Yai concludes his or her speech with a toast.  The toast is said, then either the band or the DJ plays a brief fanfare that sounds like some royalty is about to arrive and then everyone raises their glass three times, cheering “Chai-Yo!” each time.  “Chai-Yo” basically is a Thai-ization of the Italian word, “bravo!”  Then the next Puu Yai speaks.

The Bride and Groom’s parents usually have an opportunity to speak, too, before the cake is cut.  In the case of yesterday’s wedding, the cake was actually several tiers of cupcakes, a very cute and easy-to-serve way to handle things.  The buttercream frosting was delicious!


 

This morning I’m baking several loaves of Whole Wheat Banana Bread.  I started early so that Tawn can bring a loaf to his parents.  Khun Sudha probably won’t eat any, but Tawn’s mother will and she needs to be eating more as she’s lost several kilos over the past few months.  She’ll also give half the loaf to the monks who walk through the neighborhood every dawn to collect alms, so there will be some lucky monks at Wat Pasii this weekend!

 

At 7:30 in the morning the streets are still shaded from a sun low on the horizon.  Still slightly damp from rain storms yesterday evening, the air feels cool but that is just an illusion: cool compared with the thirty-eight degrees we will reach in a few hours.

Dressed casually in cargo shorts and a t-shirt, I walk the to the corner 7-11 to buy some milk for coffee.  I forgot to buy any last night after the final movie of the Australian Film Festival.  As with any beverage purchase, the clerk automatically puts a straw in the bag, terribly impractical considering it would quickly get lost in the liter’s worth of milk.  Who would drink a liter of milk with a straw?

On the way back I notice that the fruit vendor, a young-looking middle-aged woman with a friendly way about her, has a good selection of bananas displayed on a tablecloth that has been put on the sidewalk across from her cart.  The bananas are ripe; I could make banana bread with them tomorrow.

I stop to inspect one wii, or bunch, or bananas.   Another lady comes rushing over and tells me in Thai that she has already purchased that bunch and then sets aside several other bunches that she has purchased.  Apparently she is making many more loaves of banana bread than I.

An office worker, probably a manager judging by her non-uniform style of dress, helpfully tells me that I can buy one of the other bunches instead.  “This one is good,” she says, pointing to a bunch with a tinge of green on the edges.  “But,” I say in Thai, “I’m going to bake banana bread” and I select another bunch that is riper. 

Taorai?” the office worker asks the fruit vendor.  How much is it?  I can ask this myself, I think.  Sometimes people assume I can speak times and other times assume I can’t.

Y’sip” comes the contracted reply.  I hand her twenty baht.  “Aah, farang suai maak,” she says to the office worker.  Does she think I don’t understand the compliment?  “Khap khun khrap, pii.”  Thank you, I respectfully reply, blushing slightly.

Another morning in the Big Mango.  I walk back to the condo, saluted by a guard who looks barely old enough to shave even if he did have some facial hair, and go upstairs to make Tawn’s coffee.

 

Linchee Season

DSCF7960 Thais believe that the bounty of their land will always be enough to take care of them, if they live a life within their means.  There is an expression, “The fields will have rice; the river will have fish” to describe this belief.  For years, the King has been promoting the idea of a “sufficiency economy” – ensuring that even in the face of globalization, enough of the Kingdom’s productivity is put towards self-sufficiency to avoid the trap of rampant consumerism.

A related belief is that things in nature work out all right.  For example, the types of fruits that grow best in a particular season are also the types of fruits that are most refreshing and enjoyable during that time of season.  It is this reason, the belief goes, that during the hottest season of the year, the sweetest, juiciest fruits are in their prime: pineapples, mangos and lychees being prime examples of this.

DSCF7964 Above: Tasaganwan Linchee – The Lychee Festival, advertised by Khun Maeklong Lynchi (Thai-English spelling), the topless lychee.

Right: Ken and Ajarn Yai sitting in the shade of a lychee tree.

It is definitely the hottest season of the year here in Thailand with temperatures hitting 100 F / 37 C for the past few days and at least the next few to come.  So it was a very welcome invitation when Ajarn Yai called and said that Khruu Somchai’s lychees were in season.

Originally we were going to go down to Samut Songkhram at the beginning of Songkran.  “Hurry, hurry!” cried Ajarn Yai into the phone, “The thunderstorms will damage the lychees and you’ll miss them!”  Traffic on Songkran was bad (361 deaths and 4805 injuries in the seven-day period; a reduction of 13 deaths from last year) and so Tod and I decided, with Tawn’s urging, against driving there.

DSCF7965 Left: Tod tries to stay out of the sun.

After the holiday season, Ajarn Yai was still insistent that we should come down and try the lychees.  Last week, Ken, Tod and I drove down on a very hot morning and met Ajarn Yai at the school in Bangkhonthiinai.  It is the midst of summer break, a good thing as the classrooms were stifling with no air conditioning.

