DSCF7892 Otto and Han reached the breaking point – too much of Singapore – and decided to get off the island nation for a weekend in Bangkok, so Tawn and I had the pleasure of their company Saturday afternoon when we met them at Siam Discovery Center for lunch at Oishi Grand Buffet, the high-end restaurant of a large Thai company that operates a range of generally Japanese-themed restaurants and eateries as well as the ubiquitous brand of bottled green tea.  We were joined by Tam and Markus, who ironically had just flown back from Singapore on business.

Right: Otto, Tam, Markus, Tawn, Chris and Han midway through the first round of food.

The price is steep – 650 baht for lunch (US$20) – but the quality is extremely good.  The sushi is top-grade and there is a teppan-yaki (grill) where you can choose entire beef, pork and chicken steaks for grilling.  While we couldn’t do it every week, it is a good place for an occasional meal.

 

Sunday morning while I met up with Otto and Han for breakfast, Tawn returned home and spent the better part of the day with his parents.  While cleaning the koi pond with his father, they talked about the condominium that we’re considering, and whether Tawn’s father was still willing to match our down payment.  Fortunately, he is.

There is an interesting mentality going on here and I’m going to push the edge of the envelope just a little to talk about it:

Over the seven-plus years that we’ve been together, Tawn’s father has evolved (s-l-o-w-l-y) in his thinking about our relationship.  The first time he realized what was going on, I had written a postcard to Tawn from the US and signed it, “love”, forgetting that his father had received his degree in the US and was fully literate in English.

When visiting San Francisco, I met Tawn’s parents for an awkward dinner, the silence of which was only broken once we were on our second bottle of wine.  On two of my visits to Khrungthep, we went out for dim sum that, absent any social lubrication, featured stilted conversation.

But the watershed moment was New Year’s Eve 2003 (heading into 2004) when Tawn was at his parents’ for the annual family party, where Tawn’s father acknowledged in a conversation that he “knew” about Tawn’s life but that he was too old to change his mind about what was right and wrong.  While he warned Tawn away from gay relationships – “two men can’t live together; there’s too much yang energy” – he at least acknowledged that that is who Tawn is.

The interesting part is that once I moved to Khrungthep in October 2005, that Tawn’s father would not cross paths with me any more.  My presence here in the Big Mango as a resident instead of a visitor meant that I was in his territory now.  This lack of contact persisted until just two weeks ago when we made the briefest of verbal and, almost, eye contact.

Along the way Tawn’s father, being of good Chinese extraction, has felt some obligation to help his son with the purchase of his first home, the same way that Tawn’s grandfather gave Tawn’s father and siblings land on which to build their homes.  As Tawn has discussed the search for a condominium with his father, his father has repeated his desire to help Tawn with a down payment, in order to “match” the money that I would put down.

And this is where the mental partitioning, the rationalizing, get particularly interesting to me:

For some time, Tawn tried to explain that our down payment wasn’t Chris’ money but was, rather, our money.  This is true since our finances have been fully intertwined since I moved here.  But for Tawn’s father, acknowledging that fact is too large a dose of reality, so he has continued to refer to our down payment as “Chris’ money” and said that he will match whatever amount I put down so that Tawn has a down payment, too.

Finally, Tawn decided it wasn’t worth the effort to correct his father and to this day allows him to continue the mental gymnastics.  Over the koi pond yesterday, Khun Sudha continued with the plausible deniability but confirmed that he would indeed match “Chris’ money”.

The whole thing is kind of funny and kind of silly.  Looking at the bright side, though, Tawn’s father is a lot more accepting and acknowledging than many Chinese fathers are.  And as Tawn put it, we’ll take whatever help we can get!

 


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DSCF7893 Sunday evening we had the second marital event of the weekend, this time a wedding between Oct and Em.  Oct is the cousin of one of Tawn’s friend Tao and was also Tawn’s high school mate.  Em is the boyish-looking groom. 

This was a huge affair – the bride’s father is a retired army general – with 1,000 guests held at a large ballroom at the Landmark Hotel.  It was a bit chaotic, truthfully!  We went to the reception with Sa, another of Tawn’s high school friends, and her husband Job.  Above: Chris, Tawn, Tao, Sa and Job.

