Thanksgiving Day 2007

Cornucopia In most any big city on earth, the vestiges of your own foreign culture and traditions can be found.  From the little Ethiopian enclaves in Los Angeles to the Bangladeshi community in Stuttgart to the remaining bits of the French in Laos, we bring a bit of ourselves and our cultures wherever we go.

Yesterday evening our bit of American culture in Khrungthep was found in a restaurant located down a scrappy soi behind a theatre with a marquee proclaiming it as “the best female impersonator show in Bangkok”.  That was where our slice of Thanksgiving Day was located.

P1020300 Left: Roka and Jhone, after she told Jhone (who is in sales) that she would never buy anything from him.

As Roka, Markus and I walked from the Skytrain station to join the ten other people in our party, I was thinking about how exciting my blog entry the next morning would be: a play by play account of the experience of a Cajun/Creole Thanksgiving Dinner at the Bourbon Street restaurant.

Sitting down to write this morning, there are certainly plenty of things to tell:

I could tell you how disappointed I was that Tawn couldn’t be there, since he was at the airport picking up his partents.  I could tell you about the chaotic mess and disorganization that left our group waiting, even though we had reservations, for a half-hour before we were split into two tables and, eventually, reunited to one table.  Or I could tell you about the buffet which, while the food was tasty, was constantly running out – especially of turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin and pecan pies, the staples of a Thanksgiving dinner.

But before we arrived at the restaurant last night, as we walked by Benjasiri Park, there was a beggar in the middle of the sidewalk, legless, pulling himself by his hands and holding a plastic cup in his teeth.  A man crawling like a worm.

So as I sit down to write this morning, as those of you in the United States are just finishing up your turkey dinners, let me instead tell you this about last night’s little slice of Thanksgiving in Khrungthep:

I am thankful for the health I and my friends and loved ones enjoy, giving us the means to earn a living, enjoy our lives, and walk upright in this world.  I am thankful for the bountiful food we had and the means by which to eat so well.  And not least, I am thankful for the pleasant company and the six new friends I met, the opportunity to visit and talk and laugh and learn about different lives and different experiences that brought us all to the same table.

Whatever your worries, whatever your ills, remember to count your blessings and be thankful for them.  For if you have the means to access a computer and the leisure time to read or write a weblog, you most likely are among the fortunate.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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From Left around the table: Marc, Piyawat, Stuart, (a friend of Doug’s whose name I did not catch), Steve, Markus, Roka, Jhone, Nicha, Doug, Brian, and Tri.

More geeky civil engineering stuff

Enjoying drinks at the top of the Banyan Tree Hotel with Kenny and Amelia the other evening, I was wondering about the tallest buildings in Khrungthep.  We don’t really have a concentrated downtown and the tallest building – Baiyoke Tower II – sits off by itself in a way reminiscent of a gangly teenager who has been shunned by his classmates.

Found this useful site – SkyscraperPage.com – that keeps the statistics on skyscrapers in cities around the world.  They also have nifty scale illustrations showing how the different buildings compare.  What’s incredible to me is that if you include both current and under-construction buildings, five of what will be Khrungthep’s ten tallest buildings are being built right now. 

Tallest Buildings in BKK

The award for “Biggest Blot on the Skyline” goes to The River Tower, a 73-story condo complex under construction on the western bank of the Chao Phraya just north of Taksin Bridge and across from the Shangri-La Hotel.  This building is completely out of scale for its setting.  I understand that after the plans were approved, the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority enacted legislation restricting future riverside developments in that area to only 7 stories.  Whether that was to prevent future behemoths befouling the waterfront, or to protect the views of the deep-pocketed condominium owners, no one can say with certainty.

Asoke Place, from which we’ll soon be moving, is the 112th tallest building in Khrungthep at 39 stories and 136.5 meters.  Raintree Villa, to which we’ll soon be moving, is not even on the list, at only 8 quiet stories tall.

 

What level am I on?