Khruu Somchai’s suan (plantation) is not too large – maybe a few acres handed down from his father – and is about a three-minute drive from the school.  There are bananas, pomelo, and lychees growing in neat rows along narrow, vegetation-filled irrigation canals. 

A number of young ladies – extended family members, I think – were in the plantation harvesting lychees and bundling branches of them in one-kilogram bunches.

Below: Farmer Chris harvesting lychees (a totally set-up shot as all I did was hold a cut bunch of lychees and a pair of shears to make it look like I was doing the work!); Farmer Chris enjoying the fruits of his labors.

DSCF7974  DSCF7973

DSCF7963 Plastic chairs materialized and we sat down in the shade of trees to eat some of these fresh-picked lychees.  They were incredibly sweet and warm thanks to the ambient temperature.  The regular lychees have small stones in them, but there are special lychees – nicknamed khatoey (same as the lady-boys) because they don’t have a stone.  This is the result of weather: some years some trees will produce these smaller, slightly more acidic stoneless fruit.  Other years, none will be produced.

We ate and visited for about one hour.  Ajarn Yai reports that no students have come to visit during the summer and neither has she gone visiting.  She is very concerned for their safety and doesn’t want them out away from home unsupervised because of non-specific bogeymen and the risk that the children will be abducted and murdered.  This was an interesting fear she related because while I’m sure these types of crimes do and can occur in Thailand, from what I’ve seen in the press they are a fair bit less common than in, say, the United States.

After eating lychees nearly to the point of stomach ache, we said thank you, gracefully accepted our obligatory gift bags of lychees to take home, and headed back to Khrungthep.

 

In other news, Paul is in town from San Francisco, visiting his girlfriend Aori.  We met up with them (joined by Wit) for dinner this week at Basilico Italian Restaurant on Sukhumvit Soi 33.  We’d love for Paul to consider moving here!  Below: Tawn and Aori pose together; We learn not to pose for pictures on a step – the difference in our heights was considerably exaggurated as the step angles away from the camera and Paul and Aori are at the far end of the step.

DSCF7979  DSCF7980


robert carlyle 2 The Australian Film Festival is in full swing.  I’ve seen two movies, and joined Kenneth and James to watch “Black and White“, the 2002 Robert Carlyle historical vehicle about the 1959 trial and wrongful conviction of an Aboriginal man in the rape and robert carlyle murder of a 9-year-old girl.  Carlisle plays the Irish-Australian lawyer who fought the system, believing the small town police had beat the confession from the illiterate transient worker. 

It was a fascinating movie with strong acting and an interesting insight into a case that ultimately proved to be the impetus for significant judicial reform in Australia, including the introduction of “natural justice” – the idea that public defenders should receive compensation for their expenses defending poor clients.  Previously, lawyers would be chosen from a lottery system and have to provide defense using their own means, meaning that poor clients usually received a substandard defense.

 


Saturday we went to the condominium with a contractor to get full measurements of the place.  Tawn has been busy working with banks to figure out how we get a loan with both our names on it.  Since I have no work permit here, the banks are saying they don’t do that.  But in the second breath suggest that we should go ahead and apply and see if it approved.  There’s something very Thai about that.

 

Banana Bread!

Bill from Florida observes that my blog entries have become “more gay themed” as of late.  Looking back at it, other than the tremendously blatant last entry, I’m not sure I see the trend.  But I may be too close to it for an objective perspective.

So I’ll ask you, the readers: Are you noticing any thematic changes?

DSCF7914 The Songkran holiday technically comes to an end today with everyone back at work tomorrow.  But already the traffic was heavier this morning and more businesses had opened.  The heat was oppressive in the morning but then it got cloudy and we had ten minutes of heavy rain about 12:30, after which the clouds went away and the scorching sun made things nice and steamy.  Yuck.

Last week my big baking project was banana bread, ten small loaves and one big loaf.  The small loaves were gifted to others while the big loaf – incredibly dense! – was for personal consumption.

This recipe (I keep trying a different one each time) used a combination of whole wheat and regular white flour.  I also reduced the amount of sugar by about 50%, resulting in the increased density and hopefully a little more nutritional value.

The cooking theme for the week seems to be en papillote – the French technique of baking things wrapped in parchment packages, a sort of cross between steaming and poaching that is fantastic for fish and chicken.  The experiment with salmon earlier in the week was good, but another recipe I prepared on Monday was even better.  It was boneless, skinless chicken breasts stuffed with a ginger, green onion, shitake mushroom mixture and then marinated for a few minutes in a soy sauce – rice vinegar mixture and cooked in parchment with sliced potatoes. 

The flavor was incredible and the ginger-onion smell was intoxicating.  Very good recipe and so easy to make.