The whole affair reminded me of a film festival reception.  The bride and groom, big movie buffs, had set up several faux movie posters featuring them, based on the posters of some of their favorite films.  Kind of like what Tony does on his blog.  (Note, you need to be signed in with a Xanga username in order to view his site.)

All weddinged out, I think we were ready to head home by 9:00.

While at the reception I missed a call from Ajarn Yai, who called to tell me that Patricia Goodfriend, who had visited the school last November, had written her a letter.  Ajarn Yai had a few questions about words that weren’t in her dictionary including “road rage”, “academically”, and “professionally”. 

 

The Chinese Connection

DoubleHappinessCalligraphic The comment was made about my previous post that the engagement ceremony mirrors Chinese custom.  That, plus the ample number of “double happiness” characters applied to all the gifts, pretty much give away the degree of influence that Chinese culture has on Thai culture.  Part of this is due to the large degree of intermarriage between ethnically Thai and ethnically Chinese families. 

Estimates I’ve read say that the all-Chinese portion of Thai society is around 14%, but that intermarriage has led to possibly as much as 80% of the Thai population having at least some Chinese ancestry.

To make it fun, though, we have another engagement ceremony and wedding to attend Sunday.  The engagement ceremony, which we will probably not make, is being held at the auspicious time of 5:30 am!  The wedding will be a major social affair, with 1,000 guests invited.  Crazy, huh?

 

A Pilot and a Flight Attendant get Engaged

Here’s an opportunity to make a difference.  There are many good causes out there and many ways to contribute.  One that I’d like to help get the word out about is the good work being done by Aaron and Tae, who are pooling their fund-raising resources to participate in AIDS Walk New York. 

aidswalklogo One of the primary beneficiaries of the fund-raising is Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an outstanding organization with a three-fold mission: to reduce the spread of HIV disease; help people with HIV maintain and improve their health and independence; and keep the prevention, treatment and cure of HIV an urgent national and local priority.

In 2006, 39.5 million people were living with HIV/AIDS world-wide and there were 2.9 million deaths.  That’s 2.9 million individuals whose light no longer shines.

You can make a contribution to the cause in any amount, anonymously if you chose to do so, through the link on Tae’s website, where you can also see the progress that is being made in the fund-raising goals.  Thank you for your help.

 


Friday was Wan Chakri, a day commemorating the founding of the Chakri Dynasty (King Rama I) in 1782 A.D.  This was also the day that Tawn’s high school friend Bua, a Qantas flight attendant, was engaged to her fiancée Pom, a veterinarian who is studying to be a pilot, in a lavish ceremony at the Grand Hyatt Erawan hotel.  The ceremony was held in “The Residences,” the Hyatt’s conference room area.  The interior is absolutely beautiful, largely encapsulating the way that Tawn and I would decorate a home, so we snapped plenty of pictures of furnishings and took lots of notes.

Engagement parties are an interesting affair here in Thailand, an entire event in their own right that sometimes takes place on the same day as the wedding and other time occurs well beforehand.  Here’s a rundown of the basic process:

DSCF7825.JPG The groom arrives as part of a large entourage including parents, extended family, and friends.  They carry the dowry, which includes symbolic items such as bunches of bananas (representing many children), long dried noodles (long life), and coconuts.  Along the way, they encounter “gates,” friends and/or family members of the bride who will hold up chains (usually jewelry) that represent these gates. 

Right: About one-quarter of the groom’s entourage, waiting at another gate.

To pass by, the groom’s entourage must persuade the gate-keepers that the groom is worthy of the bride.  There is the opportunity for the exchange of witty repartee and joking, along with the paying of little bribes – err, token gifts.

Here’s the dialogue that Tawn engaged in with the groom’s Pu Yai – a respected elder (not the parents) who negotiates on the groom’s family’s behalf.  The groom is the one in the light blue tie, looking a bit fearful.  For those that know him, doesn’t he look a lot like Kelly Lim?