This morning I walked to Ble’s shop to pick up some light fixtures and ask a few questions about the final stages of the condo remodel.  His shop is only two sois over, about a ten-minute walk.  The weather was cool and the sun not too strong, so it was a pleasant walk.

On the way I stopped at the post office to mail some letters and buy some stamps.  Our neighborhood branch is a small affair, four counter positions and room for about twenty waiting customers, seated in a cozy configuration.  Off to the side is an old metal office desk, 70s style, and at it sits a young looking man.  I’ve never been sure what his job is, though sometimes I seem him helping people with envelopes or packaging, taping up boxes, etc.

I grabbed my number and was waiting, when the young man called over to me and asked what I needed.  I explained that I had a domestic letter and two international ones and wanted to buy some stamps as well.  He explained that the envelope I had for the domestic letter couldn’t be used: it was a Postal Service envelope used for selling stamps.  (I was recycling an envelope in which I had carried home a previous stamp purchase.)

As he explained all this, he was sitting in his chair behind the desk and I was standing in front of it.  Finding the difference in our heights awkward, I squatted down in front of the desk so we would be eye-to-eye.  As I did this, I realized that I’d better think carefully about that: Thai culture is foremost a hierarchical one and where you stand (literally) in relation to others is an important matter.

Had I been insulting by standing over him?  Was I embarrassing him (or myself) by squatting down to his level?  Was anyone in the room watching me and shaking their head, sighing to themselves at the poor manners of these farang?

All this played as a commentary track in my mind as I proceeded with the transaction. 

He saw the envelope I had was addressed in Thai and after he gave me another envelope, I started to write the address in Thai.  “You write Thai?” he asked.  “Yes,” I confirmed, “and read it, too.”

“Wow.  You write Thai…” and his voice trailed off in amazement.

As we spoke, I realized that the young man was developmentally challenged.  His job at the post office was possibly part of some government scheme to integrate the disabled community into the workforce.  The reason I was never clear what he was doing there was because he probably rarely has much to do.  He’s there because some puu yai (“big” person – someone higher up the pecking order) said he was supposed to be.

After addressing the envelope, he took my letters to a counter, butted in front of another customer, weighed them and returned to me to report that with the purchase price of the envelope, my total was 61 baht.  I gave him a 100-baht note and he opened his drawer, revealing a modest change fund.   He asked if I had a one-baht coin.  “Sorry,” I replied.

He then made change in a most interesting fashion: he made two piles on his desk.  One pile was 61 baht: three twenties and a single, shiny coin.  The other pile was the remaining 39 baht.  He gave the second pile to me and then carried the first pile and the letters back to the counter.

I followed along to see about my stamps.

I explained that I wanted 40 ten-baht stamps and either some one- or two-baht stamps.  He wrote this down on the back of a piece of note paper I was carrying that he grabbed from me.  Then he asked each cashier, one by one, to see who had stamps.

The ten-baht stamps caused only a little confusion.  Purchasers of these are perhaps infrequent at this branch.  The small denomination stamps caused an absolute riot, however.  “We don’t have one-baht stamps” said one clerk to the another, who then repeated it to the young man.  He turned to me and said with utmost sincerity, “We don’t have one-baht stamps.”

“Do you have two-baht stamps?” I asked, trying to direct my question both to the young man as well as the clerk who was one step further along the communication chain.

A skeptical pause.

“How many?” she asked.

“Do you have forty of them?” I asked, figuring I had best get whatever I could.  Her gasp surprised me; surely it was not de classe to purchase that many stamps?

She rifled through her stamp book, the young man looking on, desperately willing her with his eyes to… find… the… stamps.

All she could come up with was twenty, so I bought out her entire supply.  Who would have imagined that buying stamps at a post office could be such a big deal?

The transaction completed, the young man smiled and thanked me.  Khap khun maak khrap! 

 

That was my post office adventure, an encapsulation of Thai culture in all its charming idiosyncracies.  And I do say that with utmost sincerity.