Flipping through my cookbooks, my next thing to try is Cuban black beans and rice.  Time to start using some of those dried chilies I brought back from the Mission District in San Francisco.

(Maybe by “gay-themed” Bill meant “more Martha-esque”?)

 

DSCF7930

Left: Siam BTS Station during a light holiday weekend rush hour.

After two weeks of spotty attendance thanks to two consecutive weeks of Thai holidays, I resumed my Thai lessons with tutor Khruu Kitiya.  Learning languages seems to be a process of incremental improvements interspersed with interminable plateaus. 

Thankfully I’m left a recent plateau and am once again seeing some improvement in both my speaking and reading/writing.  This is one of those things where I realize that more practice, especially daily practice, would be beneficial.  But then the same is true of my yoga.  And yet I don’t seem to get to it every day.

Perhaps if occasionally is not as good as regularly, then it is also better than not at all?

Why so many muscle boys?

Thailand, and Khrungthep in particular, are known to be pretty accepting, gay-friendly places.  There is much more acceptance of “alternate” lifestyles, driven mostly by Buddhist belief of tolerance and the underlying principle that through reincarnation you either have been, or at some point will be, born as a person who is gay, lesbian or transgendered.  So as you walk about town, it is quite common to see people who are more “obviously” gay, lesbian or transgendered.

When I say obviously, I don’t necessarily mean stereotypically.  Instead, it is the idea that you see people being more comfortable as themselves instead of trying to pretend to be something different.

Beyond the usual visibility of “family” I was a little curious as to why, this weekend in particular, there seemed to be so many of the gym-bunny, muscle boy types on the Skytrain, around Siam Paragon, and … actually, that’s the only two places I saw them because they would hardly desire to be seen anywhere else! 

It turns out that fridae.com, an internet portal for GLBT Asians, was hosting a Songkran party at the Millennium Hilton Hotel.  These events attract the circuit party crowd, girls and boys (mostly boys) who gather for hours and hours of non-stop dancing and other activities, quite often fueled by the use of artificial stimulants such as ecstasy.  This testosterone-fueld fun of course comes with the requirement that you fit into a certain desired body type: muscled.

Of course all of our society is fueled by advertising-driven images that tell us that youth, beauty and sex are the desired commodities and that if we don’t look like that, we’re just not beautiful.  Insecurity sells.

A good ten years ago, I remember a conversation I had with Stuart, a Singaporean friend.  After studying in the US, Stuart finally returned to Singapore to fulfill his compulsory military service.  At this time, the restrictions on gay life in Singapore were just beginning to ease and dance clubs that catered to gay clientele were no longer being regularly raided.  One of Stuart’s comments was his pleasure in discovering upon his return to the Lion City that the boys in Singapore were finally starting to acquire more muscled bodies.

Aek_BKK3 This got me to thinking – and there’s a good number of muscle boys who read this blog, so I realize I’m at risk of offending some readers – but is this really a step forward?

Ten, fifteen years ago there was a predominate stereotype of gay Asian men (and Asian men in general) as being slender and effeminate.  The presumption was that they were submissive sexually.  The work I did for my senior thesis in university was specifically about deconstructing and understanding those stereotypes and their perpetuation through media.

Now, while some of that stereotype still exists, it has been largely supplanted by the “success” of many gay Asian men in moving on to a whole new stereotype: the muscled gym bunny image of masculinity.  Congratulations, but has one set of chains been replaced by another?

Of course, these types of discussions only work when you consider a group in aggregate and not when you look at people individually.  Everyone has the right to be (and look) the way they want to, and going to the gym and being fit is a laudable goal. 

My concern, apart from the general one of anyone complacently buying into the beauty myth that we are sold on a daily basis, is that the means used to achieve the muscle boy / gym bunny look isn’t always healthy.  While there are many people who maintain a focused regimen of weight training to achieve their pecs, many others feel compelled to achieve a body they might not naturally have through the use of supplements, unhealthy diet and exercise habits, and steroids.

My two baht’s worth of thought on the topic.  Comments? 

Notes:

Fridae’s columnist Alvin Tan writes a related article about “Golden Men” and talks about ageing in a society that actively promotes the ideal of youthful beauty in the link here.

For an entirely different view of masculinity in the gay culture, here is an article by Hunter College professor Ricahrd A. Kaye in the Los Angeles Times about the “Bear” subculture and the increasing attention it is drawing from both academics and social critics.


 

DSCF7944 Okay, aside from my ranting on the issue of muscle boys, here’s what else has been happening on our Songkran weekend.

Saturday afternoon Tawn and I went to Paragon to run a few errands before meeting friends at Vanilla.  We managed to get through the errands early enough so stopped at the Oriental Shop (related to the Mandarin Oriental Hotels) for a full tea set.  They have a very nice boutique with a glass-walled kitchen in the center of the store so you can watch them making baked goods and chocolates.