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Pu Yai: Hello there, what is this gate?

Tawn: Hello sir, this is the golden gate that belongs to Bua’s close friends.

Pu Yai: Close friends?  So that means you will open this gate easily?

Tawn: I would think it would be the opposite way, sir.  You need keys to open this gate.  Make sure you have the right keys otherwise the golden gate will not open.

Pu Yai: Maybe one bag of money each would be enough to be the key to open this gate.

Tawn: Let’s try and see if you have the right key.

Pu Yai:  (hands small bags of coins to Tawn and Pim)

Tawn: Whoops, sorry.  That’s the wrong key.

Pu Yai: Okay, let me try one more, then.  (Hands another bag)

Tawn: Sir, we have two gate keepers so we need two more bags each.

Pu Yai: (Hands another bag)  This is the right key, then?

Tawn: Let me ask the other gate keeper.

Pim: (nods consent)

Tawn: Yes, please come in.

The number of gates will vary, sometimes kept by just one person and sometimes by two, but eventually the groom’s entourage is allowed to pass and will end up in a main room where the bride’s parents – but not the bride – are seated.

DSCF7874.JPG What happens next is that the groom’s parents, the groom, and the bride’s parents sit down for a discussion that involves the presentation of all the gifts, and lectures by the parents on the characteristics of a good marriage.  Of course the conversation is all symbolic and the decision to allow the children to be engaged is a foregone one.  However, it continues a long tradition.

Right: Trays of the gifts that make up the dowry are arranged in the room.

Once her parents are satisfied, the bride’s friends will escort her into the room.  In this case, when the master of ceremonies asked the bride’s father, “Well, what do you say?” after the final gift had been given to him by the groom, the father replied, “What can I say?  It’s already in my hands, isn’t it?”

DSCF7857.JPG The parents have some more microphone time and the groom and the bride exchange engagement rings.  The rings are handed from the parents: the groom’s mother gives him the ring to present to the prospective bride and the bride’s father gives her the ring for her fiancée. 

Quite often, this ceremony is actually shorter than the two hours it took Friday, and is held in the morning with Buddhist religious ceremonies immediately following and then a wedding reception in the evening.  In this case, Bua and Pom haven’t finalized a date but are planning on sometime at the end of the year for their wedding.

Following the engagement, the guests – some 120 people – sat down for a full Chinese style banquet spread between two rooms.  Alex and Bill and Ryan and Sabrina, take note – they had Shark’s Fin Soup on the menu.  No PC stuff here, but stay strong!

As I predicted, it was nearly 2:00 before we returned home.  To make up for it, I ended up working straight through 10:00 in the evening, concluding my night with a conference call with internal customers in the United States.

 


DSCF6137 Condominium Search Update

This week Tawn and I have been moving rapidly towards the purchase of a condominium, a 70 square meter (700 square feet) low-rise on Sukhumvit Soi 53, one block over from Thong Lor.  While we haven’t signed the papers yet and there are still a few more hoops to go through, an offer has been agreed to in principle.

Potential house guests, don’t pack your bags quite yet.  But do stay tuned for more information.

 

Who Says You Have to Study?

This morning I resumed my Thai tutoring sessions after a two-and-a-half week interruption.  Thankfully my reading and writing has not suffered any and as I suspected, my speaking and aural comprehension are better than before thanks to my “All Thai All the Time” weekend.

Skyping (let’s make it a verb, shall we?) with my sister this morning, she related the story of what Emily, my 4-year-old niece, said when tucking her 1-year-old sister into bed this past Friday night:

“You have to get a full night of sleep, Ava, because tomorrow is a big day for you: it’s my birthday.”

Ah, kids.  Cute, aren’t they?

 

By Van to Lampang

No sooner had I returned from the United States, then I found myself on a “very Thai” trip up to Lampang province in the north of Thailand.  Traveling with my teaching colleagues and Ken (Tod and Markus were unable to make it), we rented a 10-person van and set off Thursday evening about 7:30 for the ten-hour drive north.  I had originally been told it would be a 15- to 17-hour drive so you can imagine how happy I was that it came in shy of that.