 

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Above: This evening I took Brian out for dinner for his birthday.  Somehow, through people being out of town, his having a extremely inconsiderate and self-centered quasi-boyfriend, and his originally planning on being out of town on business for his birthday, he was going to be all alone on the evening of his birthday.  Tawn had to go out to the airport to pick up his parents, so I met Brian at All Seasons Place and we went to Coffee Bean by Dao for dinner.

 

Civil engineering update: Airport Link

For you civil engineering buffs, here’s an update on some of the work happening at the Suvarnabhumi Airport Rail Link construction site.  First, a little background:

The Airport Link is a 28.6 km (17.7 mile) mostly elevated train way that will serve as the eastern half of the “Light Red Line” in Khrungthep’s master transit plan.  The western half of the line is a planned extension north to connect to Don Meuang domestic airport, with no specific time frame in which that will occur.  Started in 2005, construction of the eastern half is expected to be finished sometime in late 2008, with recent news reports puting the construction at a 70% completion rate as of this point.  Both local and express services will be offered on the line. 

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Above: “We apologize for any inconvenience as we build the maintenance complex for the airport train.”  The picture is of the delivery of the first of nine Siemens Desiro class 360/2 trainsets arrives in Thailand.

The express train will run from the Makkasan City Air Terminal (at the corner of Phetburi and Asoke Roads, where you will be able to connect with the MRT subway Blue Line) to the basement level of Suvarnabhumi Airport in 15 minutes.  It is expected that you will be able to check in for flights at the Makkasan CAT, receiving your boarding pass and handing over your checked baggage, just like at the Airport Express terminal in Hong Kong.

The local train will run from the Phaya Thai station, (where you will be able to connect with the BTS Skytrain Sukhumvit Line), stopping at Ratchaprarop, Makkasan, then at four additional stops before arriving at the airport.  The total trip time for the local service will be 27 minutes.  The initial plans had several additional stops along the lines, including one at Royal City Avenue, a popular nightlife and entertainment district.  It appears that those stops will not be built at this time but just based on my own visual assessment of the construction in the RCA area, it looks like the tracks are being constructed in such a way that a station could be added in the future. 

The Airport Link’s maintenance yard and depot will be in the Soonvijai district, an area on the north side of Phetburi Road from roughly Thong Lor to Ekkamai.  Bangkok Hospital is located just to the west of this area and Tawn’s parents live just on the other side of Ekkamai Road, to the east of this area.

Sunday morning while running errands I stopped to snap some photos of the construction:

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Above: From the Ekkamai Road flyover, looking west.  On the left is the Soonvijai train station with a train stopping momentarily before continuing on to Hua Lamphong Station.  On the far side of the buildings that face the train station is Phetburi Road.  Bangkok Hospital is the white building on the right hand side of the picture, behind the construction site.  The elevated track is clearly visible on the left and the ramp where trains will exit and enter the main line is being built along the elevated track in the center of the picture.  The maintenance sheds are under construction in the center and right side of the picture.

Below: Taken from the other end of the above picture and looking to the east, you can see the construction of the exit/entry ramp where trains will connect with the elevated line (right) via the ramp (center).  The Soonvijai station is on the right side of the ground-level rail line, now occupied as the train has left the station.

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Below: Turning around from the above picture and looking west along the tracks, towards Makkasan Station.  The Royal City Avenue sign that is blocked by construction is a bit deceptive.  Before construction started, there was a frontage road along the rail tracks that you could drinve from the area where the picture was taken (which is essentially the entrance to Bangkok Hospital) to the entrance of the RCA entertainment district about 300 meters to the west.  That road is gone and, I assume, will not reopen.

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Above: A look inside one of the mainenance sheds, where you can see the rails have been laid and the catwalks that will run along the side of the trains have already been installed.

For more information, 2bangkok.com maintains a space dedicated to this project.