The scone set was served with their Marco Polo tea, an English Breakfast-like tea with more of a floral profile, and their yummy pomelo marmalade.  Of course we have no shortage of tea bags at home, but sometimes it is nice to be pampered a little with the attentive service and relaxing environment of the shop.

The scones themselves?  A little heavy on the baking powder I think.  But tasty nonetheless.  I like the votive candle holder for the teapot and would enjoy having something similar from which to serve tea at home.  Actually, in this whole process of buying a condominium I’m creating a mental list of the features I’d like to have in an eventual dream home.  In my mind there would be a small parlor/study that would open up to a breeze-cooled veranda with a quartet of comfortable chair from which to take tea in the afternoons.

In fact, I’m reminded to afternoon tea I would have in fifth and sixth grades at the house of my classmate David Long.  His mother was Filipino and his father American and for some reason she made croissants from scratch every afternoon and would serve us milk tea.  I think she invited my mother over once for tea.  It was fantastic.  Then after sixth grade David moved to Cupertino (literally the next city over from Sunnyale) and we lost touch.  I always wondered what happened to him.  Of course, an internet search on “David Long” doesn’t return any shortage of results.

 


 

As the scorching summer sun sends temperatures soaring, a traditional dish that is enjoyed around Songkran is khao chae.  Refreshing and healthy, khao chae is a chilled porridge made with cooked jasmine rice and floral-scented water.

DSCF7956 Its origins go back centuries to when the Mon people occupied the Central Plains.  As part of their celebrations to mark the first day in their lunar calendar, the Mon offered gifts of what they called khao Songkran (Songkran rice) to the female guardian spirit of the New Year.  The name was later modified to khao chae because a special variety of rice is soaked (chae) in water.  King Rama V, who reigned from 1868-1910, was extremely fond of khao chae, maybe because he found this refreshing rice dish a good way to cool off.

It is quite a dish to prepare. Ordinary jasmine rice is too soft, so a firmer variety is used. It is first partially cooked in the normal way and then rinsed several times to remove the excess starch.  Then comes the unique ingredient: flower-scented water. A large pot is half-filled with water and fresh jasmine blossoms are added. Then a small flower-scented candle is floated on top of the water, lit, and the pot covered loosely. The scent from the candles and the natural oils from the jasmine permeate the water.

 

The rice is then steamed in cheesecloth to prevent the grains from swelling.  To serve, the rice is transferred into a bowl, covered with more of the fragrant water and a few small ice cubes.  Bowls of khao chae are accompanied by a variety of savory side dishes and condiments, such as fermented shrimp paste (kapi), deep-fried shallots stuffed with fish and slivers of an aromatic rhizome (krachai), shredded and salted beef fried with palm sugar, white Chinese radish fried with egg, and chili peppers stuffed with seasoned minced pork wrapped in thin sheets of fried egg-white.

We went to a well-known restaurant across from Samitivej Hospital called Lai Rot (“many flavors”) and enjoyed this specialty.  I think it wasn’t the best-prepared version I’ve had (the more expensive Baan Kanita is a bit nicer) but it was fun to try this dish that is only around for about a month.

Another thing that is available now is fresh, ripe mango!  Oooh, I’ll have to do some research in order to write an entry about khao niaw mamuang.

 

Saturday Evening at the Mall

Wafting through the breeze, the sounds of Songkran splashing continued to enter through the open balcony doors as I spent most of Saturday at home.  Tawn was at his parents’ house and had to take his father to see the doctor.  Saturday evening we went down to Paragon – I mean, really, Siam Square is the center of Khrungthep – and we met friends at Vanilla Brasserie for dinner.

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Above, left to right: Tod, Vic, Ben, Jason, Tawn, Chris, Brian, Suchai, Ken

Our circle of mostly-expat friends continues to grow as we were finally introduced to Ben and Jason, friends of Tod’s about whom we’ve been hearing for the past year but whom we were beginning to think might just be imaginary as every occasion to meet them failed to materialize.  It turns out that they are real, and really nice, too.

IMG_0147 The challenge of building an interesting circle of people is to ensure there is enough variety: all American-Thai couples gets a bit repetitive and so it is nice that there is an increasing mixture of people.  We still need to diversify a bit in terms of gender, though: Pune is often the only woman!  It would also be nice to find some Thai-Thai couples, not to mention – gasp! – more straight people.

What table arrangement works best for groups?  I think a round table is nice because it is easier to talk to more people, although the people across from you can seem far away.  We had a rectangular table yesterday and the people at the other end did feel especially far away.  I didn’t have a chance to visit with Suchai or Tod.  But on the other hand, I had a good opportunity to get to know Ben and Jason.  Maybe the ideal is that after the main course is finished, there’s a reshuffling of seats?

WWMD?

(What would Martha do?)