DSCF7475 The trip was “very Thai” in that I think Thais generally like the idea of going on holiday in a group, particularly in a setting where they will get to spend a lot of time with the rest of the group.  The idea of eight adults piling into a van for twenty hours of road time over the course of a two-and-a-half day journey – not to count the road time spent seeing the sights once we arrived – was undoubtedly an exciting one.

Contrast this to my trip six years ago to Italy with my mother, sister and brother-in-law.  Despite spending two weeks together, the days and activities will arranged so that there was time for people to pair off differently depending upon activities and interests, as well as time for people to “drop out” and be on their own for a while if they chose to.  This came close to my ideal of a vacation – all that was missing was an afternoon on a beach, and having Tawn there, too.

Left – Ajarn Yai hands some food to Ken during a mid-trip stop for dinner, about midnight in Nakhon Sawan province.

These passenger vans are great for many things, but sleeping on an overnight drive is not one of them.  Compound this with a touch of jet lag – I had arrived less than 48 hours earlier – and when we pulled into the yard of Ajarn Yai’s former boss’ house on the outskirts of Lampang at 5:30 the next morning, I was completely wiped out.

DSCF7481 Some twenty minutes were spent sorting out sleeping arrangements that resulted in Ken and I sharing a room, he on a futon on the floor and I on a similarly-hard futon on a bed frame.  (Very generous of Ken to insist on taking the floor; a favor I hopefully repaid two days later.)  Finally getting to sleep about 6:00, I was under the impression that we would be able to get at least a few hours of sleep before we started out touring.

Ajarn Yai and the teachers freshened up and then sat around the outdoor table just below my bedroom window and caught up with Khun Prasong, her friend and former boss.  At 7:00 Ajarn Yai came upstairs to wake us up because they had already eaten breakfast and we needed to hurry or she would lose face to Khun Prasong since her farang guests didn’t want to eat the food. 

DSCF7486 Above: Khruu Somsri, Ajarn Yai Phitsamai, Khun Prasong and his wife, Khruu Darunee, Khruu Aschara, and Khruu Somchai have breakfast in the outdoor breezeway of Khun Prasong’s house.

The breakfast was really good, khao tom, a watery boiled rice that is served with condiments.  In every respect a very typical Thai breakfast.  As the sun rose, Khruu Somchai, Khun Prasong, Ken and I walked through dozens of fruit trees on this 5-rai* plot, to the fish pond to feed the fish.

Left: Smoke from forest fires and land clearning gave us vibrantly colored sunrises and sunsets.

Our van driver, who already seemed a bit tired to me on our drive up, jumped into the front right-hand seat and guided us all over the province to see a variety of sights.  These included an obscure hilltop temple that is well outside the nearest village, has only four monks, and features an obviously-old chedi along with a half-built hall that contains a reclining Buddha made out of wicker. 

DSCF7515 The temple is interesting from the standpoint of being very different from most temples I’ve seen.  At the same time, nobody seemed aware of any historical significance of the temple, so I had the sense that I was unable to fully appreciate it because of some missing context. 

Right: Wicker reclining Buddha in a decidedly industrial wihan (worship hall).

The concrete thep (Buddhist angels) were very interesting, as was a small pool of water lilies that had a styrofoam float in it on which was a small Buddha image with a naga (mythical 7- or 9-headed serpent) behind it.

DSCF7545  DSCF7525

DSCF7537

Top left: Detail of a Thai thep guarding the temple’s chedi.  Top right: Posing with another thep on a bench overlooking the rice fields of Lampang province, many of which are now dry.  Lower: Detail of a foil-covered styrofoam float in a small pond of water lilies.

 


 

Following that we went to a waterfall.  The north has been suffering from a lack of rain the last few months, after having very heavy flooding early in the rainy season.  Because of this, the water was falling with less grandeur than usual, but I could see very easily where the volume usually was and it was certainly impressive.  On the bank of a pool there was a group of Lycaenid butterflies called the Common Hedge-blue Lycaeninae, all landing in the same area.  Crawling up very slowly, I was able to get this picture of them before they all flew away.