 

Honey spill hits Asoke Place

P1020235 This morning as I sat down to the computer, which is nestled among the stacks of boxes awaiting transport to our new condo, I looked down to see a pool of honey at the base of one of the “foodstuffs” boxes. 

It turned out that one of the bottles of unpasteurized honey I had purchased in Samut Songkhram had started to leak, a result of their recycled bottling materials: used brandy bottles are used again (caps and all) for the honey.

Some careful cleaning was done and the cardboard box has been wiped down and is drying.  I’ll reassemble and repack it and hopefully we can continue without any other environmental catastrophes.

 

Last night Ryan’s cousin Kenny was in town with his fiancee Amelia, his brother, and an assortment of friends.  Kenny and Amelia live in Hong Kong now so they are neighbors of sorts.  Didn’t have an opportunity to talk with them at Ryan and Sabrina’s wedding and later found out that their connection to me has multiple links: Amelia was roommates in Berkeley with Mabel, with whom I worked several years at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.  There are Berkeley connections, volleyball connections, film festival connections, just all sorts of connections.

The seven of us had dinner at Cafe de Laos on Silom 19, a nice Northeastern Thai / Laotion place that I think I take nearly every guest to.  Afterwards we headed to the Moon Bar at the top of the Banyan Tree hotel for drinks.  Just before midnight it started to sprinkle and the staff evacuated us downstairs and into a sheltered area while settling bills.  No pictures to share, unfortunately.

 

And the party continues

Tam’s birthday is on November 17th, and it has become a bit of a tradition that we do a combined birthday celebration.  This year we opted for something small, since I’m still feeling under the weather with this allergy-cold thing and Tawn and I have been busy packing boxes getting ready for our move.

Dinner was at Baan Rabiangnam (River Tree House) the restaurant owned by Pete.  Pete is the current boyfriend of Tam’s ex, Frederick.  Pete’s very nice riverside restaurant is in Nonthaburi, just north of Khrungthep, in an old house that used to be his grandmother’s.  While a bit hard to get to if you don’t know the way, it is always busy with a regular and loyal clientelle and the kitchen turns out solid, tasty traditional Thai food.

Joining us for dinner were Markus and Tam, Tam’s sister Pune, his childhood friend Issara, and Markus’ friends Tim and Daniel, who were in from Singapore.

Markus tried to “surprise” us with dessert – a plate of ice cream scoops decorated with candles – but was up and down checking with Pete and was practically bouncing with anticipation, so much so that there wasn’t much of a surprise to it.  Nonetheless, it was a nice gesture and we enjoyed the evening.

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Above left: Tawn and Tam.  Above right: Pune and Issara.  Below: Tam and Markus.

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Above: Pretend to be surprised, everybody!  We were singing “Happy Birthday” so loud that it wasn’t until later that we found out the restaurant actually played a recorded version of this song at the same time.  Below: Birthday boys pose for pictures from multiple directions.

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Above: The restaurant has a tradition that if you tip more than 50 baht, you get to bang a gong.  Here, Daniel holds the gong while Tim prepares to give it a whack.  Reminiscent of the 1971 T-Rex song, which many readers may better know by the 1985 cover recorded by super group Power Station.

 

Another year for me and a new Beaujolais for everyone

Two big days: November 15th and 16th.  Here’s just some of the reasons why:

November 16

This year, November 16th is my 37th birthday, and I’m reveling in my continuously decreasing number of grey hairs.  The number is decreasing only because my overall hair count is decreasing.  As a percentage of total hair, the grey hairs are gaining the majority.

Tawn took the morning off work and we were up shortly after six for a taxi ride to the old city, to Wat Mahanparam.  Just down the street from the Democracy Monument, this temple is in the neighborhood where Tawn’s father and siblings lived when they first moved from Buriram province when Khun Sudha was in his teens.

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Above: Stopping for coffee and steamed buns before catching a taxi.  Below: An unusually elaborate altar set up by the taxi driver on his dashboard, to provide him with protection as he navigates the streets of Khrungthep.

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The temple parking lot was filling quickly as it is used as a car park on weekdays, local workers renting out spaces and providing temple coffers with additional funds.  Inside the compound, though, things were very quiet.  We lit incense and candles, offering prayers and placing gold leaf on statues of the Buddha and venerated monks.

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Then we proceeded inside the wihaan, the main Buddha image hall.  After we paid respects to the Buddha statue, we went over to a monk and explained that we had come to receive a birthday blessing.  This is done as a short ceremony where the monk chants, then you chant, then the monk chants some more.  For your convenience, there is a laminated sheet where you can follow along on your part of the chant should you not have memorized it in your childhood.  I could read the card, but not quickly enough to keep up, so I let Tawn do the chanting for me.

We were splashed with holy water – thus the laminated cards – and I poured holy water from a small container over my fingers as the monk said a blessing.

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Afterwards, we chatted for a few minutes with the monk, who was maybe thirty years old.  He was curious where I was from and whether I lived in Khrungthep and wanted to practice his English.  We learned that he is also from Buriram province although his Issan accent is so heavy that I didn’t catch that at first.

Below: Posing outside the wihaan where pre-made donation buckets are available.  They contain soap, toothpaste, an umbrella, robes, and other things the monks can use.  Since most of the urban temple have all the supplies they need, these buckets are cellophane wrapped and are just reused.  You place your money in the donation box, “give” the bucket to the monk, and the the bucket is eventually brought back around to be used again.  A rather practical solution.

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Above: A stray cat with a gnarled ear and blue eyes seems to match the window frames of the temple building.  Below: A beautiful orange Vespa parked by the side of the road.

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Afterwards we walked down the street and stopped by a Chinese temple and then walked through the neighborhood, seeing a local ice house, vendors who sell various Vietnamese foods (this area has many Vietnamese immigrants and families with Vietnamese roots), and then continued up to the Democracy Monument to catch a taxi home.

Below: A rare daytime shot of a traffic-free traffic circle in which the Democracy Monument sits.  Hopefully, Thailand will return to being a democracy on December 23rd, when the elections are scheduled to be held.

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So now you know why November 16th was important.  But what about the 15th?

 

November 15

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In addition to being the birthday of my ex-girlfriend Sandy, the only girlfriend (yes, you read that right – girlfriend) with whom I’m still in touch, November 15th this year had an oenophilic significance.  

Each year in France, the third Thursday in November is a day as highly anticipated as, say, the season finale of American Idol is in the United States.  The reason for this feverish anticipation is that at the stroke of midnight, that year’s Beaujolais Nouveau is released.  Beaujolais Nouveau is a light-bodied red wine made from Gamay grapes in the Beaujolais region of France, just north of Lyon.

In 1951, The French government granted the region permission to release their annual vintages one month ahead of the other regions, creating a public relations opportunity not to be missed.  Beaujolais Nouveau is fermented for only a few weeks after the grapes are harvested and it is most definitely not a wine for the cellars.  Instead, it is best enjoyed in its first few months after being bottled.

P1010867 On Thursday night, the Plaza Athenee Hotel held a party to celebrate the release of this year’s vintage, complete with extensive all-you-can-eat French entrees and desserts and non-stop refilling of your glass.  It turned out to be a fantastic value as the entrees were very lavish, including stuffed quail eggs, pan-seared foie gras on toasts, escargots en croute, a wide selection of French cheese and saucisson, and crepes.

Tawn and I were joined by Russ, Roka and Brian and had a fantastic time, eating and drinking for more than two hours before we finally reached our fill.  Mark the calendars for next year!

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Above: Tawn and the Chocolate Factory, Chris with little chevre (goat cheese) and endive “ice cream cones”.  Below: Afterwards, Tawn and Brian were too tired and too full to leave the hotel.

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Below: A short video showing the scene last night at the Plaza Athenee. About 45 seconds long.