DSCF7561

DSCF7580  DSCF7563

Top: Small gathering of butterflies on the bank of the river.  Lower left: Khun Prasong, Khruu Somsri, Ajarn Yai, and Khruu Somchai wait in the shade of a tree.  Lower right: I wait on the bank of the river.

 


 

DSCF7620 After a lunch of khao soy, the noodles with curry soup that are famous in this region, we went into the province’s eponymous capital city and visited the Indra Ceramic factory outlet, home of the country’s best-known commercial ceramics producer.  Their rooster-emblazoned bowls are found in gwuaytiaw shops across the Kingdom. 

While I didn’t buy anything, I had some fun taking pictures of a pyramid of teapots, as well as a huge soup bowl into which you can climb.

Right: A large bowl of Chris soup.  Below: A series on the teapot pyramid at Indra Ceramics.

 

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DSCF7601  DSCF7605

After returning to Khun Prasong’s house we enjoyed an amazing dinner that his wife had prepared including several northern-style specialties.  By 8:30, Ken and I were both in bed and fast asleep.  I can remember getting into bed but not more than ten seconds after that.

 


DSCF7634 Sunday morning the troops were up and at ’em well before sunrise, planning on setting out for the return trip.  That’s right: drive ten hours up, stay twenty-four hours, then head back.  I think they had a few sights to see on the way back.  Ken had decided in advance to take the bus over to Chiang Mai to visit a friend and since I wanted to get more than twenty-four hours out of my ten hour investment, I decided to bus over with him.

Two bus, not air-conditioned but very well ventilated, was bumpy but comfortable enough.  We arrived in Chiang Mai only two-and-half hours later after being dropped off at the Lampang station by a tremendously accommodating Khun Prasong.  He made sure we got to the correct bus and was going to wait until it left but we finally convinced him we were okay and he could go home.

Left: At the Lampang bus terminal, about to board one of Greenbus Thailand’s less modern vehicles.  A series of articles in the papers this week talk about the high number of bus and van accidents and what should be done to solve the problem.  One of the suggestions: have some national standards and certification for drivers.  I’m amazed that there’s even a moment’s worth of discussion – it needs to be done, now.

Arriving by 10:30 we checked in at the hotel, the Lanna Palace, and then went walking to the old city.  The weather has been tremendously hot – 41 C / 106 F – and Thai meteorologists are predicting the hottest summer in thirty years.  It is supposed to end by mid-May, so only six or seven more weeks before rainy season arrives.  The old city in Chiang Mai is surrounded by a deep moat and with the hot weather it was the coolest spot to be. 

Many local children were playing in the moat, jumping from trees and, in the case of one teenager who was showing off for my camera, off the bastion of the old city wall.

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DSCF7653  DSCF7655

Upper left and Lower right: Can you spot the boys about to land in the water?


DSCF7661 We met Ken’s friend Gansit in the afternoon.  He had two friends from Khrungthep who were in town to complete some sort of vocational examination, so we were to meet up with them later.  In the meantime, we ate lunch, walked two or three kilometers to a market where we met his sister and brother-in-law, who drove us back to their house in the Chiang Mai suburbs.

Right: A beautiful flower I saw along the three-kilometer walk.

Their poodle had just given birth a week before to a litter and so the children were enjoying playing with the puppies, which looked like little stuffed brown sheep.  I was talking with the children and the 15-year old daughter speaks English fairly well.  The 10-year old son was too shy and so we just stuck with Thai.

Afterwards – and I realize this seems like a long story but it was a very full day – Gansit borrowed his brother-in-law’s truck and we drove out to Gansit’s new house even further out on the suburbs.  On a full rai, the house is complete but hasn’t been furnished yet and the landscaping has just been started.  While he is waiting to complete those things, he is living in a small two-room dormitory at his job at the Ministry of Labor.  This seems to be a pretty common housing arrangement for government employees.  In this case, though, another sister, brother-in-law and two children are living with him!

DSCF7665 Paying back Ken’s generosity to sleep on the floor in Lampang, I spent an hour helping water the four-dozen trees that Gansit has planted.  This involved filling the large watering can at the tap then walking in the dark across the property to the tree, watering it, and then going back to the tap.  Ken manned the tap while Gansit and I traipsed back and forth.  I later suggested to Ken that a long hose might be a very practical housewarming gift for him to buy Gansit.

Left: Smoky sunset over Doi Suthep and a local wet market.

Returning to Gansit’s dormitory, we met up with his two friends, he reshened up and then we drove his father back to his sister’s house.  When we arrived, the family was just finished dinner and they invited us to eat.  While low key, it was a really good experience because I don’t often get to have dinner with a household of Thais whom I don’t know and don’t have any direct connection to.

In fact (Khruu Kitiya take note), while I spoke almost no Thai while in the United States, I think in the past 72 hours I’ve spoken more than I have in any consecutive 72 hours since I moved to Thailand.  Especially since Ken’s friend does not speak a lot of English, making me wonder how they’ve managed a 16-year friendship.  So I’m seeing my fluency and competence increase rapidly.

 


 

Sunday morning Ken and I headed out to a particular market to pick up some northern-style pork sausage that Tawn greatly enjoys.  It wasn’t too much of an adventure, but a little bit of one.  Within an hour we had two kilos of sausage, a bag of green chili sauce, and a bag of fried pork rinds.

DSCF7740 Instead of flying back at 6:00 pm as I had originally planned, I headed to the airport early and was able to get on the 12:35 flight.  When I asked the agent if I could switch to the earlier flight, her only concern was that my special request meal (Hindu vegetarian, just for the fun of it) wouldn’t be available for me.  That’s right, the 50-minute flight includes a light meal service.  In this case, they were boxes with a shrimp salad, blueberry cream puff, tangerine juice, and water.  Coffee and tea were served, too.  In 50 minutes!  How far do I have to fly in the United States to get a meal?  Well, at least three hours and then it is only a snack box with junk food and I have to pay separately for it.  Yep, I think I’ll be staying here, thanks.

My flight back was to Don Mueang, which reopened last Sunday for “non-connecting” domestic flights.  This means that half of THAI Airways’ scheduled flights between Chiang Mai and Khrungthep fly into Don Mueang and the other half into Suvarnabhumi.  Yes, there is room for confusion.  Below: The girl in the row ahead of me stares, transfixed, out the window.  Then she realizes her picture is being taken and looks back.

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Arriving in Khrungthep just before 2:00, I decided to try THAI Airways’ free shuttle bus to the MRT Subway station at Lat Prao.  A helpful agent told me just to have a seat in the arrivals area and he would get me when the bus arrived.  After about fifteen minutes, it pulled up and I turned out to be the only passenger using this service.  The driver did not seem surprised, so maybe the City Air Terminal idea hasn’t quite caught on.

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Above: Touching down again at Don Mueang, with the mid-field air force golf couse still being used.

DSCF7789 THAI has established a terminal at the Lat Prao station enabling customers to check in for flights directly at the subway station.  This was designed with two purposes in mind:

First, to help ease some congestion for passengers since the transportation resources to the old airport were shifter largely to the new one once Suvarnabhumi opened last September.

Second, to begin “conditioning” passengers in advance of the new airport express train opening in late 2008.  There will be a City Air Terminal located just up the street from our apartment at the Petchaburi MRT Subway station.  From there, like in Hong Kong, you should be able to check in for flights as well as drop your checked luggage off.

There’s one minor inconvenience with the City Air Terminals being connected to subway stations: the subway is conducting bag checks when you enter the stations and they don’t usually have any table or other space set up to make it convenient to open your suitcases for the guards.  You end up doing this on the footpath in front of the escalators, holding up the line.

Worse yet, all you do is just open the suitcase; the guard doesn’t actually inspect it.

Still, it represents the first step towards a more comprehensive linking of airports and transit systems, so I’m happy to support it.

*A rai, a Thai unit of land measurement, is equivalent to 1600 square meters or 0.395 acres.  In this case, Khun Prasong’s property is just shy of 2 acres.